Clean India, Healthy India

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Does economic growth have a positive correlation with clean drinking water in India? Researchers at IIT Kharagpur seem to be not only agreeing with this idea but even found concrete proofs. In a recent study published in the Scientific Reports, the link between the influence of economic growth in reducing fecal pathogens in groundwater has been established. These are the pathogens that are considered to be one of the key causes of water-bourne diseases, across India.

Water-bourne diseases like diarrhea have been the cause of 15.5% of total deaths in India from 1990 – 2016. The study has made first-time observations on a significant reduction of fecal pathogen concentration in the spatially variable groundwater from 2002 to 2017. The study, however, reported elevated fecal coliform concentration in potable groundwater in rural regions across India than UNGA’s safe limit of zero pathogens. Download Paper

“Looking beyond the country globally, more than one-third of the total country’s population, living in economically stressed areas of Africa and South Asia still do not have access to basic sanitation, and more than 1 billion still opt for open defecation. Until recently, India has more than 500 million open-defecating population resulting unsafe disposal of fecal waste to nearby drinking water sources poses a serious environmental crisis and public health concern,” says Prof. Abhijit Mukherjee, faculty at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering and Dept. of Geology and Geophysics at IIT Kharagpur who led the research project. 

In recent years, sanitation development to achieve goal-6 of UNGA’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been encouraged across India by implementing Clean India (Swachh Bharat) Mission. But their effect on groundwater quality and human health are yet unquantified until now. The study, published on October 23 on the Nature group of journals, gives long term, high-spatial-resolution measurements of fecal coliform concentration (>1.7 million) and acute diarrheal cases for the first time. The study data covered almost the last three decades to delineate the long-term improvement trends of groundwater quality across India, as a consequence of development.

“A uniqueness in this study to determine economic development was instead of GDP or other economic growth data, we have used satellite-based nightlight (NL) information from NASA for the period 1992-2013 which was used to investigate the statistical trends and causal relationships. In most areas’ economic development, suggested by increasing satellite-based nightlight correlated to the reduction in faecal coliform concentration and alleviation of water quality. While, sanitation and economic development can improve human health, poor education level and improper human practices can potentially affect water-borne diseases loads and thus health in parts of India.” explained Srimanti Duttagupta, Ph.D. scholar at IIT Kharagpur, second author of the research paper which has come out recently based on this study. 

Numerical and statistical analyses were performed on aforesaid culled datasets to understand the efficiency of development in alleviating the water quality and public health, and relationship with economic development. Enhanced alleviation of groundwater quality and human health have been observed since 2014 with the initiation of accelerated construction of sanitation infrastructure through Swachh Bharat Mission.

In the study it was observed that in more than 80% of the study region, night-time light demonstrated to be a strong predictor for observed changes in groundwater quality, sanitation development and water-borne disease cases.

However, the goal of completely fecal-pollution free, clean drinking water is yet to be achieved, Prof. Mukherjee remarked, however, needs more data to confirm.

“Nevertheless, in areas with inferior water quality, improper human practices outweigh economic development in affecting human health,” he added.

It has been further observed that very high population density deteriorates the quality of water in certain areas. The problem of overpopulation and slums is an intricate problem that is reflected in all life aspects in countries like India. Different statistical analyses conducted in this study showed about a 3.09 % decrease in fecal coliform concentration and a 2.69% decrease in acute diarrheal cases per year for the last three decades. Groundwater quality with respect to fecal coliform concentration and acute diarrheal cases generally reduced in most areas of India and has been mostly caused by sanitation development, urbanization and related land-use changes.

Since 2014 the government has built over 100 million toilets in six lakh villages and 6.3 million toilets in cities covering a total of 600 million people (almost 60% of India’s population) which is more than the total figure for toilets since 1947. Currently, 93% of village households have toilets with a usage rate of over 90%. On October 2, while celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India was open-defecation free. But there are facts beyond statistics primarily challenging the initiative at the level of societal and poor human practices.

The researchers opined that use and disuse and beliefs are mostly related to lower literacy rates. In turn, these results in a lack of awareness and encourage malpractice on sanitation, eventually leading to increased fecal waste into drinking water sourced from groundwater. 


By Shreyoshi Ghosh

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