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.
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.