OPINION

Debating water quality

A significant outcome of the controversy surrounding the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) report of November 2019 on drinking water status is that the issue of water quality has got politically prioritised. The fact that water should be treated as an urgent concern for public health and the ecosystem of the country cannot be denied. The threats to human health due to poor water quality, except when they appear as an epidemic, are largely imperceptible. This generally subjects the population to subtle health problems without its knowledge or consent.

The controversy started with the release of the BIS report for 21 major Indian cities, in keeping with the objectives of the ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’, which aims to provide safe piped water to all households by 2024. The study is scheduled to cover all districts in the country within a year. Supply of potable water obviously requires first compilation of information on the existing status. The fact that drinking water in Delhi was ranked the most unsafe, as the samples failed in 19 out of 28 parameters, was challenged by the Government of Delhi and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB).

India is on the throes of a severe water crisis, not only because of a gradual reduction in per capita availability of water due to a rising population, but also because of rising and unchecked pollution in the country’s rivers and water bodies, a fact which is mostly overlooked in the deliberations on water resources management.

As per published estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board, the country has a treatment capacity of only about 30% of sewage generated in the major cities, not to talk of other urban and rural areas where the sewage finds its way to local water bodies or rivers without treatment.

Impending water stress

A 2018 Report of the NITI Aayog has observed that currently 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. The crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people.

In Delhi, according to the Census 2011 data, there are about 33.41 lakh households of which 27.16 lakh households, i.e, 81.30%, are provided water through a piped supply system. However, only 75.20% of the households are supplied treated water. The treatment method is conventional — involving sedimentation, filtration and disinfection through chlorine and chloramine — whose effect is contingent upon the overall quality of water. For the water coming from the Yamuna released from Haryana, the DJB has to often stop the supply for a few days if the concentration of methane goes up beyond a certain level. This is because the tri-chloromethane that may be produced during the disinfection process is highly carcinogenic. The effect may surface on human health not immediately, but over a period of time.

The capital’s high pollutant load

Moreover, Delhi, which constitutes less than 1% of the total catchment of the Yamuna, contributes more than 50% of total pollutant load in the river, discharged over the 22 km-stretch between the Wazirabad and Okhla barrages. Delhi has 7,000 km of sewer line as on date, against a requirement of 24,000 km. The 17 sewage treatment plants being operated by the DJB are able to take care of not more than 30% of sewage treatment. There is no sewerage system at all for over 45% of the population in unauthorised and even regularised colonies and rural areas. As of now, there are 18 major drains carrying sewage, garbage and industrial effluents into the Yamuna.

It is not only the untreated sewage water and industrial effluents, but also the solid wastes and construction material discharged by individuals, companies and municipal bodies that have caused the suffocation of the Yamuna. Also, floodplains have been encroached upon by settlements. Hence, ensuring supply of quality drinking water is not only expensive, it also needs improvement in governance. It needs technical knowledge on measurement and regulation of water quality. It is not the fault of the DJB or the Delhi government alone that they have not been able to ensure 100% supply of quality water to the citizens of Delhi, considering the constraints they face, especially those concerning the water resources management and laws in the country.

We must appreciate that the Jal Jeevan Mission, even if it has not been so far structured, conceptualised and funded adequately, has begun the important work of gathering information on the scale and scope of the problem and making it available in an open and transparent manner. The best outcome is that the competitive politics of the Delhi election has ensured a political debate on water quality.

Nikhilesh Jha is a former Mission Director, National Water Mission. Views are personal