Poor sanitation and hygiene can affect the quality of your daily water supply!

World Toilet Day Guest Post by Akshaya Ayyangar

Water and sanitation are closely interlinked. For instance, toilets cannot function without water and without toilets, water bodies get contaminated in some way or the other. Therefore, solutions to water or sanitation infrastructure problems should be addressed in a comprehensive manner which combines both issues in a holistic manner.

Most cities and towns in India have a combination of formal and informal drinking water supply infrastructure consisting of government supplied piped drinking water and privately dug bore wells which we assume to be ‘clean’. But is it really so? Are municipal water treatment methods and indeed, any other commonly used water system robust enough to deliver clean drinking water? Probably not. These systems are plagued by intermittency, un-reliability and in many instances poor water quality because drinking water systems are not 100% leak free.

Our understanding of what’s actually in lakes, rivers, streams and ground water sources is limited and we don’t know if the chemicals (usually chlorine) added after treatment and before distribution is ‘cleaning’ the water of infiltrating contaminants before end use. In fact, unaccounted for water, which is defined as water lost due to leaks, cracks, thefts and water supplied to public stand posts, is estimated at 44% (average) by the Ministry of Urban Development. This, on one hand means tons and tons of water being wasted but on the other, more opportunity for infiltration from pipe bursts, cross-connections, poor sanitation practices and leaky sewer lines.

1Drinking water and sewer lines next to each other and over a water source for down-stream agricultural users. Source: ATREE Summer Course Group 2015

According to a WHO study in Nagpur in 2014, contamination in drinking water (govt. supplied piped water) was due to leaky sewers, open drains and poor pipe condition. Nearly 10-11% of pipes were in the high-medium risk (from faecal coliform which originates in the intestines of warm blooded animals) category, proof that open defecation and poor sanitation infrastructure directly affects drinking water quality. Further, the Water and Sanitation Programme (2011) estimates that total annual economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India amounted to a loss of Rs. 2.4 trillion ($53.8 billion2) in 2006. The economic impacts were the equivalent of about 6.4% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006!!

And, if this were not enough, health-related economic impact of inadequate sanitation was Rs.1.75 trillion ($38.5 billion), diarrhoea (especially in children) being the largest contributor – two thirds of the total health impact – followed by acute lower respiratory infection (ALRI). Open defecation and lack of sanitation are the leading causes for water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and stunted growth in children. Over 300,000 children aged below five years in India die each year due to diarrhoeal diseases. These are staggering and rather daunting facts that emphasise the seriousness of the situation. A situation which is characterised by in-adequate sanitation infrastructure, unclean sanitation practices which affect women and children the most.

What we really need now is detailed and accurate research which tells us what’s in our water, how it gets there and implications of existing contaminants on human health, wildlife and trees and plants. Only with this data can we really develop frameworks to treat the water in the best possible manner. Also, as the country develops, more and more towns and villages require ‘urban like’ water and sanitation infrastructure which must be designed jointly, compatible with the watersheds they exist in, operated efficiently to achieve the desired public benefits at reasonable financial, energy and resource costs and most importantly match economic geography and the evolving needs of households and businesses.

Akshaya Ayyangar is a researcher at IIT Madras and her research interests include life cycle analysis of systems particularly water and sanitation, water – energy – food nexus and water governance.  

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