India’s Water is in Seriously Bad Shape

In India, the second most populous nation on Earth, it is estimated that over 70% of all surface water is polluted. As a result of industrial pollutants and biological factors (including open defecation), most of the country’s groundwater reserves have been contaminated in some way as well. Many rivers have been deemed unsafe for human consumption, some inadequate even for watering crops.

India is facing a serious water crisis.

It is estimated that India’s population will continue to explode, so it is foreseeable that these problems will only get worse. As the number of people rises and the availability of resources dwindle, conflict on the subcontinent over access to clean water becomes more and more likely.

This is what Indians might consider a “pretty clean river”

A 2007 study concluded that untreated sewage is the single largest source of water pollution in India. The problem is not only that people are going to the bathroom outdoors, but also a lack of sewage treatment, and that the waste treatment facilities that India does have are not being properly maintained. In 2011, a survey by the Indian Central Pollution Control Board revealed that only 160 out of India’s nearly 80,000 towns had both sewer systems and a sewage treatment plant. In fact, most government-owned treatment plants that India does have are closed most of the time, due to lack of electricity and poor management. In these areas, wastewater goes untreated, and left to seep into the soil or evaporate. In 2013, it was estimated that 80% of India’s sewage flowed untreated directly into its rivers – its main source of water for consumption and irrigation. The most daunting figure is that India produces nearly 40,000 million liters of waste every single day.

The worst culprit is fecal coliform. In order to be considered safe for human use, coliform levels need to be below 104 MPN/100 mL. In 2006, 47% of India’s water contained concentrations above this level.



This problem is exacerbated by Indian monsoons, which transfer solid waste and contaminated soil into rivers and wetlands. Water, which in some places on the Ganges – revered by Hindus as a source of life – is tar black.

One particularly unfortunate 70 year old man interviewed by The Economist in 2008 had contracted typhoid, polio, AND jaundice during his life by drinking Indian water – turning him into a full-time environmental activist.

This all becomes even more troubling when one realizes that India is not yet even industrialized, although it is on its way. According to WorldBank, India’s resources will be under more human pressure than those of any other country by 2020. India plans to sustain its rapid rate of economic and industrial growth, and the environmental destruction which comes with it. If India can not even deal with containing the feces of its people, how will it contain politically contentious environmental emissions that will come later down the line?

If there is hope, it comes from the will of the Indian people. 79% of Indians surveyed said that pollution is a “very big problem,” and activists have achieved environmental victories in India in the past, like in 2001 when a campaign successfully got Delhi to convert its busses and taxis from diesel to gas to reduce emissions in the capital. There remain countless institutional hurdles to be overcome, however, in a country unequipped and seemingly unwilling to clean up its act.

Next week, as promised, more on what is being done.



India’s Water is in Seriously Bad Shape

Why it Matters that the Indian Ocean is Full of Poop


This is a map of the fecal concentration in world oceans. Notice anything? One country, and the ocean which shares its name, appears to be responsible for the vast majority of human feces in the environment. Is this a problem?

Human fecal matter can contain pathogens which spread disease to humans and wildlife alike. In 1998, an estimated 2.2 million deaths were associated with diarrhea, many of them due to fecal pollution of water. This problem is estimated to have gotten worse in the meantime, as population has continued to spiral out of control and little progress has been made to ameliorate problems associated with fecal pollution.

In the 19th century, contaminated water was shown to cause a typhoid outbreak in London, leading the scientific community to accept that sewage was a source of disease. Developed countries began using chlorine filtration to improve the quality of their drinking water, and what followed was a perceptible drop in the prevalence of typhoid. In 1908, there were approximately 30 cases of typhoid per 100,000 people in the US, while in 1990 there were only 400 for the entire population. Typhoid isn’t the only disease associated with human feces in the drinking water. Human poop can contain bacteria like salmonella and e. coli which are linked to a wide variety of major diseases, as well as viruses and protozoa which cause diseases from meningitis to dysentery – potentially deadly without access to adequate care (like in destitutely poor areas of India).

It’s not just the drinking water that we should be concerned about, though. Many foodborne outbreaks are associated with the use of polluted water during production and processing. Shellfish are one food source especially  vulnerable to harmful pathogens in the world’s oceans. Fruit and vegetables are impacted by fecally-polluted irrigation water, which is of special concern for foods eaten uncooked. Water-related foodborne outbreaks have resulted in food shortages, which is concerning in a portion of the world as hungry as India where most food is produced locally.

They’re not even trying to conceal it

The nutrients and pathogens contained in feces introduces a threat to heath of ocean ecosystems, as well. For example, they can lead to an increased level of blue-green algae, which produces toxins and eventually rots, reducing the amount of oxygen in water, leading to the death of aquatic organisms. Human fecal concentration in the ocean has also been linked to a reduction in costal coral, and pathogens in human feces can easily reach marine mammals, reducing their numbers, also.

Besides the fact that the Indian Ocean is probably gross to swim in, these are the reasons why you should care that it is increasingly becoming laden with poop. Next week, I will cover more about what is being done to combat this oceanic contamination.


Why it Matters that the Indian Ocean is Full of Poop