For many children of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, severe bone deformities are a harsh reality. We first heard of Nilesh (name changed) from Arvind Singh of India Natural Resource Economics and Management. Nilesh could not even walk, and at the age of six the stunting was so immense that he looked like a three year old. Several other children in the community faced a similar fate, thanks to the quality of water they were drinking.
Fluorosis and arsenic contamination of water is not unheard of in India. What is new however, is that it is now spreading across the country; and the issue spills over from contamination into water policy, governance, quality, and security.
The nature and extent of the predicament at hand led to WaterAid India collaborating with Arsenic Knowledge and Action Network, and Flouride Knowledge and Action Network. Jal Chaupal in Uttar Pradesh, where water contamination is on the rise as well, was thus born.
Jal Chaupal is an informal group of individuals, citizens, experts, practitioners, and academics working on, or interested in water issues. The platform will be used for free and fair exchange of knowledge, and common understanding for policy and action. The creation of Jal Choupal-UP was supported by water experts from the World Bank Project on Rural Water Supply in the state, Uttar Pradesh (UP) Jal Nigam, Water and Sanitation Support Organisation, District WASH forums, and civil society organisations from the state like Eco Friends, Banvasi Sewa Ashram, and District Water Sanitation Managements.
A meeting of Jal Chaupal-UP was recently held in Lucknow to introduce the platform’s activities to more stakeholders, while broadening the knowledge exchange base and discussions on water quality issues in the state. Various key agencies and participants from across the country were in attendance to address the problems.
According to UNICEF, 20 districts in UP are affected by arsenic contamination. Arsenic content in groundwater in some districts in the eastern part of the state, including the capital, is 20—60 times more than the permissible limit of 10 ppb. The presence of arsenic in groundwater of Uttar Pradesh was first reported in 2003 and its levels were found to be above 50 ppm in several villages of Ballia, Ghazipur and Varanasi districts.
At the meeting, participants shared their experiences on water quality issues in different parts of the state, as well as mitigation measures that can stem the problem.
Dr Anil Gautam, Scientist at the People Science Institute, talked about his organisation’s experiences on working on fluorosis in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. “Our approach was to involve the community to make them realise that groundwater is a common resource,” he said. “We used puppet shows and street plays to connect with the community and convinced them that this was a water borne problem.’’
Shubha Prem from Banvasi Seva Ashram talked of how a mitigation programme in Sonbhadra area is failing because the local community has not been involved in managing the fluoride polluted water.
Dr Abhas Singh and his students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur spoke on groundwater contamination by chromium, arsenic and fluoride. Singh emphasised that though arsenic and fluoride were geo-genic contaminants, chromium enters groundwater from industrial dumping. His team mentioned that with arsenic the problem is a little more complex. “The complications due to arsenic cannot be seen immediately. It stays in the body, and gradually shows effect, which can be carcinogenic if not intervened with at an early stage,’’ he said. “A solution could be rainwater harvesting. It has been proven that rainwater is a safe source of drinking water.’’
Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam’s Dr R A Yadav blamed indiscriminate usage of groundwater. ‘’When water becomes freely available, only then will we be able to think about its quality and management. We should start talking about water availability, sustainability and security first.’’ In his presentation he elaborated on the imbalance of water, how we increasingly moved from depending on surface water resources to ground water.
Among solutions, a participant at the workshop stressed on the need for community level technology to tackle the problem. There was equal emphasis placed on the importance of good nutrition to bring down the ill effects of arsenic and fluoride. Every one present was in favour of involving the community in mitigation efforts.
Jal Chaupal-UP will start work on developing common awareness material for distribution among communities. A community member pointed out, “It is important we all say one thing so there is no confusion.’’ Other priorities include sharing best practices in water quality management across the country, promotion of traditional water sources such as ponds, dug wells, increasing focus on rainwater harvesting, identifying and mapping key contaminants, and deciding on priority areas to work in.
‘’In India, water has always been managed by communities. Every one including governments, communities, civil society organisations, private sector, academic and research institutions therefore need to work together to ensure water access. Jal Chaupal is a platform for all stakeholders to come together and explore ways to ensure safe equitable water conditions and security in the state,’’ Puneet Srivastava of WaterAid India concluded.
Similar Jal Chaupals are planned in other states to discuss water issues.
Ankita Bhalla is Web and Social Media Coordinator at WaterAid India.