By Azera Parveen Rahman
Sixty-year-old Pushpalata Naik of Sitalpur village remembers the time when they would drink water from the river close by or the pond without much of a fuss. “We would put lime in the water, strain it, and drink,”she said, “Nobody complained of any stomach problem or other diseases. But now, even the hand-pump water is so high in iron content that it leaves behind a stain in the vessel. And illnesses? Children constantly complain of stomach aches that increase during monsoons, when the floods come.”
When you can ‘see’ the change
We were sitting in Pushpalata’s home in the coastal Bhadrak district of Odisha where she and her daughter-in-law told us how the deteriorating water quality was causing frequent health problems in the family, particularly among the children. “Look at this,” Shantilata, the daughter-in-law said, pointing at a bucket of water brought from the village hand-pump. The water, after being allowed to stand for a few minutes, had left a reddish deposit at the bottom.
“Every few months, the hand-pump starts giving problem and we have to call the plumber to fix it. Most of the times he would say that the water-pipe has got eroded,”Shantilata said. To make the water potable, she strained it through a piece of cloth. The reddish deposit was now left behind in the cloth. She then boiled the rest of the water. “Now we can drink this,” she said.
Bad water means heavier medical bills
Both the women, however, still doubt the water quality, even after boiling. “Otherwise why would the children keep falling ill?” Pushpalata asked, “The nearest private hospital is three kilometres away and each time we visit the doctor, we have to shell out a minimum of Rs 1000. There are medicines to be bought and fares to be paid for commuting.” The doctor at the primary health centre, she added, was not always available.
In another village, Kaliapata, in the same district, Toposhree Rout said that the water that they use for bathing from the village hand-pump is saline and causes skin irritation. “Almost everyone in the village has suffered from one or the other kind of skin infection because of the saline water,”Toposhree said. Going to the doctor is not always the first option, Toposhree admitted, because it means a lot of expenditures. “We try home remedies like applying a turmeric paste or a paste made by grinding Gunduchi leaves. If that doesn’t work, then we go and see the doctor,” she said. When she couldn’t bear the itchiness all over her body any longer, Toposhree asked her husband to take her to the doctor. They went to a dermatologist in the state capital, Bhubaneswar. “We spent a total of Rs 5000 on the whole trip and all he gave was an ointment,” she said. The itchiness has gone now but Toposhree is not sure until when.
Roma Moni Rout, Toposhree’s neighbour, said that it has been 30 years since she has been married and living in Kaliapata and never had she experienced such grave problems with the water quality as in the “last seven-eight years”. “Salinity was always a bit of an issue here, but things have really become worse over the years. Earlier, we never had such skin irritation but now everyone has it. The water even smells bad now,” she said, “Look at the utensils. This water we use to clean them has turned them black.” Monsoons bring along a gamut of other health problems, especially water-borne diseases like gastrointestinal disorders, diarrhoea, and typhoid, as well as the threat of vector-borne diseases like malaria. In the Bhadrak district, the floods happen each year without fail – it is growing in its ruthlessness. Contamination of water sources poses major health threats to those already affected.
Back in Sitalpur, Pushpalata cannot imagine drinking water from the pond anymore. “The pond water is not fit for drinking anymore; it is saline,” she said. That increase in groundwater salinity is an indication of climate change. It is something Pushpalata does not understand but no one can understand its impact as well as she, or the others who suffer, does.