Kolkata, 4 June 2008: More than access to water, water quality is a challenge in the state of West Bengal. Eight out of nineteen districts of the state have excess arsenic in ground water putting the health of 3.3 million people at risk.
Responding to the threat, UNICEF assisted the state government to develop and implement the Joint Plan of Action for arsenic mitigation that included setting up 20 arsenic testing laboratories in the affected districts in 2002.
These laboratories, managed by NGOs, tested public water sources and found more than 25 per cent water source unsafe.
Through GIS mapping the government alerted itself to the need for alternative water sources and accordingly drew up a “Master Plan for Arsenic Mitigation”.
The central government responded with Rs. 22 crore (US$ 500 million approx.) to implement the plan which included providing alternative sources such as surface water based piped water schemes (45 per cent), ground water based arsenic removal schemes (53 per cent).
UNICEF Water and Environmental Specialist, S N Dave, adds, “28 additional laboratories will be opened this year through the joint collaboration of Public Health Engineering, Panchayats and Rural Development and Health departments with UNICEF and local NGOs. With this, West Bengal will have one lab for every three blocks boosting the access to water testing services in rural areas and contributing greatly to increasing public awareness on water safety.”
Meanwhile, a low cost domestic filter has been developed as a short-term arsenic mitigation option. So far, 60 per cent of the ‘at risk’ population has been covered by alternative sources of arsenic-safe water.
Communication programmes have been put in place to make community aware of arsenic contamination, but challenges still lie ahead.
Encouraged by the early success of the arsenic testing laboratories, 26 general water testing laboratories were further established in 2005 outside the arsenic affected belts to monitor presence of bacteriological contaminants and ensure general water quality.
With fluoride as an emerging threat, 9 fluoride testing laboratories have also been set up.
Presently 86 water quality laboratories are working in the state – 31 through PHED and 55 with NGO assistance and UNICEF’s technical and financial support.
Each laboratory has two trained chemists and an assistant and is equipped for testing pH, hardness, iron, residual chlorine, arsenic*, fluoride*, salinity* and bacteriological contamination.
These laboratories also provide services for disinfection, promotion of filters, regeneration of the filter medium, etc.
Building on this infrastructure the state government has decided to utilize the network to test all drinking water sources for chemical and bacteriological parameters once in a year under the National Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Programme.
With inputs from Carol Braganza and Mr Sunderrajan