The dark zone

When Down To Earth correspondents nidhi jamwal and d b manisha started filing their reports on the problem of fluoride and arsenic in groundwater, we were shocked by the extent of the problem and enormity of the human tragedy. This is a story about paataal, we noted in disgust. The dark zone

Published: Tuesday 15 April 2003

The dark zone

-- It is a story about underground water: when the nectar turns into poison. When a daily task of drinking water from the handpump becomes the source of crippling disease and death. This is not a "natural" disaster -- where natural arsenic or fluoride, present deep down, just happened to make their way into drinking water. It is about a deliberate poisoning. Created by successive governments and multilateral agencies: all well intentioned in their quest for safer, cleaner water supply; all investing in boring into the ground, till they brought the dark zone into the light of daily life.

Whatever the uncertainties in the exact causes of these diseases, the link with groundwater is undisputable. Studies done in the arsenic-affected belt show that concentration increases with depth in the aquifer -- peaks around 100-125 feet down -- and gets reduced as it reaches 400 feet down. The fluoride-groundwater link is clear but its geographical extent is not known. No one region can be identified as chronically or endemically fluoride-prone. A recent report of the Geological Survey of India lists regions that are on the fluoride-red alert stretching from Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south.

The story begins many years ago, sometimes in the 1960s and 1970s, when national governments and international agencies drew up detailed plans to provide safe water to all. They understood, rightly, that bacteria in water kills more babies than any other substance in the world. They believed the water on the surface -- in millions of ponds and tanks and other water harvesting structures -- was contaminated and so invested quickly in new technologies to dig deeper and deeper into the ground. Drills, borepipes, tubewells and handpumps quickly became the triumphalistic instruments of public health missions.

Then the water table started to fall. Investment were made to dig deeper. And here is where the story turns.

While government was well-intentioned in its quest for clean water, it was equally callous, indeed criminal, when it came to responding to the news that was filtering in that maybe, just maybe, the 'strange' diseases are linked to the water that people are drinking. It responded with denial. It responded with misinformation, confusion and ineptitude. Science and its uncertainty became the servile tool for inaction. This subplot is marked by sheer and gross incompetence in efforts to identify the problem, its cause and to find alternatives. This subplot leads to deadly and terrible disease.

The story is therefore, most of all about victims -- living in scattered villages across this region. These are "official" victims, whose tubewells are marked in shades of red, to identify its levels of contamination. But then there are the "unofficial" and unidentified victims. Maybe thousands. Maybe millions. Nobody knows because nobody has cared to find out. Even these "victims" do not know. They only know that they are ill. But is the cause of their mysterious illness their water? Where do they go to find out?

This story is also a story about unrecognised warriors, who have struggled and fought to make the world recognise the problem in the first place. To name only a few: in West Bengal, Dipankar Chakraborti; in Bangladesh, Quazi Quamruzzaman for making us listen to the suffering of arsenic affected people; and A K Susheela in New Delhi for persisting with information about fluorosis.

Even now, the mindset is to find a technical-fix for poor people. Who will make the technologies that work? Who will work these technologies? Even now, public policy refuses to accept that the problem is not arsenic or fluorosis per se. The problem is groundwater usage.

The answer to the problem, therefore, is not the management of the disease. The answer is in the management of water. We are threateningly dependent on aquifers for our drinking needs. There is no regulation worth its name to manage this resource. Every attempt to legislate against overuse remains in a draft form. At the same time, technological advancement is helping us reach lower and lower into the earth to search for water. What we desperately need is strategies to ensure that the extraction of water does not exceed the recharge of the aquifers. We need to effect programmes to invest in harvesting the rainwater to rebuild the groundwater reserves.

But this is not the only solution. We will also have to invest in surface water systems -- to help recharge groundwater and augment available water sources. And here is where public health proponents must work with water management communities. Governments cannot assure water supply. We know this. The problem of arsenicosis and fluorosis has emerged because public policy discounted the community water systems and believed in a technical fix. The task is now to rebuild the community water systems -- the ponds, tanks, stepwells -- and to keep them clean and unpolluted. This task can only be done through the willing and active involvement of local people. Otherwise, water will remain a pipedream. Pilfered, or shattered and broken.

Remember, the price of inaction will be the crippling of this country. Deliberate crippling. Our earth will become the dark zone.

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