Drinking water: access denied!

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In our country, perhaps the most immediate and serious impact of the climate change is on water availability. According to a report by the World Resources Institute, Pakistan is on track to become the most water-stressed country in the region, and 23rd in the world, by the year 2040. No person in Pakistan, whether from the north with its more than 5,000 glaciers, or from the south with its ‘hyper deserts’, will be immune to this.

As a matter of fact, Pakistan’s economy is the most water-intensive worldwide, according to an IMF report. According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Pakistan may run dry by 2025 if the present conditions continue. They claim that the country touched the ‘water stress line’ in 1990, and crossed the ‘water scarcity line’ in 2005, more than a decade ago, and that in relation to the scale of the problem relatively little has been done to improve the use or supply of water.

Not only water is short but the quality of water is also not satisfactory. Only 36 percent of the Pakistani population on average, including 41% in urban areas and 32% rural areas, has access to safe drinking water in the country, a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed.

Results of the water-quality monitoring efforts by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) indicate that 69 to 85% of collected samples of water were contaminated.

The poor quality of drinking water has forced a large cross-section of citizens to buy bottled water. As a consequence, a mushrooming of bottled water industry in the country has been witnessed during the last few years.

Many mineral/bottled water companies were found selling contaminated water.

It has been repeated umpteen times only to fall on deaf ears that water is a basic necessity for the sustenance of life. The human body can potentially survive weeks without food but without water, it may live to only about three days.

The neglect shown towards illnesses borne from infected water supply demands that somebody be held responsible. Centuries-old diseases still exist in enormous numbers: cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Effective action by the health department is left to be desired.

Access to clean water is a luxury and this alone should launch provincial water and sanitation departments into an efficacious approach to provide clean water to all citizens of their respective provinces. Provincial health departments need to simultaneously become more aggressive in combating such preventable diseases, starting by forming a stronger lobby for public access to potable water.

Health economics should be a major convincing factor, acknowledging that annually $5.7 billion, comprising four per cent of the GDP, are frivolously spent on dealing with the effects of water pollution such as bacterial infections.

Furthermore, this contaminated water is used to grow crops and house the fish that humans consume, eventually inviting genetic mutations and affecting future generations.

The irony is that even when one wants to eat a healthful diet consisting of mostly vegetables to stave off inflammation and diseases like cancer, they may already be at a predisposition due to polluted water used to grow the plant crops.

Another irony is that despite being a country with direct sea access and melting glaciers, Pakistan’s water reservoirs are emptying.

We require desalination plants and water filtration plants that can effectively annihilate the bacteria that thrive in hot and humid weather in much of the country almost year round. The death of 53,000 children every year due to only contaminated water being available in two-thirds of Pakistani households is criminal.

True, some reports have noted that access to potable water has improved in the country – thanks largely to the targets set by the MDGs, and now the SDGs. However, the effort has clearly not been enough. Contaminated drinking water is responsible for a range of gastrointestinal illnesses – from diarrhoea and dysentery to hepatitis.

Some two-thirds of Pakistani households drink bacterially contaminated or otherwise compromised water, no surprise when we consider that far too many of our natural waterways are choked with filth. Besides, largely unregulated factories and industrial units across the country allow untreated effluent to enter the water courses. Thinking through the issue requires untangling various strands that successive governments have hardly given priority to. First, there is the pressing problem of just how rampant water contamination is and the numerous forms it takes. Besides bacteria, drinking water may also contain poisons like arsenic.

Then little has been done to revamp the water supply infrastructure; old and defective pipes cause sewage and garbage to mix with what is supposed to be potable water. The fecal and other contaminants being consumed are potentially lethal. It is only natural then, that those who can afford it prefer to buy bottled water – even here the testing of samples has shown that some brands are selling water of uncertain quality. Any exercise in revamping the water sector will have to go hand in hand with educating the public on environmental cleanliness and personal hygiene that can help reduce the number of gastrointestinal deaths and drastically cut medical bills.

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