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Groundwater pollution: all the signs and numbers we have ignored

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

Groundwater pollution caused due to sewage-based toxicity in the Aravali hills near Gurgaon resulted in villagers in the area being completely dependent upon bottled water.

The pollution caused by tonnes of untreated waste from a defunct waste treatment plant is leading to diseases like skin lesions, eczema and bloody diarrhoea. The diseases have spread among the people in the neighbouring villages as well.

Villages on the Gurgaon-Faridabad road have stopped consuming water from natural sources including lakes and wells. They even avoid letting their cattle drink the contaminated water. The locals are now completely dependent on bottled water with private water suppliers increasing prices frequently.

Villages in the Aravalis, located in Gurgaon's backyard, won't be the only ones to be impacted by these contaminants. Untreated garbage will eventually contaminate all natural sources of water once it percolates down to the groundwater-level spreading to Delhi and the national capital region.

Based on a petition by environmentalists Vivek Kamboj and Amit Chaudhary on groundwater contamination in the Aravalis, the NGT had ordered the municipal corporations of Gurgaon and Faridabad to ensure proper dumping of waste, maintenance and collection of already dumped waste while ensuring that it does not contaminate any water bodies.

Almost a year after its order, the corporations seem to have failed to act. The waste treatment plant meant for Gurgaon and Faridabad districts has been lying defunct with many surrounding areas near the villages being used as dumps.

According to Kamboj, the contamination will eventually pollute groundwater resources in the national capital and the surrounding areas and there are many reasons why this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Trouble started 3 years ago

The data from the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), released way back in April 2013, shows that groundwater samples taken from observation wells in the national capital are getting contaminated because of their unhygienic catchments and untreated sewage. The sewage in discharged in the open and into drains and it percolates into the groundwater.

The study showed that nitrate concentrations in the water samples tested, have been recorded at a high rate of 1,500 mg/l. The World Health Organization (WHO) advice is that nitrate levels in drinking water should be below 50 mg/l as an 'effective preventive measure'. The Bureau of Indian Standards puts the desirable limit at 45 mg/l with no relaxation limit.

The problems

Nitrate pollution is known to cause methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome (a blood disorder wherein haemoglobin is unable to release oxygen effectively to body tissues).

If a person drinks water that is high in nitrates, it can interfere with the ability of the red blood cells to transport oxygen. Infants who drink water high in nitrates may turn "bluish" and hence the name. Infants can have difficulty in breathing since their bodies do not receive enough oxygen.

According to the doctors the water in the area is so contaminated that many villagers are at the risk of getting cancer along with anorexia, kidney and liver damage among other lethal diseases.

What is also common in all this contamination is Leachate. Leachate is 'the liquid that drains or leaches from a landfill. It usually contains both dissolved and suspended material.

A highly toxic river runs through Bapat in Uttar Pradesh (Shamita Harsh/Catch News)

The reason

The causes for contamination that CGWB claimed years ago are similar to the causes the villagers mentioned. These include contamination from domestic sewage, livestock rearing, landfills and unlined drains and cattle sheds. Villagers in Aravali have also complained of medical waste being dumped in the area.

According to officials from CGWB, poor septage management, lack of adequate sewage treatment and disposal systems can lead to groundwater pollution up to a radius of two to three kilometres.

CGWB data also shows that while the existing sewerage system in Delhi is grossly inadequate, as only about 55% of the population have a connection to the sewer lines, only 15% of the population has on-site sanitation systems such as septic tanks.

The quality of groundwater will remain a concern with more than Rs 25,000 crore to be spent under the sewerage master plan 2031. This, however, is being far too optimistic an aim with many installed sewage treatment plans still lying defunct in the national capital region.

As per an RTI response the Capital generates 3,800 million litres (MLD) of waste water per day whereas treatment facilities can handle only 2,603.7 MLD and the actual utilisation is only 1,575.8 MLD.

According to Subodh Jain, the RTI applicant and Delhi-based lawyer, with the current infrastructure Delhi can only process 69% of sewage. But due to the negligence of the government, only 40% of waste water actually gets treated.

Treated water only for the privileged?

The reason why Delhi remains oblivious of the above facts is because the privileged in the Capital receive water through the official piper-water network operated by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). As per DJB officials, "the percentage of unsatisfactory water samples ranges between 1 to 2%," with samples being tested every day.

But for those unconnected to the pipeline network, the CGWB finding is dismal and they have little choice but to rely on private abstraction wells or tankers that supply untreated ground water.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 27 September 2016, 6:32 IST
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.