The struggle for clean water in Vijayawada

A recent diarrhoeal outbreak in Vijayawada has claimed six lives (official count stands at one, though) and affected more than 50 people across multiple localities. Despite official assurances and claims of tanks being cleaned periodically, residents remain suspicious, reporting foul odour, discolouration, and worms in municipal water. Concerns also stem from aging infrastructure and lax oversight. This situation has sparked panic, leaving residents struggling for their fundamental right to clean drinking water, reports Nellore Sravani

Published - June 07, 2024 10:11 am IST

A resident of Boyapati Madhavarao street in Moghalrajpuram area of Vijayawada showing a bottle filled with water collected from the tap that they use for drinking purposes. Residents say they have been seeing dirt in water for the past 20 days.

A resident of Boyapati Madhavarao street in Moghalrajpuram area of Vijayawada showing a bottle filled with water collected from the tap that they use for drinking purposes. Residents say they have been seeing dirt in water for the past 20 days. | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

On the evening of May 27, Padma received an anxious call from her son in Hyderabad. He asked if she had heard about a new virus spreading in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, where one person had already died following severe diarrhoea and vomiting, and dozens of others were falling ill.

“The pandemic had also begun in a similar manner. Out of nowhere, the media was agog with news of Coronavirus. Before we could understand anything, the infection had spread far and wide. This situation now feels no different,” says Padma, a resident of Patamata Vaari Veedhi street in Moghalrajpuram area of Vijayawada.

According to the official numbers, about 50 people, a majority of whom belong to the economically weaker sections and cannot afford mineral water or purifiers, had been affected by diarrhoea in the city’s Boyapati Madhavarao street between May 21 and June 2.

Later, cases were reported from other areas of Vijayawada too, including Payakapuram and Ayodhya Nagar. Residents say if the cases from these two areas are also included, the count would be much higher.

An official, seeking anonymity, explains that people can fall sick only when there is either cross-contamination of pipelines or presence of high chlorine.

But doesn’t such a large number of people falling sick together point to contamination? Vijayawada Municipal Corporation Commissioner Swapnil Dinkar Pundkar maintains that tanks are cleaned on a regular basis, and therefore, contamination can be ruled out.

However, from the outset, medical and municipal officials have tried to play down the situation, blaming it on the food the affected persons may have consumed, or a change in the weather. Soon after, though, there was talk of this being a case of water contamination, reminiscent of the February incident in Guntur city in which at least 120 people were hospitalised.

Though Moghalrajpuram is a posh locality in the city and known for its Buddhist caves and rich Communist history, it has a sizeable population living in the hilly areas and narrow streets.

While on one side, there are towering apartments, on the other, numerous alleyways, each no wider than 20 metres, criss-cross the neighbourhood.

One of those alleyways is Patamata Vaari Veedhi, where the houses are tightly packed, separated by thin walls. The drinking water pipeline is laid just above the drain, which never gets cleaned, residents say.

“Three years ago, the drinking water pipeline was inside the drainage,” Padma rues.

Tip of the iceberg

Until May 27, neither Padma nor her neighbours understood the severity of the issue. Over 10 residents of Boyapati Madhavarao Street were facing a similar problem around that time and being treated at home. “Almost every household in the two alleyways here had at least one affected person. But no one talked about it openly. My neighbour told me about her 65-year-old aunt being sick with diarrhoea. We assumed it was common for her age,” she says.

But all hell broke loose after Valluru Durga Rao, a 46-year-old differently-abled resident from the next street, died on May 26 night. Chaos peaked when a medical camp was set up on the premises of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) office on Boyapati Madhavarao Street the following day. The stench of bleaching powder along the drains filled the air, while the sight of ambulances, patients being administered IV fluids at the camp, and municipal workers cleaning the drains became common.

A ‘Food Safety on Wheels’ vehicle was stationed nearby. Until May 31, panic-stricken residents would go there daily, bringing plastic bottles filled with water from their homes to get it tested for any potential contaminants.

Dismissing deaths

Exactly a week later, by June 2, the number of persons who had died following diarrhoea and vomiting in this area reached six. Of them, five persons had co-morbid conditions, officials said, adding that their deaths cannot be pinpointed to diarrhoea. Hence, till date, the official count stands at just one — that of Durga Rao.

In Payakapuram, bereaved families of three persons who passed away last week attributed the deaths to diarrhoea, but health officials refused to add them to the toll, citing “other health issues”.

“They (officials) say it is not water contamination. Then what is it? Is it a new virus? If so, we should be told about it. Don’t we have the right to know what is in the water that we drink,” Padma asks.

Moreover, a majority of those affected belong to the economically disadvantaged sections, who are unable to afford meals bought from outside. Varalakshmi, 65, who spent three days in hospital due to diarrhoea, says, “I had not eaten anything from outside. It is disheartening that officials are attributing the situation to the food that we eat.”

