Consumption of and exposure to contaminated water has also led to predominance of skin diseases among fishing community
Fisher folk who heavily depend on river Ganga’s water for drinking are more likely to report higher incidences of diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, cholera, cough / cold, fever, skin disease, typhoid and jaundice, a recent study done on livelihood and health challenges faced by riverine communities of Ganga has found.
Incidences of at least one of these water-borne diseases across the different sites surveyed for the study were found to be in the range of 76 to 96 per cent.
The study by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), in collaboration with Tata Centre for Development at University of Chicago, aimed to analyse the impact of pollution in the Ganga river water on the health, socioeconomic status of the riverine communities and to also assess water quality along selected stretches of Ganga River in the states of West Bengal (WB) and Uttar Pradesh (UP).
While fishing activities are associated with several occupations, the fishing community is the most vulnerable as its members come in direct contact of river water.
The study was undertaken in two phases along identified upstream and downstream locations in the two states. While Narora and Unnao in UP comprised the upstream sites, Jangipur and Tribeni in Bengal were the downstream sites. A total of 200 samples comprising 1,600 respondents were surveyed in each phase from each of these locations.
The survey entailed conduction of water experiments using censors, along with in-person interviews and focus group discussions (FGDs).
Nearly 70 per cent of the respondents in Bengal and 62 per cent in UP do not have access to potable water in homes, more than half of the respondents (55 per cent) were drinking the Ganga’s water. Of these, nearly 90 per cent reported facing at least one incidence of disease.
Consumption of and exposure to contaminated water has also led to the predominance of skin diseases among the fishing community, the incidences of which have significantly increased over in the last 10 years.
Incidences of at least one of above mentioned diseases across the sites were found to be in the range of 76 to 96 per cent during phase I and 88 to 96 per cent during phase II of the survey.
It was also observed that the highest incidence of diseases occurred during the monsoon season and the correspondingly lowest incidence during the pre-monsoon period.
Medical professionals who have been practising at these sites for also highlighted the issue of polluted drinking water being the source of many water-borne diseases, said the study.
“In-depth interviews with selected medical professionals provide suggestive evidence that the incidence of diseases can be linked to the quality of the Ganga’s water. The FGDs with the riverine communities also revealed that water-borne diseases were primarily caused by the poor quality of potable water in the river,” the report said.
However, the medical professionals also maintained that there was no clear distinction between the prevalence of skin diseases among the fishing versus non-fishing population, the report added.
At all four study sites, respondents claimed that the poor quality of drinking water was responsible for their health problems. At Narora, a majority of the respondents were dependent on groundwater for meeting their daily needs. At the Tribeni site, the respondents said the tap water supplied to them had a foul smell and was yellowish in colour.
The respondents were of the opinion that the water was being supplied to them directly from the river without being filtered.
“Barring a handful of people who can afford to use bottled water, the rest are all dependent on tap water. They are aware of the harm to their health, yet they are compelled to drink it in the absence of any alternative,” it said.
In phase I, more than 40 per cent of the respondents at all the sites except Jangipur agreed that pollution of the Ganga water also leads to contamination of the groundwater. In the second phase, it was found that while about 48 per cent of the people interviewed at Jangipur agreed that the polluted water of the Ganga contaminates groundwater, in Tribeni, only 12 per cent of the respondents agreed to this assertion.
The study also found that the respondents in both the states belonged to the economically poorer sections of the society. About 48 and 65 per cent of the fisher folk in Bengal and UP reported earning less than Rs 5,000 a month from fishing.
The figure is comparable to the 2012-13 data from the 70th round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), according to which the corresponding average monthly incomes in UP and Bengal were Rs 4,455 and Rs 4,636 respectively.
Highlighting livelihood-related adversities, the study said that around 92 per cent of fishermen in both the states revealed that there were many active fishing days where they caught no fish at all. “This happens as frequently as at least two days every week when they go for fishing but without any success,” the study found.
There has been a significant decline in the amount of fish catch over the years. Fisher folk at all the sites in the two states reported a decline in the commercially important fish species and a rise in the number of exotic or invasive species in their fish catch over the last five years.
The respondents said low water volume was a major cause for concern, followed by irresponsible fishing manifested in the use of micro-mesh (mosquito net), which causes poisoning and also catches fingerlings and kills eggs. The participants also identified pollution as a cause for concern but only after the above-mentioned two reasons.
The participants in the FGDs at Narora and Unnao also identified pollution as a major reason for decline in the catch, but only after the above-mentioned two reasons.
The NCAER has recommended the need to formally recognise the communities settled on river banks as part of the riverine ecosystem and to synchronise their local ecological knowledge with scientific knowledge for better water monitoring and control techniques.
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