The villagers joined hands with NGOs to bring the world’s cheapest potable water at 50 paise per litre from the ponds contaminated by arsenic for years
Every morning, Sapan Das goes to the water filtration plant in his village, established by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International Social Service Organistaion. This is the only source of clean water as the tube wells in the vicinity have been found to be arsenic-contaminated.
Das, like the others in his village, Madusudan Kati in West Bengal, had been drinking water from the wells for the last 20 years without knowing that he was drinking poisonous water, till he found symptoms of illness, which the doctors then detected to have been caused by the contaminated water in the village.
It was once a land where ground water was so contaminated by arsenic that many who drank it turned dark with its poison. Today, the same villagers are making a living by selling purified drinking water, a transformation brought about by the introduction of a cheap and effective surface water filtration technology introduced by Dr Pathak.
It has been a long journey indeed for the people of Madhusudankati, a village in what has come to be known as West Bengal’s “arsenic belt”. “Since I was a child, I have seen how people around me suffered because of drinking local groundwater,” says Haldhar Sarkar, a retired engineer from Madhusudankati. Since the 1990s, ground water in parts of eastern India and Bangladesh have been found to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic, making it unfit for drinking. Drinking water laced with arsenic has catastrophic long-term consequences such as arsenicosis (arsenic poisoning) and cancer. “Over the years, I’ve seen villagers develop tumors’, skin problems and worse,” says Sarkar. While the West Bengal government set up a number of plants to purify groundwater in these areas, the projects were largely unsuccessful.
A paradigm shift occurred when Sulabh International’s experts met the French NGO 1001 Fontaines, an organisation committed to bringing safe drinking water to poor rural communities across the world. “We realised that the solution lay in purifying surface rather than ground water for drinking purposes,” said Dr Pathak. That is how the Sulabh Safe Drinking Water Project (SSDWP) came into being in 2014. Its first project was in Madhusudankati, and has been an unmitigated success.
Villagers are now able to obtain pure drinking water at the affordable rate of 50 paise per litre, even while others sell bottled-water upwards of Rs 10. Having consumed pure drinking water for over a year now, the villagers are reporting better health.
A recent survey conducted there found that even the victims of arsenicosis who switched to drinking Sulabh water in 2017 have seen rapid improvement in their health. “A doctor visits our village every month. He has noticed that there has been a significant reduction in skin problems, even lesions, amongst villagers ever since they have started drinking arsenic-free water,” says Sarkar.
The water purification technology, developed by the NGO, has already been tested in Cambodia and Madagascar but is being used on a larger scale in rural West Bengal.
The purification process is simple and low-tech.
According to Sulabh, the water from ponds or rivers is pumped into an overhead reservoir. It is then collected in a tank where a chemical, alum, is mixed at a desired rate.
The settled water is then passed through a slow sand filter, before being collected in a clear water reservoir. The water is then passed through activated carbon filters and membranes of varying sizes.
“This removes the finest contaminants from the water which will be treated with UV rays to make it totally bacteria free. The resultant treated water, which is free from all pathogenic micro-organisms, is then poured into 20-litre bottles and sealed. The consumers either collect the bottles from the kiosk or it is delivered to their houses,” said Dr Pathak.
“We routinely send the filtered water for testing to Kolkata. In fact, it was recently even sent to a lab in the US. Every test has shown that it is free of all contaminants and safe to drink,” says Sarkar. Local villagers, he says, have also been very cooperative in ensuring that the pond used is kept as clean as possible – which is very important to maintain the quality of the drinking water. “We have erected a wall around it, but all the villagers know not to bathe or swim in the pond to keep it clean,” he says.
Similar Projects in different places
Sulabh has initiated similar projects in other parts of West Bengal — Suvasgram, Bangaon, Murshidabad, West Midnapore, Nadia and Santiniketan. All the plants are maintained by village-level committees, who have also employed locals for the maintenance and home delivery of water bottles in a 15 km radius on e-rickshaws.
