A small river flows past the village of Teja Rohela in Fazilka district, Punjab, crosses the border a couple of kilometres away, and enters Pakistan. In reality, this 'river' is a drain which takes away the toxic waste of cities located upstream. In that same village, 23 children with physical or mental disabilities are enrolled at a government school and many more don’t attend school at all. Given that there are only around 400 families in the village, the high incidence of disability is a concern.
“This water is the reason for all our problems as it contains the domestic and chemical waste of Muktsar city. Its high toxicity has seeped into our groundwater", says Malkit Singh, who runs a grocery shop in the village. Similar experiences have been reported by those living along the five major waste water drains of Punjab. Studies taken up by PGIMER, Chandigarh, and Punjab Pollution Control Board have found harmful impacts on the reproductive health of adults as well as physical and mental capacities of children due to the presence of heavy metals and pesticides in the local environment. Sadly, the contamination is not limited to areas near the drains.
Southern Punjab consisting of the Malwa region faces a great health crisis with a high incidence of cancer, premature ageing and deformities among children. It has the maximum number of habitations with contaminated groundwater attributed mainly to the high usage of pesticides and fertilizers. Punjab uses a staggering 17 percent of the pesticides in India. Of this, the Malwa region accounts for nearly 75 percent of pesticides used. Canal water, presumed to be fresh surface water, also carries untreated domestic and industrial waste released in rivers and streams. In fact, the same water reaches Rajasthan through the Indira Gandhi canal, causing similar health crises among people of the desert state.
A grave scenario
The biggest problem for Punjab is the multiple sources of contamination, which means multiple contaminants as well. Runoff of farm chemicals and dumping of untreated industrial and domestic waste are major contamination sources generated through human activity. Add geogonic reasons like the presence of fluoride and arsenic-bearing rocks underground which pollute aquifers, and you have a complicated issue in hand. In the last few years, studies have also found uranium above permissible limits in certain areas.
Dr Pritpal Singh, head of the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children at Faridkot gets 35 new cases every month while 30-40 are regular visitors. “Punjab’s water is a deadly cocktail of harmful chemicals, and newborns bear the maximum burnt. Cases of Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy and other physical and mental abnormalities are showing a steady rise due to genetic mutation, as these harmful chemicals have entered our food chain", he says.
A study done with the assistance of Baba Farid Centre found that 88 percent of hair samples of children had high levels of uranium. The study also confirmed the presence of dangerous heavy metals in the water. Most of these children belonged to the Malwa region of Punjab. Farmers in every village will tell you that they have stopped using shallow water for irrigation because it’s not good enough for crops let alone human or animal consumption.
The government supplies treated water through filter plants or canals but fluoride still enters the food chain through water used for irrigation or water consumed by dairy animals
At Jagatsinghwala village of Muktsar district, most of the farmers use water fetched from a depth of 150 feet. They also use canal water but this does not get them a good yield. A few big farmers either get water from a depth of over 400 feet or they stretch horizontally, laying 2-3 km long pipelines to get water from borewells dug near the main canal. That area has good quality water thanks to seepage from the canal.
Fluroide partially tackled
Fluoride above permissible limits was reported from 11 districts of the state, iron from nine and nitrates from 17. Even though the state government has been providing treated water either through centralised filter plants or canals, fluoride enters the food chain when this water is used for irrigation or is consumed by dairy animals.
Many residents of Fazilka, Faridkot, Muktsar, Abohar and Ferozepur districts have decayed teeth, a basic indicator of high fluoride content in the environment. Men as young as 30 experience joint pains. Fortunately, the number of cases of skeletal fluorosis, which is the most severe condition due to excess fluoride in the body, has declined over the years which underscores the impact of government programmes to supply treated drinking water and market interventions like home-based water filters.
“Earlier you would find several people with hunched backs in southern Punjab where fluoride contamination is high but now it has gone down considerably as most residents do not drink the groundwater directly. They are either dependent on government supply or have RO filters at home",says Dr Navtej Singh of the Pathology Department at Guru Gobind Singh Medical College and Hospital, Faridkot.
Piped supply, filtered water
In 2006, the Punjab government teamed up with the World Bank to implement the Punjab Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project (PRWSS) to improve or construct water supply systems in the state's rural areas. The bank extended a loan of $154 million, and thanks to the project, Punjab today boasts of high coverage of habitations with treated tap water -- 41.1 percent against the national average of 32 percent according to Census 2011.
As of March 31, 2015, the state claimed to have piped water supply coverage of 87.64 percent in rural areas which was more than double that of the national average of 40 percent. Other habitations are served by handpumps or borewells. In May 2015, the percentage of households with piped water connections was 32.17 percent as compared to the national average of 13.22 percent; however, 29 percent of these water supply schemes face quality issues.
Quality issue persists
Of the 9,096 schemes tested, 1,717 failed due to the presence of uranium and other heavy metals. According to a release by the World Bank, which has recently sanctioned another loan of $248 million for improving rural water and sanitation services in Punjab, 891 schemes did not even meet basic parameters. Also, service delivery did not sustain over time with 50 percent of the fully covered habitations slipping back to partial or nil coverage in 2008 against the national average of 30 percent. This is generally attributed to the lack of sustainable source of water and inadequate expenditure on operation and maintenance of the water supply scheme.
