Unsafe drinking water burdens urban poor

Safe drinking water, a valuable resource  (Image Source: IWP Flickr photos)
Safe drinking water, a valuable resource (Image Source: IWP Flickr photos)

Water in India continues to be extremely polluted and unsafe. Poor sewage disposal mechanisms lead to most of the untreated sewage being drained into rivers and lakes that serve as reservoirs of microbial contamination. Release of untreated industrial and pharmaceutical wastes into the surface water sources has led to dangerous levels of organic and inorganic pollutants into the surface water bodies, making it unfit for consumption.

Groundwater resources in the country too have also been found to be highly polluted due to presence of fluoride, arsenic, nitrates, iron, heavy metals as well as due to leaching of harmful pesticide and fertiliser residues. Toxins from untreated industrial wastes and landfills as well as bacterial contaminants from the surface soil and water sources can also contaminate groundwater.

Recent decline in the number of potable water sources in developing countries like India has put the spotlight on the policies and the enforcement of regulations concerning drinking water.

The paper titled 'Water potability and public health in Delhi: Assessment for physicochemical and microbiological parameters of drinking water' published in the Journal of Civil Engineering and Environmental Technology informs that the situation continues to be worsening in urban areas in cities where pressure on existing resources has led to lack of access of water among the urban poor. Besides poor access, even the available water is not potable and is unsafe for drinking.

Water, a rare commodity for the urban poor in Delhi

Urban poor in Delhi continue to be worse off in terms of access to potable water.

The four main sources of drinking water in Delhi are (a) water supplied by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), (b) groundwater accessed through borewells or tube wells, (c) bottled water (both branded and unbranded), and (d) privately accessed public water (PAPW).

Delhi has a population of 29,399,000 according to the 2019 figures and around 1,785,390 of the people in Delhi reside in the informal city. Informal areas in Delhi do not have access to government piped water supply and are forced to privately access water, usually public water, through their own means. The quality of this water remains questionable.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that analyses the quality of  drinking water consumed by the urban poor community located in Outram Lines, Delhi. The people in the locality use water from unbranded bottles and publicly accessed private water.

The study found that:

  • The water in the unbranded bottled water samples was acidic with pH values in the borderline permissible range. High pH values for drinking water can lead to a number of acute conditions and pose a risk to health like irritation to eyes, skin and mucous membranes and even gastrointestinal irritation in severe cases. Higher pH values can also affect the degree of corrosion of metals and hinder disinfection efficiency, having an indirect effect on the health.
  • Unbranded bottled water samples had very high levels of E coli making the water unfit for drinking. Bacterial contamination of water can lead to a high number of waterborne disease such as diarrhoea, dysentery and in extreme cases may also lead to haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening disease that causes anaemia, low blood platelets and acute renal failure.
  • Privately accessed piped water was found to be contaminated with high levels of aluminium. Excess of aluminium in drinking water can lead to serious effects on the human body such as neurotoxicity in the form of behavioural impairment. nausea, diarrhoea, ulcers, skin rashes and vomiting. Long-term effects of drinking water with excess aluminium can also lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • High levels of Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) were found in the PAPW samples. High levels of PAHs can be carcinogenic and have severely detrimental effects on the body. PAH contamination can occur due to leaching of the coating of the distribution pipes containing water. The coating often contains coal tar, which is used to prevent corrosion. Coal tar is an important ingredient of PAHs in drinking water along with industrial discharge in surface water and acid rain. PAHs can have carcinogenic and mutagenic effects on the human body and can also cause cataracts, kidney and liver damage, and jaundice.

Unregulated selling of unbranded bottled water needs to be checked

While policies and regulations exist to monitor the quality of water distributed by bottled water companies, there is a vast difference in the enforcement of these policies between branded and unbranded bottled water companies. Reputed companies have a large consumer base and can charge more for bottles, which makes it possible for companies to monitor their water to ensure that their water passes all quality checks.

Unbranded bottled water companies that cater to urban poor localities have a low pricing policy and they often do not take into consideration the quality checks required before distributing the bottles, increasing the risk of unsafe water consumption.

Thus, constant monitoring by an independent government entity for all unbranded bottled water companies to ensure quality and accountability of water is the need of the hour.

Poor governance structures prevent access to good quality water sources

Urban poor in Delhi access water privately through plumbers and a network of water pipes. Very often, cheap and corroded materials of poor quality are used to construct this private distribution system. The water flowing through these pipes often leaches toxic metals and harmful chemicals that make the water unsuitable for drinking.

While public water sources are monitored and checked for quality, there are no checks in place to control the quality of private drinking water (according to the thirteenth five-year plan issued by the government of India) in urban poor communities. Thus any household in need of water hires a plumber and taps into the public supply of water without fulfilling any governance or quality compliance, which gets polluted through distribution pipes and is neither certified or tested for potability. This high levels of aluminium and PAHs in the PAPW sample in the study are most likely caused due to this private distribution system.

The study identifies the need to devise strict monitoring mechanisms to check quality of water from informal sources in the poor areas of the city and find better alternatives to improve access to safe drinking water among the urban poor thorough social interventions.

The paper can be accessed here