“We work with local field partners in each of our sites,” says Dr Pathak. “They support the programme by providing land and ensuring source of water.” Setting up each site costs about Rs 20 lakh.
The beauty of this technology is that it can be implemented across India’s so-called arsenic belt – spread across West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, or indeed wherever villagers rely on ground water and rain-fed ponds and reservoirs for drinking water.
Further, in accordance with ‘1001 Fontaines’ mission, Dr Pathak and Sulabh have also worked out a unique entrepreneurship model to ensure the sustainable spread of this cheap and sustainable cheap water filtration method. “Selling cheap drinking water can be a viable rural enterprise as well as a social service,” says Dr Pathak. “In future, we hope to tie up with banks, rural financial institutions as well as corporate donors to finance more and more such projects.”
In India, arsenic contamination first surfaced in West Bengal in 1983 and over the years, other states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Manipur were also found to have been chronically exposed to arsenic contaminated water from tube wells.
Free water for schools
Villagers like Sarkar are provided safe drinking water free of cost as well as free medicines and treatment. The anganwadis and schools in the area, too, do not have to pay for the bottled water.
The worst-affected villages apart from Madhusudankati are Farid Kati, Nagbari, Taghoria, Bishnupur and Gazna.
Bishakha Das from Taghoria and her sister have skin problems. Bishakha says her father and grandfather died of liver and skin cancer. Dr Sarkar says even the cattle in the area is affected.
According to workers at the plant, the sale of safe potable water has increased from 100 to 300 bottles a day within two years. The current production capacity is 5,000 litres; to meet the rising demand for 500-600 bottles a day, a second tank would have to be installed.
According to Sulabh, the programme aims to provide affordable safe drinking water in affected rural areas through cost-effective treatment of water bodies, developing an entrepreneur model by training the locals and creating local management and infrastructure for operation. Madhusudankati Krishi Unnayan Samity, which manages the plant, is ploughing back the profit for the welfare of the region’s small and marginal farmers, says its chairman Haldar Sarkar.
Rains and contamination
A pathologist at the Mahakali Nursing Home near the plant, Dr Soman Ghosh said the groundwater here is high in iron. “The water turns red after keeping for an hour or so.”
He says contaminated surface water, especially during inundation in the rainy season, leads to a large number of diarrhoea and jaundice cases.
The people here say that during floods it is difficult to get surface water, and a large population is affected in villages like Nandapur and Singhchak; the water purifying plant is their saviour.
According to Sulabh, the use of purified water for the last two years has reduced the incidence of water-related diseases.
A plant for treating a dug-well in Haridaspur village was inaugurated in the last week of March. Commissioning the plant, Dr Pathak said his organisation has shown the way and it is for the government to set up similar plants in other affected areas. Studies have revealed that water in 79 blocks in eight districts of the State has arsenic contamination.
Doctors can see the difference
Subal Chandra Sarkar, a physician in Madhusudankati, has noticed the difference.
“Among people who have been using the Sulabh water for some months now, the occurrence of dermatitis, dysentery, some gynaecological diseases and other ailments, which are often triggered by overdose of arsenic in drinking water, have dropped considerably,” he told. “Sulabh water users too must have noted this. I am sure more people in Madhusudankati will switch to this water soon.”
Local Shital Ghosh – whose monthly income is about Rs. 4,000 ($64), happily spends about Rs. 450 ($7) a month on water from the plant.
“Some people in the surrounding area died of cancer and doctors said that they got the disease because they drank poisonous tube well water.
We have to be careful about choosing drinking water,” Ghosh said. “This Sulabh water does not carry that poison, many educated people said. So, I have happily opted for it.”
Sulabh launched two similar plants in Murshidabad and Nadia districts where water from the Ganga River is being used to feed the Sulabh plants.
Dr Pathak said he is happy his project is helping locals get clean water. “These three plants are basically part of a pilot project. We hope to launch more such plants to meet the need of the entire arsenic-risk zone of the state,” said Dr Pathak.
“We shall keep the price of this water as low as possible so that the poor people do not lose access to it.”
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