Mumbai's water too dirty to drink

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Sunday 31 August 2003

The quality of drinking water is plumbing new depths in Mumbai. Sample this. Not only is water in localities such as Chembur (east), Assisi Nagar and Dockyard Road turbid, it contains worms and mosquito larvae too. Also, while some parts of the city get faecal coliform-laced water, alkalinity is high in water provided in other areas.

These are just some of the perturbing findings of a three-year-long study, 'Drinking Water Quality Assessment -- 1999-2002', which states that several wards of Mumbai are being supplied contaminated drinking water. The survey was conducted by local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Society for Clean Environment (SOCLEEN) and research body Institute of Science.

Even sketchy information about the study has provoked public outcry in the city, putting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on the defensive. Not surprisingly, there has been a delay in the release of the final report after it was submitted to project promoter MMR Environment Improvement Society. Though the authorities as well as the survey team are tight-lipped, a copy of the damning document is in the possession of Down To Earth.

To test water quality in Mumbai, its suburbs and Navi Mumbai, the project divided the region into 23 wards. The research team used physico-chemical parameters to test 1,457 samples and applied microbiological criteria for 2,244 samples. The report defines potable water as being "free from disease-producing microorganisms and chemical substances which are deleterious to health". The study adheres to drinking water norms of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). In cases where BIS has not specified limits, World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines have been followed.

It was found that barring two wards, samples from other areas failed to conform to microbiological parameters. The situation was particularly alarming in ward M/E (Chembur, Govandi, Mankhurd, Deonar), ward B (Masjid, D'Mello Road, Muhammad Ali Road), ward N (Vikhroli, Ghatkopar, Pantnagar, Barvenagar), ward H/W (Bandra - west to Santa Cruz - east), and ward T (Mulund). The proportion of non-potable drinking water in samples collected from these areas stood at 61 per cent, 40 per cent, 38 per cent, 37 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.

Severe contamination was attributed to the proximity of drinking water pipelines to sewage pipes. This trend was witnessed in the Masjid area, Chembur (east) and some other localities. Samples from New BMC Chawls (Khar Road) showed high alkalinity. The levels detected were between 232 milligrammes per litre (mg/l) and 468 mg/l -- well above the stipulated 200 mg/l. Almost all samples taken from Mulund, Bhandup and Khetwadi had phosphorous in excess of the 50 microgrammes per litre limit prescribed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Domestic sewage and detergents are a major source of phosphorous pollution.

The survey also tested the drinking water used in commercial establishments such as hotels, restaurants and educational institutions. Just over 50 per cent of the samples were potable in eateries. In the Chembur-based Narayan Guru High School, faecal coliform count was as high as 1600 in a 100 ml water sample. Ideally, there should be no faecal coliform in drinking water.

The study pointed out that water gets contaminated during distribution. The main reasons for this are listed as mixing of sewage with drinking water and gross neglect of hygiene. The report also recommended an upward revision of water tariff.

Meanwhile, BMC seems to be taking refuge in alibis. Municipal commissioner K C Srivastava has reportedly found fault with the research methodology. "BMC collects 2.28 lakh water samples for testing annually, but the SOCLEEN study is based on only 2,000 samples... Drawing inferences on water contamination from samples collected over three years is not correct," he told the media recently. A senior official of BMC claimed that the civic body follows the drinking water norms prescribed by WHO. But the study team stands by its report, stressing that it is comprehensive.

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