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The perils of drinking water

With the issue of water scarcity looming large in Pakistan’s future, a closer look is needed at the state of drinking water in the country and mitigation measures to make it fit for human consumption.
by Mahrukh Sarwar

Safe drinking water is a basic human right. Goal six of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) states that universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water should be provided for all by the year 2030. However, in light of the growing threat of Pakistan becoming water scarce by 2025, public focus on the quality of water already being consumed seems to have taken a backseat.

Access to water

A report by WaterAid, an international non-profit organization, has found that 21 million people in the country don’t have access to clean drinking water. The Water Gap – The State of the World’s Water 2018 reveals that Pakistan is at number nine in the list of top 10 countries with the lowest access to potable water.

“Pakistan is facing severe challenges; industrialisation and the demands of agriculture, depleted and increasingly saline groundwater, rapid urbanization and drought have all taken their toll,” states the report. “Here, too, the disparity between the rich and the poor becomes clear: while nearly all of the country’s wealthiest have access to clean water, this applies to only 79 percent of its poorest.”

“It is important to understand that in Pakistan, you have a right to water if you own land. In rural areas you will be supplied irrigation water if you own land and in urban areas, if you own a house then the municipality will give you a pipe up to the boundary of your house and the rest you have to make yourself,” notes Simi Kamal, a water specialist.

“This means that in the case of unplanned towns, where katchi abadi come up, we have a real issue because there is no way to establish a right to water,” she says.

Read more: Is Pakistan running out of fresh water?

“Usually we have to have some type of community development projects where somebody gives the land and then they put up a water stand on it etc. So access to water is a complicated issue in Pakistan and there is no simple answer to it.”

Even if there is access, the water might not be drinkable or safe. The water supply that is available for human consumption in Pakistan is often found to be contaminated with bacteria, heavy metals, pathogens or industrial pollutants. “Drinking this contaminated water can result in fatal diseases such as cholera, E.coli infection, dysentery, salmonellosis (salmonella), typhoid fever, diarrhoea, intestinal worms and hepatitis,” says Dr Nooria Ashfaq, who works at a government hospital in Lahore.

In May, it was reported that six people lost their lives after drinking contaminated water in Awaran district of Balochistan. As many as 120 were hospitalized in the incident.

Slow poisoning by arsenic

Last year in August, a study published in international journal Science Advances revealed that approximately 50 to  60 million people in Pakistan may be exposed to contaminated groundwater containing high levels of arsenic. Elevated levels were especially found around the cities of Lahore and Hyderabad. At high concentrations, the toxic metal can cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and skin lesions as well as a number of cancers. “It also negatively impacts cognitive development in children,” says Dr Ashfaq.

The study analyzed groundwater quality samples collected from nearly 1200 wells at depths ranging from three to 70 meters throughout Pakistan. It found that nearly 66 percent of the water samples contained arsenic levels higher than the 10 micrograms (μg) per liter threshold recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). They found that while water in the rest of the country was mostly safe, the arid Indus Plain was found to have extremely high concentrations of arsenic in the range of 200 μg/liter.

Source: Jia You/Science

The research team also came up with a risk map for arsenic in Pakistan that shows the probability of unsafe arsenic concentration throughout the country.

The researchers recommended urgent testing of all wells in high-risk areas and mitigation measures to remove arsenic from water.

The plastic we drink

The poor quality of drinking water means that a large number of people are forced to buy bottled water and as a result, the bottled water industry has grown substantially over the years. A 19-liter water bottle costs between the range of PKR 100 and 280, and a family of five has to buy at least eight such bottles to last for the month.

Read more: Satellite study finds major shifts in global freshwater

Giving the industry’s perspective, Sajid Sufi, formerly of Sufi Waters, notes that since it is highly deregulated, anyone can start a company and start bottling water. “That puts a question mark on the quality of the product that is being passed on to the consumer. The primarily raw material being used in bottled water is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). The PET material used by many smaller companies is very low cost in comparison to regular virginal PET material used by established brands,” he says.

Sufi highlights that the quality of bottled water also depends on the location of filtration and bottling plants. “If groundwater in the area is of good quality, it will become even better with processing at the plant. However, processing of water at a plant located in a highly industrialized area where water quality is poor will have a limited impact.”

The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has been monitoring the quality of bottled water once every quarter since 2005. “The council publishes the results of its tests in print and electronic media, besides putting them on its website and communicating them to all four provinces and the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control (PSQC) which registers water brands and gives them licenses,” says Saiqa Imran, a senior research officer at PCRWR.

Reports by PCRWR had previously also found that companies were selling substandard water with microbial contamination and high levels of arsenic. However, the issue gained media limelight in January this year when the Supreme Court of Pakistan banned the nation-wide distribution of 24 brands until they met quality standards. After another round of tests, three of the 24 were allowed to resume distribution.

A lesser known risk associated with consumption of bottled water involves plastic particles. A global study published in March analyzed bottled water and found tiny plastic particles in nearly all of the world’s most popular brands. The study by journalism non-profit Orb Media and researchers based at the State University of New York at Fredonia, tested 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries and across 11 different brands. The water bottles that were tested were bought from China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Kenya, Thailand, and USA.

The study found that 93 percent of the samples showed some sign of microplastic contamination, and there was an average of 325 microplastic particles per liter. There is no evidence on the risks of drinking microplastics in water yet but following the results of the study, WHO has launched a health review into its impact on human well-being.

An alternative to bottled water is filtration plants, private as well as those funded by municipal corporations. These facilities charge less but come with problems like poor maintenance, at plants run by municipalities, and lack of quality control regulation in the case of private community-level initiatives.

