Drinking water supply has always been the priority of the rulers and governments; it has gone through many phases of technologies and institutions, starting from decentralized community managed and owned systems to handpumps and a centralized water management system. Still, safe drinking water to all Rajasthan's citizens is a distant dream. But the state governments belief in handpumps is firm even after boring the earths crust at around 250,000 spots. It plans to further drill at least 15,000 places each year.
But the burning question about meeting the growing drinking water needs of citizens in rural areas sustainably, has remained.
The levels of groundwater in Rajasthan have dipped to point of requiring mining. Furthermore, groundwater mining is so high that levels all over the state went down at an average rate of 1-3 meters per year. Only 49 blocks are under the safe category and 86 blocks in Rajasthan come under over-exploited or dark category. (A block is a development zone, or a panchayat samiti, smaller than a district). This has not only become the major cause of HP failure but has also created a serious groundwater quality problem.
As per government figures, about 50 percent of drinking water sources have high chemical concentrations of fluorides, nitrates and/or total dissolved solids (TDS). Populations are thus at increased risk to fluorosis (skeletal, dental and non skeletal),blue baby syndrome, and many stomach related ailments. More than 25 per cent of rural population in Rajasthan is forced to drink fluoride contaminated water, said the state's Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), as early as 2001. Uncountable humans and animals have been crippled.
Handpump based drinking water supply is unreliable; large numbers are out of order and the government repairs almost 75% of handpumps every year. Therefore, the situation warrants a rethink on whether groundwater based drinking water schemes, including handpumps are sustainable at all. Under the given circumstances, Rajasthan cannot rely on groundwater. A new strategy is going to be needed.
An AA filter handpump installed by Department of Science and Technology, Rajasthan, near Jaipur (Pic: Deepak Malik)
State governments response
The government of Rajasthan is working to install Activated Alumina (AA) filters on handpumps. The objective is clear, to overcome the problem of high fluoride contamination in drinking water. The Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) has invited a bid for expression of interest for installation of AA filters on handpumps in 23,297 villages. It involves investment of about Rs.665.9 million (Rs. 66.59 crores).
The AA process is very simple. Water is passed through an AA filter; the filter absorbs fluoride salts over the crystals of AA, making the water safer. But after a certain period the AA filters need to be recharged by a regeneration process, much like a battery being recharged. This enables its start another cycle of removing fluorides.
Everything seems workable, until you look past the filter system itself.
The handpump itself is an unreliable source of drinking water. Handpumps regularly become dysfunctional because of groundwater depletion. With the reoccurring droughts, low rainfall and the present practice of withdrawal, chances that groundwater level will come up are poor. Installation of new handpumps of higher depths does not solve the problem and is also unviable.
For the government's AA filter approach, this is a warning. Installation of the defluoridation AA plants on handpumps may result in the filters having to be shifted from one handpump to other, as the pumps dry up. In practice this does not work so well, and the investment could be wasted.
Therefore, a new approach is needed. Past experience is also not very encouraging. According to Ritu Pandya of the Centre For Community Economics and Development Consultants Society (CECOE DECON), "In a project funded by UNICEF, it is estimated that only 40 percent of those using AA domestic filters continue to do so". As per awareness generation camps organised, PHED could not convince many families in villages to install any kind of fluoride removal filters.
A study in Rajasthan on fluoride -- "Crippling Human lives -- observed that filters are used as long as any agency monitors and support it otherwise people stop using the filtered water. Communities are reluctant partly because of the technology is not user-friendly, and perhaps also because it sustains their overdependency on government. Expecting rural communities to adopt and use the filtered water easily and regularly does not seem reasonable.
Given the current institutional setup for government managed water supply schemes, the approach to use AA filters as a fix to the problem seems headed for disaster.
Chemical Process and implications
Any method filtering fluoride using aluminum compounds leaves some amount of aluminum in the filtered water, says Mr. J K Bhasin, an engineer in the NEERI regional office, Jaipur. The presence of aluminum beyond permissible limit is harmful to human body. Specialists warn that there is a need to test after effects of filtration of fluorides by aluminum compounds, before adopting the filters wholesale. Further, experts also warn that if regeneration of filter chemicals is not done in a timely manner, it may deliver water with higher concentration of fluoride than in the actual water.
There is also the threat of Alzheimer's disease from higher concentrations of aluminum; this may bring new problems to people and government with pressure on already underdeveloped health facilities.
Besides installation, the other major issue is of management. Only a handful of examples exist to stand for governments' success in motivating people for management of any system over time. The tender document on installation of AA filters mentions that communities will manage it after installation. On the other hand, the filter system requires maintenance and regular expenditure. To date, people in rural areas have received water through government sources without spending any penny and that has set their expectations from government. This imbalance surfaces as local political pressure, strong enough to dissuade people. What the government plans to do about this is unclear.
Rajasthan's 2002 drought
Even if trained staff manages the entire system, there is the cost of training and maintenance to be accounted for. Monitoring for the exhaustion of the AA chemicals in filters involves sound training. But who will pay for the training and for trained staff undertaking regular maintenance? The government is aware of these costs and hence the tender documents say that communities will do the management.
Markets for filter services
The regeneration of the AA in the filters is also a chemical process, which can cause pollution if not done properly. At present, there is no market for filter regeneration. Again, if it is supposed to be done by community, past experience is not favourable. If a market develops and regeneration is available to villagers for a fee, who will pay for it? If the community is negligent, as has been observed in many cases, it will call for emergence of other health problems in those areas. With all this, can we afford to go for such a non-sustainable, costly, risky and non-user friendly technology?
In a study, Mr. Murthy of UNICEF, Jaipur states that, "Changing the source of drinking water, improving the nutritional levels and rainwater harvesting are better options for successfully addressing the fluorosis problem in Rajasthan. Defluoridation should be the last option."
He is right. For example, some villages have pumps with good water along with other pumps providing contaminated water. Awareness programs will inform citizens and they will then be able use good quality water for drinking and use the other water for utility purposes. But policy makers and the state's implementing agencies are not giving due thought to this.