Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How Safe Is Your Drinking Water in India? Be Aware of These!

Water and Air are the two primary necessities naturally available to ensure life to sustain on earth. These two natural resources are also provided with certain levels of natural automatic processes to keep them safe for all living beings on earth, including humans.

But human population growth coupled with ever expanding human activities can cause these abundant natural resources to become polluted. Pollution of air and water can cause problems to human health. Thus air and water pollution has become an important issue for all nations of the world to give much attention. Environmental protection laws have become an important aspect of modern society.

India too has been giving much attention to environmental protection. It has also enacted several environmental protection laws and constituted several authorities to safeguard its air, water and land resources from becoming unsustainable on account of various hazards, including pollution.

View of a Poorly Maintained 
Drinking Water Pumping Station in India

In India, there is  the Central Pollution Control Board at the national level and the various state pollution control boards. Environmental statutes have become so stringent in the recent years that it is not so easy for any infrastructure or industrial project to take shape without going through many so called environmental protection related statutory hurdles. The hindrances have also created allegations of corruption ruling the roost with the Indian environmental regulations, rather than them honestly implemented under a balanced system of sustainable development, for the benefit of the people at large. 

In India there also exist independent environmental activist groups and non governmental agencies who also play an important role in deciding the environmental policies of the government. The Center for Science and Environment (CSE) is one such agency. But many such activist groups and organizations become too idealistic to be practical or balanced in their outlooks and approaches. Vested interests also might cause them to work out of focus occasionally. Using environmental issues as a guise for political gains is also not uncommon.
A Poorly Maintained Indian Drinking Water Treatment Plant

For example, there have been hues and cries in India against some companies using ground water as their resource for making and marketing aerated soft drinks. The agitation in Kerala spearheaded against the Coca-Cola company's Plachimada bottling plant in Palghat is a typical case of this kind.

Problems created by pollution is also a big opportunity for big economic activities, human creativity, business and big employment generation. Unfortunately, the Indian authorities and the Indian political leaders and the common people are blissfully unaware of this and seem to ignore the potentials of using this to a win-win situation for all.

For example let me take the example of drinking water supply in India. Water supply and sanitation are the fundamental  factors that govern the progress of any society. The fundamental job of any municipality or any city corporation is to ensure the supply of safe drinking water to the house holds, take care of the waste water and to address the issue of solid wastes. In olden days, Public Health Engineering was one of the most important departments entrusted with these tasks. Unfortunately, India has blissfully ignored this over the years!

Even well educated people in India are now blissfully unaware about the methods adopted by their municipalities and city corporations in managing these activities. Their elected representatives are also any better in possessing this awareness. With the advancement of human activities, the water supply and sanitation processes and its management have become more complex, calling for a higher degree of expertise and competency. Unfortunately, this aspect has been consistently getting neglected in India for the past couple of decades.

A well maintained Indian WTP Just After Commissioning

When industrial establishments, cities, towns and homes do not have proper waste disposal systems, the waste waters discharged into the ground and to the drainage systems (as available - artificial or natural) would deplete the nature's ability to revert it back to the original quality. When the waste water or sewage load is more than the natural capacity of restoration, the natural water bodies such as ground water, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes begin to become polluted. In such a scenario our natural sources for fresh water become perennially polluted. Our old and conventional methods of making safe drinking water may not yield safe drinking water any more, unless we invest more to modify our water treatment plants and facilities. In many instances, even costly water treatment facilities fail to yield good drinking water. Besides, the waste water from the water treatment plants also would become more difficult to manage. It soon develops as a technological vicious circle with no practical solutions!

In the United States of America, they have the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) empowered by various federal statutes including the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The website of EPA provide the much needed information for the guidance of their citizens.

View of A Well Maintained 
Drinking Water Pumping Station in the USA

As against this, it would be interesting to note the various guidelines, laws, regulations and protocols that are said to be applicable in India with regard to water supply and sanitation. There are several of them and one can see them at a glance as compiled and provided in the website of the International Environmental Law Research Centre (IELRC).

The difference between what exists in the US and what exists in India is glaringly visible when you do an honest comparison. In India, there is no law that makes it mandatory for any one to ensure safe drinking water to the citizens. What exist are a set of half-cooked or impractical guidelines apparently worked out by several agencies without due understanding of the technical or practical issues involved!

Thus even the best water treatment plants in India that existed a couple of decades ago with reasonably good operation and maintenance practices are increasingly getting neglected over the years. There is a drastic reduction in the technical competence of the people who manage the existing water or waste water treatment facilities. Most water and waste water treatment facilities do not have any competent water analysts or the necessary water quality testing laboratories. What existed as some best facilities some decades ago have mostly become dilapidated or practically non-functional. The contradictory or vague or impractical guidelines and protocols have made the situation to slip from bad to the worst. Lack of awareness in the public coupled with administrative apathy has caused further damage.


