Drinking water, sipping poison

Fluoride contamination has severely affected residents in drought hit areas in Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. A mitigation project has suffered from distribution issues.

May 05, 2016 02:35 am | Updated November 28, 2021 09:45 pm IST - DHARMAPURI/KRISHNAGIRI:

Girs from Gettur fetch water from a neighbouring Panchayat. Gettur has not received Hogenakkal water in three months. Photo: N. Bhaskaran

Girs from Gettur fetch water from a neighbouring Panchayat. Gettur has not received Hogenakkal water in three months. Photo: N. Bhaskaran

India’s water quality problem is reaching crisis proportions, and today at least 1.95 crore habitations are affected by poor water quality. Over 3.6 crore people are exposed to health hazards owing to drinking water containing excess arsenic, fluoride, iron, salinity or nitrate. 66 million Indians are at risk due to excess fluoride and more than six million have already been crippled by high fluoride content in drinking water. In some cases such contamination occurs due to the overexploitation of groundwater. Besides metal poisoning, bacterial contamination affects at least 37.7 million Indians annually, with 1.5 million child fatalities due to diarrhoea. Urgent investments are needed to stave off the crisis of water quality focusing on water treatment solutions such as reverse osmosis, and also on improving water storage infrastructure so that the water table is recharged . The third of a six-part series is on the effects of poor water quality in drought-prone Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts in Tamil Nadu.

Tears plop down Ammasi’s sunken cheeks that get bruised every time she gets one of her epileptic seizures. Married off at 18 years, Ammasi was abandoned by her husband a month later, after one such seizure. Today this 26-year-old finds her single status debilitating. “Is it the water?” asks her brother Karthik, who too suffers epilepsy.

The lab report of Sivakumar (36) shows his serum creatinine count as 12.56 mg against the normal 1.4 mg, and his urea count is 127 mg against the permissible 45 mg. Both his kidneys failed, requiring him to travel every fortnight to Salem for dialysis. ‘The hospital said it was the water. They suggested a transplant that I can’t afford,” says this father of three children, out of work for the last two years.

Susceptible to Fluorosis

In the same street 58-year-old Govindammal died ten days ago from renal failure. And across the lane, 35-year-old Kanagaraj has been diagnosed with early stage renal dysfunction. His eight-year-old daughter born with mental retardation, died a week ago. “She had fever,” he says.

Here in Oddanur in Nagamarai Panchayat in Pennagaram, renal failure is quoted with the nonchalance reserved for common cold.

Until recently, people of Oddanur drank from a fluoride-contaminated groundwater hand pump. On the Panchayat’s request water quality was tested by the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board and the hand pump was red-marked as highly contaminated.

The 150 households of Oddanur now depend on the second and only hand pump remaining in the village, although it produces saline water. “Look at our vessels, this is the water we drink, we cook with,” says Paapathi, a ward member, waving the corrosively stained stainless-steel vessels.

This is a young population cut off from the workforce owing to rickets, epilepsy, and renal failure within a radius of few lanes. “We know fluorosis causes renal ailments, but we are not sure about others,” says an official.

Forty kilometres down at Hogenakkal in Pennagaram, the headworks of the multi-billion dollar Hogenakkal Drinking Water and Fluorosis Mitigation project stands tall, with its mammoth booster station, master balance reservoir and state-of-art water treatment facility.

Here water is tapped at source, from the Cauvery gushing into Tamil Nadu, and is carried for around 700 metres to one kilometre to the mainland for habitations in the two districts of Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. Since it is tapped at source, the water is seen as dependable even under drought conditions.

Distribution lags

The project was commissioned to supply water treated at a cost of Rs.42.21 per kilolitre for habitations like Oddanur, but this state-of-art supply-side infrastructure is bogged down by distribution lags.

Oddanur receives Hogenakkal water once a week. “The 60,000 litre Overhead Tank (OHT) takes two days and half to fill due to low voltage and a pipeline flaw,” says Kandavel, OHT operator. In neighbouring Odayaankadu, a new OHT still awaits connection.

In Paaparapatty town Panchayat, 30 kilometers from Pennagaram, a household gets 25 cans every three days. “We use this for bathing, when it gets closer to the next supply” says a woman.

Technically, this Japan-funded multi-billion dollar Hogenakkal Drinking Water and Fluorosis Mitigation project established at a cost of Rs.1928.80 crore has fulfilled its mandate, “covering” its targeted 7,716 habitations, 17 town Panchayats and three municipalities in the two districts.

But the numbers fail to capture the whole picture. Fed by power from different feeders from different stations, the project design assumes a 12-hour power supply in rural habitations, and hinges on partial pumping and partial gradient flow. In elevated terrains, multiple boosting is required and power supply should be available at all pumping stations for synchronised pumping.

“In many places, there is not enough power even at the substations. A 33 KV substation receives just about 23 KV supply,” says an official source. There is also tampering of pipelines and pilferage at places.

Several habitations have now threatened a poll boycott on the Hogenakkal water issue. On the campaign turf, the opposition has contested the AIADMK’s claims to the project’s success. The project component itself appears to recognise only dental fluorosis leaving in the lurch people like Sivakumar, and Ammasi, who need diagnostic intervention.

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