Hyderabad’s dirty secret
A city battling poor water supply has to deal with a graver concern, that of poor quality water. Tests conducted on ‘drinking’ water reveal that Hyderabadis cannot consume water without treating it. The authorities remain unaffected by this dirty reality even as the city’s reservoirs double up as swimming pools.
The manjeera supply streaming out of taps in most Hyderabadi households is not fit for drinking. Apart from organic waste (sewage), this `potable’ water is also dangerously infected with pesticides, faeces, oil, grease and heavy metals. It rates a poor ‘C’ on the water classification chart of the Central Pollution Control Board and is labelled unfit for consumption without being treated extensively .
These startling facts show up in the 11-page study conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in March this year on random samples collected from the Himayathsagar and Osmansagar , the city’s two primary drinking water sources. Worse, the water is acidic, way beyond permissible limits, and even coloured , indicating the presence of algae and decayed vegetation in the reservoirs that serve at least 70 per cent of Hyderabad’s thirsty populace. The most alarming disclosure, however, is the spiraling pesticide content that, as per the rulebook, should be a clear zero in any drinking water source. The report attributes this chemical pollution (present at nanogram levels and feared to shoot in the future) to excessive agricultural activity around the water bodies.
But then that’s not the only form of exploitation that these reservoirs are subjected to. Killing their once pure quality is also the increased growth of habitation in areas surrounding the tanks, which seems to be expanding by the day. That the bacterial count in this water has then shot from nil to a disturbing 860, as indicated in April’s water analysis report of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB), comes as no surprise. As per PCB standards this count, which points to the entry of sewage and faecal material into the drinking water suppliers, should be zero. “But the water is being put through stringent chlorination regularly. That kills all the bacteria,” asserts Ramesh Chandra, senior environmental scientist with APPCB, trying to water down the seriousness of the issue. His assurances, however, fail to amuse environmentalists and independent water experts from the city who point out that while household purifiers do arrest these pollutants to some extent, they are not foolpooof remedies. The salt content in the water can still go unchecked, they say.
Recollecting the tragic deaths reported from areas such as Bhokalpur in 2009, they say that the severe water contamination, despite treatment has only worsened since then. The month of May that year had jeopardized the lives of over a 1,000 residents of the Old City pocket who were hospitalized with complaints of acute gastroenteritis. At least a dozen among them, both children and adults, had perished thereafter .
Away from the slums, the drinking water even the plush colonies of Banjara Hills had thrown up shocking results when put through tests last year. If some of the bottled water delivered here showed the presence of bacteria, traces of arsenic (a lethal chemical) were found in manjeera samples taken to local laboratories. “Consumption of arsenic-laced water can have serious health implications with prolonged usage leading to cancer or even death,” explains Sudesh Menon, chief executive officer of WaterLife India that works in the field of water purification . Sounding a word of caution he says how the presence of arsenic is difficult to establish as the chemical is both colourless and odorless.
Another life-threatening substance that has made its way into the drinking water taps of Hyderabad’s homes in huge quantity is fluoride , note experts. According to their assessment almost all water bodies in the city have tested positive in fl uoride, with many of them reporting a dangerously high level of the element. While a 1 ppm (standard measurement) fl uoride content is acceptable as per the rulebook, most of Hyderabad’s water contain way more than 1.5 ppm of the same. The repercussions ? Rickety bones in children and excessive spinal chord stiffness among grown ups.
But despite such findings , the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board (HMWS&SB) is not ready to press the panic button just yet. Maintaining that the water at both Himayathsagar and Osmansagar is treated adequately and that all drinking water sources are usually `C’ class, officials of the board say that contamination is a minuscule evil that pops its head only rarely. And while they even insist that the network of pipelines in the city that carry this manjeera water to the homes of its 7.5 lakh customers is largely “safe” , the story on the ground seems far removed from the claim. Surveys reveal that almost every inch of these pipelines, date back to the Nizam’s era when they were first installed to facilitate water supply. Predictably , after five decades of usage, these pipes are now ridden with leakages, thus aggravating the pollution issue. From the IT pockets of Hi-Tec City to the modest colonies of Chandanagar, cases of sewage water mixing with the drinking supply has been reported in abundance over the last few years. “Each time we report a leakage to the water board, staffers come and fix the lines. But the solution is only temporary and after a few months the same problem arises. Unless the entire network of pipes is reinstalled, this severe contamination cannot be arrested,” says P Ramakrishna, city convener of Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL) that has been battling , for long, to clean Hyderabad’s water bodies.
Local authorities conveniently pass the buck on to the central government for this gap and hide behind the lack of funds dispensed by the bosses at the top. They claim that of the 20 zones in the city work on installing fresh pipelines in seven zones (largely in the Old City) is currently on. “It is not possible to change the pipes throughout Hyderabad. Small replacements can be made but there are no funds for an extensive job,” reiterates Sundar Ram Reddy, in-charge director (technical), HMWS&SB. He, however , adds that the department undertakes regular maintenance of all pipelines and is even quick to act on any complaint.
But even as officials try to paint an all-is-well picture, residents are no longer in the mood to be fooled. With drinking water standards deteriorating by the day, a chunk of aware denizens have now started to test their water before pouring out a glass of it to their families. Apart from the municipal supplies, even the bore-well water is often taken to laboratories for a quality check. “We do get a lot of such cases these days as people are very cautious about the water they drink. Manjeera water samples though often found in the lab are not too many in number. That is because there is still limited awareness,” says B Anjaneyulu, chief water analyst at the Institute of Preventive Medicines. The institute’s monthly water monitoring reports this year have detected ‘unsatisfactory’ quality in several areas including Somajiguda , Narayaguda, Erragadda, Noorkhan Bazaar, among others.
Not surprising then that households across the twin cities are now resorting to intensive purification of their manjeera before consumption.
According to Menon, most middle-class residential societies in Hyderabad these days are opting for such safety measures (especially reverse osmosis systems ), the demand for which has shot manifold over the last couple of years.
The fact that city’s stinking, coloured drinking water has also allowed the packaged water business to blossom into a multi-crore industry is no longer a secret.