What is in your water?
Let’s talk about water- that comes to your home, that you buy bottled or that comes in a tanker. We equate water with purity. But even clear water can be ridden with contamination. These contaminants are not visible to the eye. Water is used for various reasons like cleaning, drinking, preparing food, irrigation and farming and use of unsafe water can cause a lot of secondary contamination. Even harmless activities like teeth brushing or washing food with contaminated water can cause infection.
Especially in the context of Nepal, where water scarcity and access to drinking water is a big problem in both urban and rural areas, water quality usually takes a back seat, whether it is for public or private water providers or consumers.
In Nepal, water scarcity and inadequate water supply coupled with low surveillance of water quality has lead to widespread delivery and consumption of unsafe water.
What is clean water?
According to WaterAid, minimum quality standards for drinking water dictate that it should be free from disease-causing pathogens, contain no chemicals that may cause health hazards and free from suspended solids, any color, smell, and taste.
The water that comes to my house or that I buy- is it clean and safe?
Depends. In Nepal, water scarcity and inadequate water supply coupled with low surveillance of water quality has lead to widespread delivery and consumption of unsafe water. It is a major public health concern since water-borne diseases are the major cause of morbidity and mortality in Nepal. For accurate analysis, water sample needs to be tested.
So, why is the water contaminated?
Contamination of sources
Rapid population growth, open defecation, use of pesticides and fertilizers, unsanitary disposal of wastes and other human activities, has caused most of the water sources to become polluted. Whether it is surface water like springs, rivers, and lakes and groundwater from wells and pumps, they are getting polluted due to human activities.
Contaminated water bodies.
Closely placed water and sewage pipes
In many urban areas, water supply pipes and sewage lines are laid in the same place. Broken sewage and water pipes can cause contamination. Furthermore, contamination of piped water is attributed to intermittent supply of water. During the stoppage of supply, sewage water from the sewage pipe laid parallel or crossing each other or from the surrounding environment with poor sanitation enters into the drinking water pipe.
Inadequate treatment and storage
Improper treatment of water before distribution and poor hygienic storage practice also contribute in the contamination of drinking water. In a study, it was found out of 46 tap water samples, 37 contained microbial contamination and out of 218 samples of treated water, 79 contained microbial contamination.
A water quality test can show the presence of contaminants and will inform appropriate quality measures and treatment actions thats needs to be taken.
What kinds of contaminants are found in water and how does it affect my health?
In the context of Nepal, the following two are high-risk contaminants:
- Microbial contamination:
Microbial contamination is a major cause of public health concern and cause of morbidity and mortality in Nepal. Consumption of drinking water contaminated with human and animal excreta is the major cause of waterborne diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever, hepatitis, and others. It is caused by contamination by pathogenic bacteria, virus, parasites.
Even bottled drinking water that are marketed as filtered and treated have microbial contamination in the recent past. Among many studies conducted, one reported that 90% of samples of bottled drinking water showed microbial contamination above the acceptable range. In another study, 93.7% of open well water samples were found to contain fecal coliforms (bacteria found in intestines of warm-blooded animals like humans). Throughout different studies, whether it is closed piped water, natural spout water, they all were found to have fecal coliforms at different levels.
- Heavy metal and chemical contamination:
Contamination from lead, arsenic, iron, nitrate and ammonia and their presence beyond permissible limits is associated with many health risks. Their presence in water cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste. It can only be detected through lab tests. Increased urbanization and industrialization are to be blamed for an increased level of trace metals. Especially groundwater like tube wells can have a high likelihood of heavy metal contamination. Acidic rain breaking down soils also releases heavy metals into streams, lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
Heavy metal and chemical toxicity can result in damaged or reduced mental and central nervous function, lower energy levels, and damage to blood composition, lungs, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs. Long-term exposure may result in slowly progressing physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes and may even cause cancer. Lead and mercury exact their most devastating toll on the developing brain.
Can these contaminants be removed?
There are many effective and easily available methods for treatment, filtration and disinfection to remove contaminants in water. The main concern is low and infrequent surveillance about water quality. A water quality test can show the presence of contaminants and will inform appropriate quality measures and treatment actions that needs to be taken. These tests can be conducted at çertified and well-equipped laboratories like Zest Laboratories.
Over time, a more stringent approach to implementing water quality has urged private water industries to ensure the quality of their products, however there is still more work to be done.
What about private water industries?
Use of bottled, jar and tanker water, whether for domestic or commercial use, has consistently increased in Nepal. With increased consumption, there should be increased monitoring and surveillance of water quality, however, it is not the case. In a study conducted on bottled mineral water of different brands in the market, a staggering 59.7% of the samples were found to have microbial contamination from fecal matter. In some instances, monitoring revealed that mineral water factories had poor and unacceptable quality maintenance and were sealed off by authorities. Over time, a more stringent approach to implementing water quality has urged private water industries to ensure the quality of their products, however, there is still more work to be done.
Are there laws and policy for water quality in Nepal?
Over years government and stakeholders have given much priority and initiated frequent conversations about water supply and water quality. The government has clearly defined water quality standards and directives for water suppliers to assess water quality. It lists parameters and frequency of testing for various urban, rural, commercial and non-commercial water providers. Water Aid has clear recommendations for water quality testing for water from various sources and mode of supply. Although there are many governing water laws, the problem is limited execution and monitoring of these laws and directives. Various studies have shown evidence of the presence of contaminants in various kinds of water samples. With low surveillance, private and public water providers will not be motivated to put measures in place to ensure water quality or water treatment options. Hence the push needs to come from the government.