Mountain Waters – Elixir Or Envenom?

Oct 31st, 2011 | By | Category: Advocacy, Ecosystem Functions, Environment, Information and Communication, M-20 CAMPAIGN, MOUNTAIN ISSUES, Pollution, Research, River, Urbanization, Water, Youth Speak

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay: The pristine water quality of the mountains is under question despite bottled water manufacturers campaign to the contrary. This issue attempts to examine the dogma and the policy responses in India to protect environmental water quality of the mountains.

Bottled water manufactures do a great job of enticing thirsty buyers to pick up a brand with adverts or labels with pictures of sparkling clean water pouring or splashing. One can hardly debate the powerful suggestion of purity and quality of drinkable water those pictures evoke in the minds of people. The last vestige of any indecision on the part of a purchaser is unquestionably removed with additional suggestions of mountain springs or rivers flowing with abundant clear and clean cool waters. This is not surprising at all as mountain springs or high altitude regimes of ice fed rivulets create a sense of freshness and purity of natural water whose quality is sacrosanct. That mountain waters are purer compared to any other surface water is a common knowledge.

In Himalayan hills, surface water may be scarcer compared to plains but they are naturally of better quality so from a perspective of collection, treatment and distribution as drinking water, these waters are expected to require lesser investments for the purification process. Quality drinking water should, by common sense, come cheaper in the hilly states and cause lesser concerns of public health related to water borne diseases.

While physiochemical properties of any water sample is fairly easy to determine by using some chemical reagents or direct measurements such analysis do not truly portray the environmental or biological quality of water and a knowledge of this aspect of water is pretty important when we use the water for personal use like drinking or cooking.

What is a matter of great concern is that the quality of Himalayan Rivers is steadily worsening. The pictures of pristine mountains in bottled water labels can hardly be taken on ‘face’ value any more. Lack of adequate clean water is one of the most severe environmental problems in HKH region with impact on human health and economic development.  Total health costs due to lack of safe drinking waters were estimated in Nepal (Tiwari 2002), Pakistan (World Bank 2006), Bangladesh and India (Brandon and Hoffman 1995) at 2.0, 1.8, 1.5 and 2.7 percent of GDP.

Current Science, Vol. 91, No. 4, August 2006 published an article by N. Semwal and P. Akolkar of Central Pollution control Board that classified all rivers of Indian state of Uttaranchal (a mountain state of India) on environment water quality classes A, B, C, D and E where A indicates clean, B slight pollution, C moderate pollution, D heavy pollution and E severe pollution. Let me reprint table 6 of the article, which speaks for itself.

One may note with concern that Bhagirathi, a river believed to be life sustaining showed no benthic macro invertebrates at all at a site near old mosque of Old Tehri. Same goes for Dhauliganga and Ramganga sites. The following human activities were observed during sampling of rivers at various locations: Religious, tourism, bathing, washing, open defecation, cultivation, sand, stone and gravel recovery, stone crushing, road construction, mining, hydel activities, cremation; fishing, surface drain-age, irrigation, drinking water intake, rafting, wildlife habitat, etc. Beside these human activities, the river ecology is significantly affected by land sliding and forest fire activities.

Benthos or benthic macro invertebrates represent an extremely diverse group of aquatic animals ( animals without backbones that are larger than ½ millimeter – the size of a pencil dot) and the large number of such species possesse a wide range of responses to stressors such as organic pollutants, sediments, and toxicants. Many benthic macro invertebrates are long-lived, allowing detection of past pollution events such as pesticide spills and illegal dumping. For example, taxa richness is a measure of the number of different types of animals; greater taxa richness generally indicates better water quality. Or, pollution tolerance: many types of benthos are sensitive to pollutants such as metals and organic wastes. Mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies are generally intolerant of pollution. If a large number of these insect types are collected in a sample, the water quality in the stream is likely to be good. If only pollution-tolerant organisms such as non-biting midges and worms are found, the water is likely to be polluted. Another important observation can be functional groups: the presence or absences of certain feeding groups (such as scrapers and filterers) may indicate a disturbance in the food supply of the benthic animals in the stream and the possible effects of toxic chemicals.

Another revealing observation is that all the sites are somehow linked to an engineering intervention, either a dam or a reservoir. Such projects do enhance economies and economic activities draw population and infrastructure but it seems that we are yet to discover a way to handle growth and pollution with right trade off for ecologies.

The policy response of India remained traditionally end-of-pipe. The general public suffers lack of awareness and is largely indifferent and it’s only recently, on June 30, 2008 to be precise, Prime Minister of India has released India’s first National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) which in one part addresses the ensuing water scarcity through National Water Mission. A full pdf document for the plan can be downloaded and read from here. On February 27, 2009, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People published a critique of the India’s National Action Plan  on  Climate  change  (NAPCC),  titled:  “There  is  little  Hope  here”. The report which includes several civil society consultations concluded that NAPCC had been formulated through a most non transparent manner and that it will help neither the poor nor the Climate Change. Press Release is here.  8 missions launched by Indian Government do not speak about water specific initiatives (Press Release here ), rather a white paper published by TERI-BCSD discussed Corporate Road Map in context of National Water Mission and Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system. Report here.

The Mountain waters that some call Indian Water Bottle, degrade out of economic and livelihood activities of people. While the livelihood activities can be expected to be curbed with awareness campaign, the economic activities at the grass root level will never stop unless there is a proper economic incentive about restoring the environmental qualities of the waters. South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People accuse that whatever economic incentive is there in NAPCC works for the rich and not for the poor. While this may be debated, a people centric instrument with clear incentive embedded in it is missing in India and more specifically in Indian Himalayas.

We need to look for such innovative ways not to let the elixir of the mountains to turn to envenom.

Image Courtesy : 5D Mag                                                         Feature Image Courtesy: Sumana Mukhopadhyay

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About Author: Pabitra Mukhopadhyay has written this article for Climate Himalaya ‘s Youth Speak Column. Pabitra is an environment enthusiast and amateur blogger and keen to network with everyone with active interest on issues related to the Himalayas.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.

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