Pesticides, industrial pollutants and leaky pipes

Drinking water comes from different sources. “There are some communities that get water from the ground (through tube wells), some from rivers or lakes, and some get their drinking water from glaciers,” says Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer.  “Drinking water will be polluted differently depending on its source.”

Kamal adds that a major reason why our water is not safe is because there are pesticides in it. “From the time water enters the plains, it starts to stagnate because in agriculture zones we use a lot of pesticides and other chemicals and all of that contributes to making the water unsafe.”

“Then all the sewage is added to this water from cities and elsewhere (even from villages). If you don’t treat it and it goes either into the underground or on our surface channels, then whenever you take that water out, it would not be safe to consume,” she explains.

Read more: Pakistan Among 5 Countries That Account for 90% of Wastewater Irrigated Farms, Study Finds

She notes that in the old days, people used to usually depend on wells as aquifers were considered safer. However, due to pesticides in the soil, our groundwater has become contaminated  and even well water is not safe to drink anymore. In some places, it is safer to drink if is artisanal water which is found much deeper in the ground and is generally cleaner.

Another type of contamination takes place when industrial effluents are discharged into the soil and subsequently seep into water bodies. “For example, the cities of Lahore, Faisalabad, and Gujranwala all pollute the river Ravi. This polluted water in the river goes into the irrigation system and in southern Punjab, people are drinking water out of the canal that is contaminated with industrial effluent,” Alam says.

After water has been cleaned and supplied to cities, if the infrastructure is not clean it gets contaminated again. “Lahore is an older city so a lot of the pipes are broken or corroded, and sometimes pollutants can contaminate the water through the pipe system,” Alam says,  “Although we have clean groundwater, the pollution in the water is coming from dirty pipes.”

How to clean water?

In cities across the world, there are big public works located outside the city limits to clean water and there are many processes that can be used including filtration, settling, ultraviolet (UV) rays, charcoal, biosand filters or chlorination.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, a former managing director of the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) Lahore, says, “Generally, the water from tube wells is clean. If there is contamination in the pipelines, then we rectify the problem at the source. When arsenic started leeching in our water in 2007, we set up water plants with ultrafiltration technology. In Lahore, there are currently 449 plants.”

He continues, “Now that we are getting water from a greater depth, there is much less arsenic in it.”

Khan explains that arsenic can be removed from water using a separate filter containing ferric hydroxide as a medium inside it. Activated Alumina can also used for this purpose. “In WASA Lahore, we haven’t used activated alumina but if it is used, it can remove heavy metals including arsenic,” he notes.

“Then we add chlorine to the water. The chlorination will kill the bacteria but it can’t kill the virus inside the water. To kill viruses, there has to be ultrafiltration which removes 99.9% of it.”

He says in case of broken pipes, repairs have to be undertaken, adding, “The contamination won’t end otherwise.”

Kamal says, “You clean water where you have the big works outside cities but if bringing it in contaminates it, then you have to think about cleaning it not at the source but at point of consumption. So in our kind of cities which are in such a mess, this is what you do.” At the level of individual citizens, a whole spectrum of actions can be taken. The water that is supplied to houses can be boiled, filtered through sieves or alum can be put in it. In some cases, where the water consumption is less, simple biosand filters that maintain a biological layer on top can be used.

“Now all of those require some discipline. Even if you have a small filter plant, you have to clean it,” says Kamal. “The more technology that is involved, the harder it is to maintain.”

Villagers collect water from a broken water pipeline in the outskirts of Islamabad.

Putting a price on water

Many experts maintain that pricing water can make a difference to the emerging crisis.

“Very few water connections in Lahore have meters attached to them so there is no measurement of how much water people are consuming. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to price water and to collect a working system of charges,” Alam says. Presently, the pricing system for water in Lahore is not based on the amount being used since there is no reasonable way of calculating that — it is instead based on the rental value of your property. Alam explains that if you live in an expensive part of town and have a larger house, then you pay slightly more for the water you consume and if you live in a small house or a poorer community, then you are charged less.

Read more: Diversifying Pakistan’s Water Resources

Since the price of water is low and caps out at just a few thousand rupees a month, this means that affluent households have no issue in overusing water. This often leads to people cleaning their cars with potable water or having large gardens irrigated with water that can cater to drinking needs of many families that lack access. The overuse of clean water has a detrimental effect on poorer communities. Introducing more effective pricing could lead to more rational use of clean water which could theoretically provide more people with safe drinking water.

“All the water that is used, in my view, should be paid for. That’s how you raise revenue and have the money to keep things going otherwise who is going to pay for repairs and maintenance?” notes Kamal. “My belief is that if you can have gas and electricity meters, why can’t you have water meters?”

Meanwhile, experts also maintain that pricing water is not enough. There needs to be open discourse on what is the rational price of water. As a basic human right, every person deserves a certain amount of free water – it can’t just be priced and made into a commodity. To allow for that, Alam suggests that pricing slabs be applied, with the first 50 liters of drinking water free and then an increasing higher tariff on consumption being charged for every liter consumed above that.

However, raising the price of water is a difficult political decision to make in Pakistan. “There are tens of millions of farmers throughout the country and raising the water price would be raising the cost of everything for those farmers,” says Alam.

Experts acknowledge the difficulty in passing bills or laws politically to change the existing state of affairs. Kamal says, “This status quo has to be disturbed otherwise with the population increasing and the per capita water going down, what happened in Cape Town will happen in our cities as well.”

Mahrukh Sarwar is a member of staff.

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