When this reporter visited the sexagenarian’s home, she was found resting in a cramped room, with a refrigerator, cooking utensils, and air conditioning squeezed into one space.

While Varalakshmi recovered and was discharged from hospital, Durga Rao’s widow says she was dismayed that the officials blamed his death on pre-existing health conditions — paralysis and epilepsy.

The receptionist at Noble Hospitals in the same area, where Varalakshmi was admitted, says they started receiving patients with diarrhoea from May 21. Until May 28, a total of 13 patients were treated there. The next day onwards, the number of new patients gradually decreased.

Until May 31, people thought that the diarrhoeal outbreak was only in Moghalrajpuram. However, a couple of deaths in Payakapuram on the city outskirts indicated that the problem was not confined to just one area. Seven-month-old Vinay Siddharth of this area died following a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting on May 19. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was administered an injection that helped stop vomiting, but diarrhoea continued.

“Loose motions started around 5 a.m. on June 2. When he started vomiting too, we took him to a hospital at 11.30 a.m. Medicines did not help much, so we had to take him back to the same hospital at 3 p.m., but the doctor was not available at that time. We then took him to AIIMS in Mangalagiri, where doctors declared him ‘brought dead’,” says the boy’s grandmother, Jayalakshmi. The father is an autorickshaw driver while the mother is a housewife. In this household, two children fell sick. While Vinay died, his seven-year-old cousin recovered with medication.

Questionable water quality

The residents here have complained of irregular water supply, describing it as foul-smelling, discoloured, and contaminated with worms. “This is a forsaken colony. Neither the municipal corporation nor sanitation workers care to look into our problems. The garbage is not cleared for days on end and the drains are not cleaned. When we asked the corporators and political leaders about the water discolouration in our area, we were told that we don’t have the right to ask the question since we took cash for votes,” Chintayya, a resident of Payakapuram, says.

In the same area, two more deaths had occurred and many more fell sick. In all the cases, barring four or five, there is one common thread — they all drank municipal water.

A food safety officer taking a look at the water samples brought by residents, inside the mobile food safety camp on the Boyyapati Madhavarao street in Vijayawada.

A food safety officer taking a look at the water samples brought by residents, inside the mobile food safety camp on the Boyyapati Madhavarao street in Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

Vijayawada’s primary source of drinking water is the Krishna river, which gets filtered at five filtering units of different capacities. From there, it comes to the Head Water Works Tanks, to which pipelines are connected that carry water from here to every household.

“Three of these units do not function. This led to discolouration of water across the city. In the recent diarrhoea outbreak, contamination of water happened in the pipelines, the last step in the supply process. That is why the issue was confined to two or three areas,” explains Taxpayers’ Association secretary M.V. Anjaneyulu. The organisation, which takes up civic issues in the city, is planning to write to the Human Rights Commission on the matter.

“The drinking water pipelines, made of mud, were laid decades ago. Though they were replaced by new ones, called High-Density Polyethylene, in many places, connections are yet to be given. Water to many houses is still supplied through old pipes that are prone to breakage. Since drainages are laid above drinking water pipelines for the ease of cleaning, even if there is a small hole in these pipes, they catch drainage water,” he adds.

A sanitation worker in the area, who was found fixing a pipeline after the diarrhoeal outbreak, also says that the pipelines look at least a decade old.

Contamination controversy

Municipal corporation Commissioner Swapnil Dinkar Pundkar says discolouration is due to water being stored in Prakasam Barrage for a long time. “Water turning reddish in the beginning is also expected due to motor usage. It happens only for 10 minutes,” he explains, attributing the foul smell to chlorination.

This is what has happened in Moghalrajpuram, say residents. And that was later corroborated by the reports of five water samples collected from this area by the Food Safety Department. The samples tested positive for bacteriological contamination.

“We collected 418 samples from different sources, and of those, five from this area tested positive for contamination. But we immediately brought it under control by asking the corporation to make alternative arrangements for water supply. If there was contamination on a larger scale, people would have gone to hospitals in hordes,” says Medical Health and Family Welfare Director S. Venkateswar, who is also the State Food Safety Commissioner.

However, all deaths, except that of Durga Rao, cannot be attributed to contamination, he adds. As of June 3 (Monday), there are 15 patients with diarrhoea being treated at the Government General Hospital, authorities here say. Barring two, who are from Gudivada and Hanuman Junction, the others are from the city. Four of them were put on dialysis.

At the end of it, it is the people who have had to pay a price. Those who were admitted to hospital had to spend at least ₹40,000 on medicines and related expenses. “Right to Clean Water is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. It is sad that the authorities look at it as a favour being extended to the public,” Anjaneyulu says.

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