A health crisis in the making

Is the water you drink safe enough?

Suresh lives in the Victorian Avenue apartment block in Indira Nagar. After a day’s work in the office, he comes home and cooks his food. Till recently he was using the water from a tap provided in the flat’s kitchen for cooking. In February this year he noticed that the rice he cooked used to turn dull yellow in colour. First he thought it was the rice, but changing the rice did not change the colour.

I used to boil the water for drinking and there would be a thin white film of something on the surface. When I asked my neighbour about it he asked me to drain out that layer and drink the water. That’s what my neighbour’s been doing all this while," says Suresh.

"But when I saw my rice turning yellow, I realized there was something wrong with the water for sure." His curiosity aroused, he did some research and concluded to his alarm that the tap water could be contaminated with nitrates. He now buys water in 20L cans for his cooking and drinking purposes from the local grocery store. He’s not absolutely sure of the quality of the canned water but his rice turns out fine now. Moreover, "the can comes with an ISI mark, so I guess it must be ok," he believes. He also never thought of getting his tap water tested from a lab nor does he know where to get it tested.

The tap water in Suresh’s flat is Cauvery water supplied by the Bangalore Mahanagar Palike. The society supplements it occasionaly with borewell water on days when they do not receive the supply. Incidentally, a few weeks after Suresh stopped using the tap water, his society asked all residents to stop using the water since some of the flats had reported grey water with a foul odour emanating through the taps.

For three days they lived on tanker water even as the building’s water storage tanks and pipelines were examined. They soon found the source of contamination which was a sewage line that passed close to the sump. Waste water from the pipe was leaching into the ground through cracks in the pipes and had found its way into the sump which was located about 10 ft away. The sump also had developed cracks due to non-maintenance for years.

"The primary source of water contamination in the city is domestic sewage. There is close to 1000 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage flowing out from the homes of Bangaloreans and hardly 30 per cent of this is collected and treated. The rest ends up in lakes, tanks and the groundwater and contaminates it with nitrates, phosphates and bacteria," says Bangalore water expert and activist S Vishwanath.

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) indicates on it’s site that close to 400 MLD is treated and released while the rest is let out into storm drains and lakes.

A study conducted in 2003 by the state Geological and Mines department on the ‘Water Quality of Bangalore Urban Area and its Environs’ found that 58 per cent of the city’s groundwater is not potable and contaminated with Nitrates, Iron and Hardness. The study reveals that Nitrate contamination is rampant across the city’s bore wells. Two of the over 900 samples also revealed Flourides which could be because of indiscriminate extraction of ground water. Nitrates in excess of 45mg/L can cause cancer and leads to methaemoglobinemia also known as Blue Baby Syndrome. Excess Fluoride over 1.5mg/L leads to Fluorisis which is a physically debilitating disease. This study was repeated in 2006 and no improvement was found in the areas which suffered the most contamination. In some cases it had worsened.

As per the study, areas which were found to have high concentration of nitrates were Sulthanpalya, Cholanayakanahalli, Hebbal, Srirampura, Doddabanaswadi, Jayanagar 4th Block and Banashankari. Groundwater was highly contaminated in areas like Mahadevpura, Thimmpasandra, Vittasandra, Doddavangala, Belandur Village, Shampura, Peenya, Bharathinagar and Geddlahalli.

In another study of bacteriological contamination, 74 per cent of the samples tested were found to be unpotable. However this study was restricted to areas in the city with possible sewage contamination. The areas which revealed contamination were Hebbal Tank, Gollahalli, Jakkur, Nagawara, Marippanapalya, Hennur Tank, Sai Mandir, Chamrajpet and Jain College.

The areas where water was found clean and potable were Sadashivanagar, Mekri Circle, RT Nagar and Rajajinagar.

The following lakes in and around Bangalore were found contaminated: Vengaiahnakere, Benniganahalli, Kempambudi, Karithimmanahalli, Nyandahalli, Yediyur lake, Nagavara, Begur, Yellamallappa, Jakkur lake, Agaram lake, Bellandur.

"A great amount of awareness needs to be created in the urban population," says TN Venugopal, Director, Mines and Geology. According to him the problem is two-fold. On one hand there is a huge wastage of the subsidised water supply at the consumer end, while on the other there is total mismanagement of waste leading to contamination. Venugopal thinks it’s high-time water harvesting was enforced in Bangalore like it is done in Chennai where it is mandatory for all new building construction to install water harvesting systems.