One of the noteworthy examples of technical incompetence and managerial apathy in the area of waste water management resulting in a big failure was  the much fan-fared Ganga Action Plan of the government of India some years ago. Money in billions got spent without achieving the desired results and the River Ganges still remains as one of the worst polluted fresh water source for millions of people of India even now.

There is no difference in the technology or engineering of water treatment and management anywhere in the world. There is also no difference in the water testing or interpretation techniques. Water and waste water treatment technologies are also not such technologies where you need space or rocket scientists and engineers. But at the same time they also technical issues where technical expertise and experience matter a lot. In other words, any tom-dick-and-harry cannot be entrusted with the task of managing the water and waste water treatment systems. The technology and engineering involve much multi-disciplinary skills which need to be understood and addressed with due care by the authorities!

Modern water and waste water treatment requires knowledge in chemistry, hydraulics, civil engineering, chemical engineering, instrumentation and automation, toxicology, bio-chemistry, environmental laws, etc. It provides ample scope for engineers from all these fields to gain much practical experience and expertise. It also provides opportunities for employment generation and development of business.

Regrettably, India lacks the much needed technical expertise in this field in its top echelons of administrative hierarchy which is essential for formulating proper policies by the government. The mistakes of the past get repeated when attempts are repeated in the same manner as what had been done earlier! If Ganga Action Plan failed earlier, it could fail again if the authorities do not learn from the mistakes of the past. It is essential that conventional administrative procedures and systems need to be reworked with intelligent inputs from people having the necessary multidisciplinary expertise and innovative ideas in this field.

The most important aspect of making safe drinking water is to have more and more fresh raw water sources with minimal contamination as the input to the drinking water plants. Conventionally, drinking water treatment involves raw water lifting, screening, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, disinfection, storage and distribution. When the raw water becomes polluted to some degree, the conventional treatment plants no more produce safe drinking water. For example, raw water contaminated with sewage containing soaps and detergents will not fully get rid of these contaminants when treated in the conventional treatment plant. The conventional chlorination treatment might even generate carcinogens in the drinking water that is produced from such raw waters contaminated by such organic chemicals.

Unlike in the past, most water treatment facilities in India are now operated and managed by people with relatively low skills and expertise. In many places, the concerned top authorities take the installation, operation and maintenance of water treatment facilities for granted. Many plants do not have the required level of competent manpower. A good majority of them have no facilities for water quality monitoring! Plants which are erected and commissioned with full facilities get degraded and dilapidated in a few years time due to the low priorities given by the authorities.

Water treatment facilities in India used to be considered as prime installations of national importance during the initial few decades after India's independence from the British rule. The British legacy was to consider these facilities with due diligence. Even in the 1980 when I joined my professional career, water treatment and public health engineering used to be an area of prime importance to the top managements of not only the municipalities but also of the large scale industries.

But things deteriorated in later years. I do not say that this situation is worrisome everywhere in India. But, in general things have deteriorated much. Water and waste water management technologies have advanced much in the recent years in many countries. Though some progressive private sector companies in India are making advantage of such technologies to a greater extent, this is not so in the case of the government departments and public sector industries due to either lack of awareness or on account of competency vacuums that has developed in recent years.

The general deterioration of piped drinking water supply quality has caused the proliferation of bottled mineral water companies. Packed mineral water in plastic bottles and pouches are now causing serious land pollution problems due to the empty bottles and pouches. 

Health conscious and well-to-do city dwellers no more consider their piped water supply as safe. Domestic water purifiers are doing roaring business now! How safely these provide good quality water can only be guessed as there is no facility available to the users to check the quality of water!

In my opinion consumers of water need to enhance their general awareness in these areas. In the present times, even the sick people no more take their medical doctors for granted. Therefore it is a good idea to gain some knowledge about the manner in which the drinking water comes to you and also the manner in which it is finally disposed.

Those interested to get some basic ideas about water, the US-EPA site is a good educator. 

As far as India is concerned, I earnestly hope that our new government would initiate some better systems to address the various issues involved with drinking water treatment, distribution, sanitation, waste water treatment, disposal and re-use, in the days to come.

Let us hope that our democratic local governments and other such authorities responsible for providing safe drinking water to the people, take these things seriously and initiate actions for Swacch Pani (clean, safe water) in order to make the recently started Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) a remarkable and sustainable success!

Let us also hope that our environmental authorities of the central and state levels also wake up and take some lessons from the developed nations!