Water guardians

The fourth estate joins hand with civil society to check water pollution

 
Published: Wednesday 31 October 2001

Water guardians

one has heard of political alignments but Dehra Dun is witnessing an environmental alignment of forces. A non-governmental organisation (ngo), a group of scientists, some concerned citizens and a newspaper have joined hands to take a hard look at the polluted water that they have used unchecked for years. And, not only assess water quality but also make the government think about it.

The Society of Pollution and Environmental Conservation Scientists (specs), a Dehra Dun-based ngo , is leading the charge. Egged on by the support from Amar Ujala , a Hindi newspaper published from Dehra Dun, it has undertaken a massive exercise of testing water in the various wards of Dehra Dun municipal corporation through a network of citizens it likes to call jal prahari (guardians of water). The jal prahari are ordinary citizens, professionals, government servants, housewives, students, retired personnel, even cycle repairspersons, armed with water testing kits provided by specs, who go out testing water in the public supply lines serving their respective ward.

The kit supplied to them contains equipment to carry out chemical tests for chlorination and hardness on site. It comprises diethyl phenyl di-amine solution and phosphate buffer solution Using it, anyone, even a person without any background knowledge of scientific testing, can carry out tests for two basic problems that people in the city have had with the water supply for a very long time.

And the kit has become an effective tool for empowering people to participate. specs has devised a three-tier testing strategy that binds the society into environmental action while maintaining the scientific integrity of the testing. The jal prahari test the water daily for the two basic parameters of water quality. These tests and their results are then validated by a string of scientists based in the city. Dinesh Sati, one such scientist, working with specs says, "It's a novel attempt. For once science is being put to use to improve the quality of life in the city." The scientists chosen from various research institutes based in the city work to establish that the tests have been carried out under proper conditions.

And to complement the basic tests carried out by the citizens, specs and its volunteers test coliform and faecal coliform levels every 15 days in the 45 wards. Total coliform level is an indicator of the sanitary condition of a water supply. Total coliform includes bacteria that are found in soil, in water that is on or near the surface of the ground, and in human or animal waste. Faecal coliform in water, on the other hand, indicates that the water has been contaminated with human and animal faecal matter. It poses a potential health hazard. Waterborne pathogenic diseases, including typhoid fever and hepatitis A, are known to spread by such contaminated water.

Amar Ujala then publishes the compiled results of the tests for the public. Three such reports by the newspaper have already been published. And the published results have definitely been a rude awakening for the public.
Damning reports specs' reports show that the water in many wards of the city has a highly fluctuating chlorination level. Brij Mohan Sharma, secretary of the ngo , says, "the problem lies in uncontrolled chlorination. In many places, there are two public water supply lines. While in one line superchlorination is recorded, in the other, chlorination is near nill and instead faecal coliform is found. It just shows how mismanaged water supply in the city is."

And to show that it is not only the ordinary citizen but also the ' vips ' that face a threat to their health, the organisation carried out tests at the residence of the chief minister of Uttaranchal and seven other ministers, including the minister for health, Ajay Bhatt. The results were quite revealing. Sharma says, "the ministers were caught off guard when Amar Ujala published the results."

specs wants to go one step forward from here -- get the government to act and take help of the citizens in keeping a vigil out for pollution in the water. Sharma says, "The state government doesn't have an adequate lab to detect all pollutants. One, it needs to improve its own infrastructure. Two, it should involve the civil society and take help of the expertise available outside to improve the quality of water in the city." He vows to keep the campaign going strong till the state government takes cognisance of their effort and acts. Efforts like these promise to bring environmental health concerns on top of agenda beyond the metros of India.

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