Bulk of the water to the city comes from the Cauvery river. The water is treated and pumped a distance of over 90kms before it’s accessible to the city. Bangalore being 2700ft above sea level, the cost of pumping up the water is huge and the production cost works out to over Rs.20 a kilolitre currently. The BWSSB which manages this operation, spends 65 per cent of its revenues on energy costs incurred in the pumping operation.

Getting piped Cauvery water is not an assurance of clean and safe water since contamination can happen at the consumers’ end as in Suresh’s case. Contamination of borewell water is caused by domestic or municipal sewage, industrial waste, organic waste, fertilizers and pesticides or surface drainage. People living near industrial estates, chemical and manufacturing units must be extra vigilant of their water sources since it could be heavily contaminated with industrial effluents containing chromium, calcium, chlorine, sulphates, iron and nitrates as case studies by the Mines and Geology department in and around Bangalore have revealed. Groundwater once polluted is almost irrecoverable.

According to Vishwanath, a series of decentralised treatment plants need to be set up. Waste water collected in sewage pipes must be treated and only then released into the environment. If possible as much of the water should be reused, he says.

Proper separation and maintenance of the water and sewage lines are necessary to avoid contamination, says Shashirekha, chief chemist at the Mines and Geology dept. Shoddy work of laying the pipes is enough to lead to contamination of the water supply. Also care should be taken to ensure that garbage is not dumped near underground water storage tanks or borewells.


Public Health Laboratory, Public Health Department,
Sheshadri Road, Bangalore 560001
Ph: 22210248

Dept. of Mines and Geology (Laboratory)
Khanija Bhavan,Race Course Road, Bangalore 560001
Ph: 22384134 Extn: 231

Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (Laboratory)
Dr. Rajkumar Road, Bangalore
Ph: 25588270/25588151

Essen Labs
No. 106, 8th Main Road, Off 18th Cross, Malleshwaram(W), Bangalore 560055
Ph: 23341230

Shiva Analyticals
Plot no. 24D (P) & 34D, KIADB Industrial Area, Hoskote 562114
Ph: 91 8111 71322/71458

Bangalore Test House
65, 20th Main, Marenahalli, Vijaynagar, Bangalore 560040
Ph: 23356415, 23388895

"As long as the water looks clear, most people don’t suspect anything", she says. "Even when they fall sick, they suspect everything else but the water." She cites examples of how doctors have referred for testing the water being consumed by their patients, suspecting contamination as cause of the disease. "People should test the water they are using," says Shashirekha. The Mines and Geology dept. located on Racecourse Road is one such lab which undertakes testing of water. Besides, there are many other labs in the city which can help people test the water they are using (see box).

According to data published by the government of India, more than 80 per cent of the diseases are water related. Over 4 lakh children die in the country every year due to unsafe drinking water. Water borne diseases are the largest killer of children. The World Bank estimates a loss of Rs 19,995 crore every year due to water pollution. Some of the common diseases caused by polluted water are cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentry, cryptosporidiasis, polio and giardia.

What can individuals, housing societies and business parks do to prevent contamination of their water? According to Vishwanath, "by reducing consumption of water you reduce waste water flows. By setting up treatment plants in apartments etc you treat and reuse the water and therefore lessen contamination." He also suggests radical measures like switching to eco-san, treating grey water at household level and not letting a drop of sewage flow

"Putting pressure on governments to set up waste water treatment plants is also important. The govt. should be accountable for both water supply and waste water treatment," he says.

The user on his part should be ready to pay the true price of water, which is when we return it to nature in the same state as we appropriated it for our use. Use less water and if possible set up your own small system at least to treat grey water, he says.

Consumers can do the following:

  • Get the water on your premises tested.
  • Sewage lines should be as far away from storage tanks and borewells as possible.
  • Do not compromise on quality of pipes used. This holds good for the outer pipe casting used in borewells.
  • Never dump garbage near underground water storage tanks or borewells.
  • Never throw oils or chemicals like paints, varnishes and dyes into the soil. They could eventually end up in your borewell.
  • Avoid septic tanks near water storage tanks or borewells.
  • Avoid use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in your gardens. The residues run off and end up in groundwater. Indiscriminate use of organic fertilizers can also lead to the same problem.
  • Harvest rainwater for usage as well as groundwater recharge.
  • Install systems for recycling grey water and waste. Should be mandatory for apartment complexes.
  • Those living near industrial units should be pro-active in bringing violation of anti-pollution norms by any business to the notice of govt, press and public.

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