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The drinking water link to poverty


By Waqar Mustafa

Taking small, frequent sips of bottled spring water at a room in Belfast, I was quite attentive to a briefing on the peace process in Ireland until a few words etched on the little green bottle drove me back home. The Antrim Hills water bottle carried a message: "We all like good water. Sadly millions in the Third World only have a dirty and deadly supply. That's why at least 4p (2p on the 250ml bottle) of the cost of the bottle is being given to Tear Fund. The money will help bring clean life-giving water to people in need."

Water-borne diseases, especially diarrhoea, kill 1.8 million people every year, most of them in developing countries. Taking data about availability and quality into relation, a recent study by the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations shows that only about a quarter of Pakistan's 159 million people have access to safe and sufficient drinking water. The calculation by the Coalition, a common platform of six leading Swiss development NGOs for development policy lobbying, explains that in rural areas only 23.5 percent, and in urban areas about 30 percent, can use their source of water without jeopardising their health.

The government estimates that water-borne diarrhoea accounts for 14 percent of illnesses for children under five, and for seven percent of all diseases in people aged five and above. The Pakistan Council of Research and Water Resources (PCRWR) assesses that 40 percent of all reported illnesses are water-related. About 200,000 children in Pakistan die every year due to diarrhoeal diseases alone.

At least 100 people have died and hundreds have been hospitalised --including dozens in critical condition -- after drinking contaminated water in different areas of Pakistan in one month alone. While tests in Lahore showed that drinking water contained traces of human waste, health officials in Zhob in Balochistan said they did not have a laboratory there to test drinking water samples.

Health officials attribute the spread of diarrhoea to the supply of contaminated water to households. Because of the outdated underground network of water supply and drainage pipes, faecal matter gets mixed up with drinking water. People fell sick in Lahore and the southern Punjab after drinking contaminated water from their taps. In Zhob, which relies mainly on stored rainwater for its drinking water supplies, water also became contaminated in some areas. Those sickened are suffering from gastroenteritis, an infection caused by a variety of viruses that typically results in vomiting or diarrhoea, and can be contagious.

Viewed in totality, there are many factors contributing to contaminating underground water: the lack of an industrial pollution control mechanism, uncontrolled use of fertilisers and pesticides, and untreated urban waste going to rivers and canals. Water, extracted by hand pumps -- the major water source in rural areas -- is mainly brackish or unfit for drinking and cooking. In urban areas, the municipal authorities believe they merely have to provide water connections, irrespective of the quality for human consumption, quantity and frequency of the supplied water.

Consumers think water being supplied in the tap is safe for drinking, which has either never been tested, or the results of tests by the distribution authority have not been made public.

In fact, water standards are non-existent in Pakistan. Water distribution authorities rarely follow any quality monitoring system before distributing water to consumers. The ancient supply pipes are hardly monitored or maintained. Consumers foot heavy water bills, but can never be sure of the value they get in return. Access to an improved drinking water supply is a basic need, a prerequisite for a healthy life, and a human right. Providing clean and safe drinking water to citizens should form a priority in the development agenda of the government.

Poor access to safe drinking water ends up increasing poverty due to the high cost of illnesses and loss of productive working days, causing an annual national income loss of $380-883 million – or approximately 0.6-1.44 percent of the GDP.

According to a survey conducted by the Pakistan National Human Development Report 2003 and Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), about 90 working days per year are lost due to illness in the poor households. Indeed, drinking water needs to be included in the broader discourse of poverty eradication.

According to a United Nations report, even though Pakistan has made substantial improvement in expanding the coverage of drinking water and sanitation facilities between 1990 and 2002, it will need to make huge investments and put in greater efforts to meet the target of increased coverage of drinking water sources to fulfil its international commitments. The government is formulating a national drinking water and sanitation policy. But it is the implementation it always falters in. It is the non-development belly we do not tighten.

Improved water supply technologies include: household connection, public standpipe, borehole, protected dug well, protected spring, and rainwater collection. Access to an improved source also entails that the source is able to provide at least 20 litres a person a day, at a distance no more than 1000 metres from the user's residence. But we do not even get the minimum. Rusty pipes get replaced only after double figure casualties!

President Pervez Musharraf has set a target of 2008 for a network of purification plants to supply the entire country with clean water. A laudable goal. But until it is fully implemented, contaminated water and diarrhoea will continue to claim thousands of innocent lives.