05/05/2016 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Is Safe Drinking Tap Water A Pipe Dream?

Child drinking water, Rajasthan, India, Asia
Florian Werner / LOOK-foto via Getty Images
Child drinking water, Rajasthan, India, Asia

A water purifier is invariably one of the first things we buy whenever we move into a new house. For those who don't have one, boiling water is a daily ritual. But why? In the West, tap water is safe to drink. I was amazed, when on my first visit to the US, I was told to drink water out of a tap. It was sobering to realise that what is taken for granted in the West is something that we in India can't even dream about! The fact that we have to actually think about whether or not the water we drink is safe makes it obvious just how far behind we are, in terms of development.

Diarrhea is the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India, and is responsible for 13% of all deaths per year in children under 5 years of age. A 2013 UNICEF report pointed out that globally, about 2000 children under five die every day from diarrheal diseases. The report goes on to point out that India accounts for about 24% of those deaths. Out of those 2000, about 1800 are directly linked to water, sanitation and hygiene. If you do the math, keeping in mind that these are only for children under five, these numbers are shocking.

Diarrhea is the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India, and is responsible for 13% of all deaths per year in children under 5 years of age.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn't end with just ensuring that water is virus and bacteria free. Another major safety issue linked to water appears to be heavy metal contamination of water bodies, especially in and around urban areas. This not only enters drinking water supplies but is also absorbed by food crops when used for irrigation. Studies show that waste water and effluent treatment have a long way to go before we can safely recycle it. A study found the presence of a number of heavy metals in water used for irrigation in Varanasi. Among the metals detected were lead, copper, and nickel. A similar study conducted on crops irrigated with water from the Ramgarh lake in Gorakhpur, also detected the presence of heavy metals in the crops. Another study, on drinking water in West Bengal, found that large amounts of the drinking water were contaminated with arsenic. Chronic exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, etc.

Let's face it, water almost everywhere in India is not safe to drink without purifying it, either by boiling or by using a water purifier. Nor does recycled water appear to be safe for irrigation. After nearly 70 years of independence, we still can't be sure about the safety of water coming out of our taps, or the safety of the water we use for our crops. This is absolutely unacceptable. Safe drinking water and food are basic human rights. The Government has definitely taken steps to improve the situation, as a quick look through the website of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation will show. However, this must go further and providing every person in the country with safe drinking water MUST be a priority at every level of Government. Unless every man, woman, and child in India is guaranteed access to basic facilities like clean and safe water, our economic growth is just a number.

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