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GIST OF RAJYA SABHA TV (RSTV): Drinking Water: Quality & Challenges

Published: 2nd Dec, 2019


Mumbai residents need not buy reverse osmosis (RO) water purifiers as a study by the Union Consumer Affairs Ministry has found samples of tap water collected from the financial capital compliant with the Indian standards for drinking water. However, other metro cities of Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai failed in almost 10 out of 11 quality parameters tested by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) which is under the aegis of the Consumer Affairs Ministry. Similarly, samples drawn from 17 other state capitals were not as per the prescribed specifications for drinking water. Releasing the second phase study, Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said, "Out of 20 state capitals, all the 10 samples of piped water drawn from Mumbai were found to comply with all 11 parameters, while other cities are failing in one or more." In the third phase, samples from the capital cities of North-eastern states and from 100 smart cities will be tested and their results are expected by January 15, 2020. We will analyse why so many of our big cities have unsafe drinking water and what is the solution to the problem?

Edited excerpts from the Debate:

Question: Delhi now just does not have the worst air quality but also the worst drinking water quality. What is the problem really?

  • The problem is that it is for the first time that any such data on water quality has been made public, and at least an attempt has been made to test it. None of the samples in the capital region are passing the 11 parameters of test. Reasons are:
  • There are many sources in the capital which are likely to affect the water quality.
  • The raw water quality is so impure that even if you purify it (mostly chlorinating) it doesn’t take care of the many other parameters which are very important for drinking water, as per the BIS standards.
  • Dissolved solids cannot be removed by chlorination. It can detoxify the living organisms (bacteria etc.), but it can do little with respect to alkalinity, toxic metals etc.
  • This is why the water quality is questionable and not fit for drinking purposes.
  • It is for the first time that water samples have been drawn from the consumer level.
  • Samples from the supply side (distribution side) are different from that of the consumer side samples.
  • Pipes that are laid down carrying this water are old and leaking. They are expansive, not adequately laid or repaired. Problems are not even identified most of the times unless some major breakdown happens.
  • Hence in case of rationed water supply, the materials from outsides are sucked into the vacuum of the leaked piped system.
  • In case of pumped water supply, overhead tanks have to be cleaned on a regular basis, and huge amount of sand and other materials deposits are found when cleaned.
  • Quality of ground water supply is very doubtful and it has a lot of problems, so this leaves Delhi citizens with only contaminated water to consume.

Question: For the first time we have a ‘Jal Shakti Ministry’; government also has a good plan of ensuring water in every tap by 2022. But provision of good potable water has a long way to go.

  • We require data based decision support system.
  • In the Composite Water Management Index – as reported by Niti Ayog - India ranked 120/122 countries in the world.
  • Water quality is not up to the mark, and we require chemical, biological and virological analysis on our drinking water samples.
  • Delhi government is providing 986 million gallon per day (mgd) as compared to the requirement of 1134 mgd. So in many places people are mixing the ground water along with the surface water which is provided.
  • Supply of free water doesn’t give the supply bodies an incentive to incur any kind of maintained expenditure (in reference to leaking pipelines), and when there won’t be any maintenance, leaking pipelines will get contaminated by sever water or the adjoining water due to presence of negative pressure.
  • There should be a clear cut decision support system and water quality which is responsible for creating 70% water borne diseases in the country should be taken more seriously.
  • There should be a frequent testing.

Question: On the other side of spectrum is Mumbai, whose all 10 samples have passed the 11 parameters of water testing. What is it that Mumbai is doing right?

  • Out of the 20 capitals surveyed, only Mumbai seems to have passed the test.
  • Though the sampling methodology was not very robust, neither in case of Delhi or Mumbai, but at least the issue has been highlighted. (For example, in Delhi where 1.5 crore people live; only 11 samples were tested).
  • All these years the emphasis of the government was mainly on making water available, while the quality of the water was secondary.
  • But thanks to the efforts of JNNURM, recycling of water, the availability of fresh water in most cities is now not as much an issue, and the focus should shift on the quality of water.
  • Quality of water is a more complex issue because water supply in most cities is with bodies like Jal-Board or Water-Board. There issues that emanate out of this are:
  • These boards don’t have people’s representative like in the municipal corporations.
  • The administrative infrastructure is not enough to go into networking till the last point, instead their focus is more on the bulk supply of water.
  • The bulk supply goes to housing society reservoirs, ground level reservoirs, overhead tanks, multi-story buildings, and from there it goes to the households.
  • Water boards are not able to manage what is happening in the underground reservoirs, layouts, and the overhead tanks. It’s not in their capacity.
  • Whether overhead tanks are kept properly, covered properly, cleaned properly etc. is not the job of the water board.
  • Hence, these are a more intricate management issues and require involvement of municipalities, housing associations, and ultimately citizens; along with the water board.

Question: How much do measures like filters, aqua-guards, and RO help? Whose prerogative is it to supply good clean drinking water?

