Purity or Safety of Drinking Water

Drinking water in India – scarcity and impurity

Despite its size and abundance of varied geographical features such as overflowing rivers, and freshwater lakes, a large part of India’s population remains severely stressed for its drinking water needs. While regional scarcity, faltering monsoons, drought, and drying up of aquifers may be blamed for the scarcity faced by the Indian masses, the available resources are heavily polluted and contain impurities making them unfit for human or animal consumption. While on the one hand, India’s major economic activity, agriculture, is sapping away the availability of water in most places, on the other, a burgeoning industrial set up is ceaselessly polluting whatever replenishable water sources are left for the people to consume.

According to WaterAid, an international NGO working towards providing safe water to the people, “29 percent of the rural population (of India), or 244 million people, and 23 percent of the urban population (of India), or 90 million people, would still lack access to adequate safe, sustainable water”.

A look at major metros

Traditionally, only the rural regions of the country are believed to have suffered from a safe water crisis. Recent trends, however, reveal that the metros of the country are far from well-endowed with water resources. According to a recent World Bank report, about the worst hit cities of Asia in terms of water-crises, two major Indian cities – Delhi and Chennai – were ranked among the worst. While an average family in Chennai spends about INR 500 each week on drinking water, in Delhi the black market rates for obtaining municipal water seems to be about INR 150 for 20 minutes worth of supply. The capital is at the brink of a veritable water disaster with a supply of about 835 million gallons a day during the peak summer months, vis-à-vis a demand of 1,150 million gallons a day. Hyderabad seems to fare better than the country’s other metros in terms of water supply. It is followed by Bangalore, Kolkata, and Mumbai.

Purity of water – compromising factors

Apart from the scarcity of drinking water, water contamination is a major issue. One of the major areas of concern when it comes to groundwater or even freshwater contamination is India’s lack of sanitation facilities. Nearly 66 percent of the people in the country use open toilets or local ponds and rivers heavily contaminating these sources of drinking water. Industrial waste is another major issue. Nearly 21 percent of the diseases in the country are contacted by water contamination or are water related.

The effects of poor quality and impure water on the public health of Indians are quite appalling. About 37.7 million Indians suffer from waterborne diseases each year. Some 73 million work days are lost due to the labour force suffering from waterborne diseases. Some 1.5 million Indian children die each year due to diarrhea. In urban areas, more and more people are turning towards canned water for consumption. In more affluent households, the latest trend is to install a filtration system.

How pure is bottled water?

Travelling across the length and breadth of the country, the one that keeps water worries off our minds is easy access to bottled water. Bottled water or mineral water as it is more commonly called (despite the fact that minerals may or may not have been added), is the average Indian’s reassurance that the drinking water is clean and free of impurities. We are more often than not willing to pay a premium over the MRP to find a bottle of water at a tourist spot. But is it really pure and free from chemicals?

According to a report by the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Section of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) released early this year, the very cleaning and packaging process generates or adds a number of harmful chemicals into the water. Samples from some eighteen brands of water were tested by the scientists and it was found that the cleaning and bottling processes are responsible for the introduction of a number of chemicals that were not previously present in the water. Bottled water is largely free of disease causing bacteria and similar germs that are found in untreated water. However, the presence of harmful chemicals such as chlorite, bromate, and chlorate, are major concerns.

The flawed RO filtering system

A great deal of the concerns related to packaged and even home purified water is related to the RO (reverse osmosis) purification process itself. The RO technology is one of the most popular purification technologies used by companies in the country. So much so, that apart from most mass purification plants, home purification systems are also being built on the RO technology these days. It is used by most of the major water bottling firms, including multinationals in the field. Apart from these, there are about 2,700 small and medium sized companies in the country that offer clean and package water and most of them rely on RO technology. The reason RO technology is popular in India is that it allows for production of large quantities of filtered water with very little need for human supervision.

The RO process is said to be the best available to filter out toxic substances found in groundwater in Indian conditions. These substances include sulphates, fluorides, calcium bicarbonates, and arsenic. Researchers, however, say that the process also ploughs back these toxic chemicals into the groundwater and in a much higher concentration than is filtered out. This contaminates the groundwater further increasing the need for filtration. Poor waste disposal systems at most RO plants and filtering units combined with lack of audits and standards, these RO-based water filtering units are now on the brink of creating an environmental hazard. And this hazard shall soon become one of India’s biggest concerns, given that the country is already suffering from a severe freshwater crisis and in many regions safe drinking water is scarce. Contamination of aquifers shall soon become a great health hazard in areas where these purifying and packaging units are located.