Among Northeastern States, it is in Assam where groundwater is the most contamited. Fluoride, arsenic, iron, some heavy metals, nitrates and high alkalinity in drinking water pumped up from deep underground are causing a host of health problems, primarily in rural areas. The reasons are varied, ranging from rising population and flawed development to climate change. Experts point out that most chemicals labelled ‘contamints’ are normally present in groundwater, but their concentrations rise as groundwater levels keep falling. This is because as much as 85% of the State’s population no longer get surface water, so they use earthen wells, handpumps and borewells to access groundwater. In urban areas, water is being drilled at greater depths of around 300 feet or more, where mineral-rich granitic rocks can be broken, which can then mix with groundwater in higher concentrations. Also to blame are some chemical fertilisers which seep underground from our farmlands. Then there is the loss of green cover and changing weather patterns, resulting in irregular rains and long dry spells which impede replenishment of groundwater. Obviously, this is a problem that cannot be solved with uncoordited, piecemeal efforts — like marking tubewells pumping out fluoride or arsenic laced water with red paint or pushing panchayats to build ring wells. During the assembly budget session this year, MLAs cutting across party lines took the State government to task for minimal interventions, leaving people in most districts to fend for themselves. Fluorosis afflicted children are growing up with bent limbs and crooked teeth in districts like Hojai and Karbi Anglong with very high groundwater fluoride concentrations; however, fluoride levels in 11 districts have been found way above the permissible limit of 1 mg/litre. At least 20 districts are arsenic-affected, with places like Tipamia in Jorhat district showing very high concentrations. Arsenic poisoning needs to be watched carefully, for its effects show up only over 3-4 years, experts warn.
Other groundwater contamints also need to be tracked — like iron (permissible limit 0.3 milligram per litre) which consumed in high concentrations can cause severe damage to body organs, or high alkaline water that can play havoc with digestive and cardiovascular systems and put kidneys under pressure. The Central Groundwater Board in its 2015-16 year book listed iron concentration levels of 1 to 3 mg/litre across Assam with over 3 mg/litre found mostly in the Brahmaputra valley, and some pockets with levels upto 14.92 mg/litre. As per Assam government data provided to the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation, nearly 40 lakh people in 10,215 habitations across the State are yet to be supplied with safe drinking water. Providing drinking water to rural areas being a State subject, it is upon the Assam government to properly leverage the Centrally-sponsored tiol Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). This it has largely failed to do, leading to pressure on groundwater resources by the people. When it comes to fluorosis, it is known that damage or change in skeletal system due to exposure to high levels of fluoride is usually irreversible; whatever improvement there can be comes only after years of medicines taken in combition. For most fluorosis afflicted people in Assam, this kind of support from the State government is like asking for the moon. State Public Health Engineering Minister Rihon Daimary during the assembly session in March last, acknowledged the serious situation while promising phased measures under Centrally-sponsored tiol Water Quality Sub-Mission to tackle arsenic and fluoride contamition. Among other measures, the State government needs to focus on year-round water quality monitoring and testing, while promoting rainwater harvesting techniques to augment groundwater resources in the long term. The Central Groundwater Board has pointed out that development of groundwater resources in the Northeast is still in scent stage. While there is little scope for this in hilly areas with rapid run-off, the many perennial springs can be developed for both small-scale irrigation and domestic purposes. In the plains though, the abundant rains can be harvested. But with the rains here concentrated in only four months while the rest of the year goes dry, it is high time for the State government and NGOs to popularise water harvesting and move to preserve tural water bodies. This is a cause for which we can all do our little bit.