When it comes to water testing, rural areas feel the pinch more than most. There are 22 district-level water testing labs in the state with none in Patiala and two in Ludhiana. However, at the sub-division level, there are only four labs while 142 blocks have only eight labs.
The water testing kits distributed among village panchyats come with instructions in English which most villagers can't follow
At Bhupal village in Mansa district, Sukhdev Singh fished out a field testing kit from an almirah. This is one of the over 1 lakh kits that the state government has distributed among village panchayats a few years ago. However, lack of training means they are lying unused. “My son, who is a civil engineer, used it once but he stays in Delhi. Since the directions given on it are all in English and sound every technical, nobody can use it in the village", Singh informs.
Reverse Osmosis: Unsustainable water treatment
Reverse Osmosis (RO), the only technology which can help deal with multiple contaminants, is complex and requires specialised technical support for maintenance. At Churiwala Dhanna village in Fazilka district, the RO filter broke down four months ago and the villagers took to tanker supply. Those who can afford it have got home-based units but these are not very successful in southern Punjab as the TDS is high. Jaswinder Singh of Jog Sarkari village in Faridkot district says that the water filter at his home breaks down every 2-3 months. “The repair costs around Rs 4,000 while a replacement unit costs around Rs 12,000. I have replaced the filter at home thrice but not everybody can afford that", he says.
The sustainability of RO filters has also been questioned time and again as it produces a large amount of wastewater with higher concentration of contaminants than the source. At Jagatsinghwala village, the centralised RO filter takes up groundwater with 2,000 TDS and gives a product of 80 TDS while the wastewater discharged has a TDS of 3,000. For every litre it uptakes, 0.6 litre is returned as a reject. This waste is diverted to a village pond from where it either seeps back into the ground or evaporates leaving the salts behind.
Thus, an RO filter exploits and further contaminates the valuable groundwater resource but the state government is not looking for any other solutions as yet. "The recently-sanctioned World Bank project also has a component for technical innovations and we may work out an alternative", says Suresh Kumar, Principal Secretary, Water Supply and Sanitation. Most of the water supply schemes in Punjab are dependent on groundwater. Since the water table continues to decline thanks to over extraction, redigging of borewells will be necessitated from time to time.
Some of the options that can be explored by the water filter managers are rainwater-harvesting systems or shallow open wells for groundwater recharge so that the system runs on a more sustainable basis. The reject water of RO filters can be reused to wash and flush at residential or commercial establishments. Though this will involve structural changes, it will reduce the footprint of adverse impacts.
Who pays and how much?
The agencies which manage water filters charge Rs 90 per month for a 20 litre daily supply to a household. Though most residents can pay for the water, many don’t either because they have access to a cheaper alternative or they consider RO water to be of inferior quality. “Many complain of knee pains after drinking RO water. It can be a myth but we have heard that RO removes even the minerals essential for our body", says Jaswinder Singh.
Subsidies for security fees are available for underserved villages and scheduled caste populations, but there’s no support for monthly fees or construction expenses. Several respondents commented that construction fees were unaffordable.
For piped water supply, villagers have to contribute towards construction and maintenance of the system. A study found that most of those who don't enrol for the treated water supply find it costly. While subsidies for security fees are available for underserved villages and scheduled caste populations, several respondents complained that construction fees were unaffordable.
Canal water, which is supplied to several villages through local waterworks, also remains unreliable. Ghallu village near Fazilka gets drinking water supply from the waterworks but not in summer when water level drops. Being at the tail end, the water is almost always contaminated. “Besides the industrial and domestic waste that is thrown directly into rivers from where these canals draw water, bodies of animals and men come floating to the tail end. How can a simple chlorination improve such water', asks Radheshyam, a local resident.
Earlier, water would either be fetched from dug wells or from village ponds, both of which had higher chances of bacterial contamination. However, these sources had very less chances of getting contaminated with chemicals, the main reason for the various types of cancer and genetic diseases today.
Tejinder Singh Sandhu of Maansinghwala village in Muktsar district recalls the time when people had devised their own local methods of dealing with saline groundwater in this region. “Ponds will store fresh rainwater and wells near them would get good quality water due to seepage from these ponds. Today, the water filters and government-run schemes are too costly but still fail to deliver", he says.
Dug wells and village ponds had higher chances of bacterial contamination but were insulated from chemicals which are today causing various types of cancer and genetic diseases
Drawing on this experience, the state government is now setting up water supply schemes along the canals. These borewells will tap seepage from the canals for public supply.
At Teja Rohela, drinking water is now being supplied through a borewell fetching water from depth of 200 feet. An RO filter plant has also been set up in the village but locals prefer water from the public water supply as they feel it's of better quality. Fortunately, Punjab has managed to offer alternatives to its population but instead of striking at the root cause of chemical pollution, most of the effort is focussed on short-term solutions like treatment plants and exploitation of alternative water sources.
While farmers continue to use heavy doses of agro chemicals without any regulation, steps taken by the state government and the Punjab Pollution Control Board against industrial waste have not yielded the desired results.