  • Currently there is no binding commitment to the BIS standards of water supply. So we must make it mandatory that all municipalities and all water supply bodies must confirm to the BIS standards. This will ensure accountability.
  • It is important that clean water is provided. It has connotations on mental health, growth and development. If water quality is compromised on a large scale, there it is a great health risk we are involving ourselves into.
  • One of the objectives of the SDG is to provide safe drinking water. It doesn’t seem we are going to achieve it by the 2030 target date.
  • Hence from all points of view, be it tourist inflow or saving resources, the issue of water quality has huge costs.
  • For example, water bottles are only there because the water quality is not good, and this has resulted in other kinds of problem like plastic pollution and single use plastic. This is how the problem gets multiplied
  • People are installing RO and water purifiers, but it cannot be an alternative to the provision of good quality water, because this water is totally deprived of any nutrients and essential compounds required in drinking water.
  • Most RO water is hungry of metallic alkalines like calcium, magnesium etc. So once we drink them, they rob our body minerals like calcium. And often times the balance is in negative because the food intake is not able to replenish that.
  • And it is wastage of water because 1 litre requires many litres of water before reverse osmosis takes place
  • We need water which has the right amount of metal, ions and nutrients. Hence proper water is one where these minerals are available.
  • In contrast, mineral water available in bottles is quite expensive.
  • Bombay water is good for two reasons:
  • Bombay water supply is through rainfall water, and rainfall water is relatively pure than water supply in most other cities which have a mix of surface water and ground water.
  • And ground waters are seriously contaminated by solid waste dump, sewerage, and irresponsible disposal of industrial wastes. Unauthorised colonies are another source which contributes to this contamination significantly.
  • In most cases, water supply pipes and sewerage systems are running side by side and this leads to serious contamination.
  • It also leads to a potential epidemic breakout; for example, Delhi is very prone to hepatitis etc. and these cases escalate significantly during summers.
  • The data should be made public, so that the public is sensitised about the issue. This will make decision-makers and water-suppliers responsible.
  • The exercise of testing water should at least be done bi-annually, if not annually.

Question: What other solutions are there to ensure clean drinking water to all households?

  • As per the Constitution of India, water is state subject, so state governments should be more responsible about its provision.
  • The Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) should also take the case of water supply in a more serious manner - there should be fixing of responsibility.
  • Long distance travel of supplying the water must be avoided and water supply should be localised.
  • The treatment plants should also be localised so that there is less chance of contamination during supply.
  • There should be proper maintenance, and the pricing and cost of it should be effectively recovered.
  • Whenever there is a need for mixing with the ground water, there should be proper vigil on it, and there should be proper testing of ground water first. Because ground water nowadays is prone to presence of cancerous elements like arsenic.
  • Less time should be wasted on shouldering responsibility on other parties, or on questioning the sampling strategies; instead, more focus should be on the quality of water provided.

Question: People still drink water directly from tap in the villages, but by the time water reaches the cities, it is non-drinkable. What is the biggest cause of this?

  • Today, even in rural areas it is not safe to drink water directly from the tap. In rural areas too water is often supplied through bore-well, and underground water is used for supply in many parts of the country.
  • Surface water from rivers and ponds is also not safe.
  • Arsenic, iron, fluoride etc. are present in water.
  • The water samples should not only come from cities but from rural areas too. The challenges of water quality in rural areas will be equal, if not more, to that in urban areas. Rural areas do not even have enough water treatment plants.

Question: What short term and long term measures need to be taken so that we can achieve some of the SDG goals on clean access to water by 2030?

  • Monitoring of water quality should be done more frequently and results should be shared publicly so that the concerned people are able to test also the raw water which they are drawing for supply.
  • Treatment plants have to be upgraded. Earlier, killing the bacterial infections was our primary concern, but now due to rapid industrialisation, industrial effluents are discharged quite liberally in our water sources and therefore the dissolved solid content has increased.
  • Hence there is need to refine the water more adequately, for which new technology is needed (such as resins, ion- exchange etc.) depending on the supply of original water.
  • Boiling of water is good as long as we want it free of bacterial contamination, but it’s not sufficient to get rid of the dissolved solids and additional chemical treatment is required to get rid of these solids.
  • Water from the supply side has to be very carefully monitored in order to find out the point at which the supply line is getting contaminated.
  • Long term solution is that water needs to be treated with a lot of hygiene, which is currently not happening. For example, people do not wear gloves, protective gears etc. when fixing water supply lines; this leaves potential for water to get polluted.

Conclusion (Way forward):

There should be frequent reports on water quality and it should be checked against biological contaminants, arsenic, fluoride etc. The origin of contamination should be assessed and those origin points must be fixed, instead of relying on later stage treatment after the contamination has already happened. Water treatment plants require maintenance; plants should be remodelled and new technology should be brought in. A proper maintenance fund should be created and there should be proper sensitisation along with fixing of responsibility. There should be data based support systems and data based fixing of responsibility. Deteriorating water quality is a serious issue and adequate and immediate measures are needed to correct it, so that we do not face the serious long term consequences of it. Quick fixes will not help in the long run and it is important to address the root cause of the problem so that the evil is nipped in the bud.

Practice Question: According to the latest reports on water quality, drinking water quality in India is seriously compromised. What are the reasons for this and how can we address it. Explain.

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