Conversation on “Water: A Blind Spot in Public Health” held in Guwahati

By Anindita Das

(Photos by Sohim Alam)

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The implication of water-borne diseases seems to be well-known fact yet ignored in our public discourse. Inspite of knowing about water contamination, people do not take enough precautionary measures to prevent it from affecting their health. The need to create awareness about safe drinking water as well as hygienic water practices among people was the topic of the conversation organized by Sanitation Scribes on Feb 28, 2016 in the Assam Engineering Institute Grounds in Chandmari, on the occasion of National Science Day.

The conversation which focused primarily on “Water- A Blind Spot in Public Health”, took place amidst a vibrant panelist like Prof. Chandan Mahanta of IIT, Guwahati, Zerifa Wahid (actor), Sweta Patnaik (WASH Specialist, UNICEF), Manisha Chawla (Health Specialist, UNICEF), Nripendra Sharma, (Engineer, PHE), Sanghamitra Dey of Arya Vidyapeeth College, Journalist Karishma Hasnat, Ratnadip Choudhury of Deccan Herald and Gaurav Das of Times of India. Students from IIT, Arya Vidyapeeth College and Nogaon Bengali Girl’s High School also participated in the conversation.

Highlighting the fact that children are the worst victims of water borne diseases, Tahseen Alam, Communication Officer, UNCEF, Assam, spoke about the different types of contamination of water, either chemical or microbial, which affect human health. Briefing the panelists and the participants about the aim of the conversation, she said it is to reach out to the student community in Guwahati to orient them on the importance of safe water and sanitation, focussing mostly on water quality while touching upon larger issues of WASH. It also wished to encourage college students to create a campus network on WASH and initiate actions among the student community to generate awareness on WASH issues.  

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Prof. Mahanta, the moderator of the conversation discussed the technicalities related to contamination of water. He pointed out to ponder over how safe is bottled water and the water we get from tap. Even ground water, which is supposed to be pure, is actually not so. In Darrang district, 400 hand pumps were contaminated due to sanitary breakage. For such reason testing becomes very necessary. Patnaik, continuing with the discussion said that people usually drink water when they are thirsty rather than thinking of its health benefits. “There are different sources of water, using different mechanism. The government used to have a filtration system, but from user point of view adequate testing and practice need to be taken care of. Ground water is apparently pure, but for different reason it can also be contaminated, making it absolutely imperative to manage water sources,” she further remarked.

The presentation named “Water Quality and Health” by Runti Chodhury, Research Scholar, IIT, Guwahati drew attention to the fact that Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children, and is responsible for killing around 760000 children every year. In Assam, specifically in the tea gardens, poor water and sanitation hygiene claims many lives every year. An initiative was taken by making provision for mobile water testing labs to eradicate and control bacteriological contamination during monsoon, in order to bring awareness in the rural population of Assam regarding their drinking water, to reduce incidence of water borne diseases viz. Diarrhea and Cholera. The campaign directed to the fact that health risk to the population is greater from microbiological and chemical contamination though the latter receive more attention. Microbiological contamination mitigation may be easier than chemical contamination via improved water source management. This was done involving community participation, explaining them the use of proper sanitation and hygiene. The aim is to reduce child mortality rate, taking it as a millennium development goal.

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Another presentation by the students of Nogaon Bengali Girls High School made it apparent how a pro-active student community can herald change within their limited scope. They have spread awareness on safe water handling practices around them. Nripendra Sharma held that after such a project, it is essential to disseminate awareness. Zerifa Wahid shared her experience of using supply water which is always yellowish. For that reason water is treated by purifying and boiling for consumption, still it does become clean. “I now will always try to spread the message of water safety in all cultural functions I attend.”

Journalist Karishma Hasnat expressed her concern over the fact that in Guwahati the schools do not see any initiative regarding awareness on water safety. The children living in the filthy environment of slums become vulnerable to fatal water borne diseases. As for Gaurav Das, “Water is a rare commodity. We get an erratic water supply with arsenic and microbial contamination”.

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Ratnadip Choudhury expressed his resentment over the fact that the politicians never flag these issues in their election manifesto. “No agenda is set till date. Many things can be done, for instance we can use social media to disseminate awareness. We need to come up with all effort to do so, setting a model for it. These issues are not covered enough in the media. In this regard Sanitation Scribes with the support UNICEF has taken a noble initiative, which is commendable and required to be carried forward”.

Teresa Rehman, Managing Editor of The Thumb Print hoped that this conversation will be carried forward in the form of campus sanitation networks.

Anindita Das

Anindita Das

Anindita Das is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of English, Gauhati University. She contentedly follows her heart by being a content writer and dabbles at poetry which is her passion. While music soothes her soul, she travels and reads to unwind herself. Another favourite pastime she indulges in is cooking her way into anybody’s heart.