Microbial Contamination of Water and Child’s Health


Atifa Khatoon lives with her parents and three siblings in the informal urban settlement of Bhootnath in West Guwahati, Kamrup district. A student of Kaliram Baruah Girls’High School in Bharalumukh, Atifa carries a water bottle to school every day like the rest of her friends. But in a class of 30 students, Atifa is the only one who drinks water collected from a hand pump.

“We collect water from a hand pump and it is our only source for drinking water. I don’t like the taste of boiled water, so I just fill my water bottle directly from the pump,” says Atifa who frequently falls sick and complains of stomach pain and diarrhea, and sometimes even misses school.

Atifa’s mother stores water in wide-mouthed aluminum pots or kalashis, and though the pots looked sparkling clean, the family members were found lacking awareness on basic water handling practices. When we asked for a glass of water, Atifa inserted her hand into the pot to draw water in a glass. Her mother chided her for doing so, though she admitted it was a regular practice. In many cases, it has been noticed that parents who are concerned about their children’s health hardly make an effort to teach their kids water safety rules and correct handling practices. Children are particularly vulnerable to waterborne diseases. Their small bodies take in a disproportionately large quantity of water and its contaminants, and their immune systems are not equipped to fight off E. coli, giardia, the typhoid bacteria or other pathogens present in contaminated water.

It has been 25 years since Atifa’s parents moved into the informal settlement in Bhootnath that houses around 200 families. But, have they been drinking safe water all this while? We collected the water sample from the hand pump situated over a shallow pit covered with muck and garbage, and also from the storage pot at their household. Upon analysis, it was found that the water from the source was heavily infected with coliform bacteria, and the storage water was also found to be mildly contaminated, thereby rendering it unsafe for drinking. The tests were carried out using Blue Bacta vials, and the presence of bacteria in the samples was confirmed within 48 hours after collection. The results were conveyed to Atifa and her parents who had been ignorant for so long on how contaminated water was affecting their family’s health. They were advised to use safety measures to overcome the problem at the user level – boiling the water before drinking, proper handling of water from transportation point to storage, keeping the pots covered, sterilizing the utensils used for storage and following hand washing practices. Since little Atifa does not like the taste of boiled water, it was suggested that she could vigorously shake the water bottle after letting it cool. This would increase the air content and also improve the taste somewhat to her liking.

There are hundreds of children like Atifa today drinking contaminated groundwater. The families in the informal settlement at Bhootnath lack access to safe and regular supply of drinking water. Here children are raised in crowded shacks without adequate sanitation and with the risk of water-borne diseases. Over the years, contaminants and hazardous waste have made their way through the soil into the groundwater supplies in the settlement.

According to the World Health Organziation (WHO), safe drinking water is water with microbial, chemical and physical characteristics that meet WHO guidelines or national standards on drinking water quality. Excessive amount of microbes or chemicals from human and animal waste, agricultural overflow, industrial chemicals, and even natural pollutants can lead to contamination of water causing various water-borne diseases like diarrhea, gastroenteritis, typhoid and cholera. As per a WHO report, poor water quality, sanitation and hygiene account for some 1.7 million deaths a year world-wide, mainly through infectious diarrhea and 90% of those affected are kids under five.

Water quality depends partly on land use and how water resources are managed and protected. The quality of drinking water can be affected if water sources are not protected or are unexpectedly contaminated by a secondary source. Such contamination can occur at the source of the water – both at the surface and in the ground. Once the water is in the distribution system, there are additional factors that might lead to contamination – improper storage and water handling practices, contaminated or broken water pipes, water not treated/filtered at the reservoir level among others.

At the household level, the reliability of the distribution system that provides water to the people is crucial in maintaining quality. According to a report released by the Centre of Environmental Information System (ENVIS Centre), Assam, there is inadequate supply of water in most of the urban areas of Assam including Guwahati. About 30% of the total population in Guwahati is dependent on water supplied by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) from the Brahmaputra River. The rest of the people generally depend on ground water source for drinking and other domestic purposes.

Other factors of groundwater contamination include sanitation systems, landfills, effluent from wastewater treatment plants, leaking sewers, naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic or fluoride etc. Diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery may be caused by contamination from septic tank waste while poisoning may be caused by toxins that have leached into well water supplies. 

A survey on safe drinking water carried out by a group of students from Nagaon Bengali Girls’ High School in 2015 under the guidance of Aparna Bhattacharya and experts from the PHE (Public Health Engineering) Department, Nagaon had highlighted some interesting observations. It was completed in three parts – Pre Monsoon, Monsoon and Post Monsoon. From the total number of samples collected from various safe and unsafe sources, it was found that a good number of water samples collected from safe sources were contaminated at the household storage level.

The survey concluded that poor environmental surroundings, sanitation systems built within the house without maintaining a standard distance from the source, presence of stagnant water bodies nearby are some of the reasons for microbial contamination of water. It was mostly observed that water from safe sources got contaminated at storage level due to incorrect water handling practices.

It was also observed that tube well contamination was more pronounced during the monsoon season compared to the dry season. Tube wells are generally contaminated with fecal pathogens. However, unsafe handling during storage in the household is the dominant factor for contamination of tube well drinking water. Experts are of the opinion that safe storage of water can significantly reduce diarrhea among children.

Maitrayee Pal stays with her grandparents at a busy locality in Nagaon town. They now have access to water supply from the municipality, which Maitreyee says is filtered before drinking. A year ago, the family used to collect water from the tubewell for drinking and other domestic purposes including washing utensils, bathing and cooking. During the monsoon period, Maitreyee had participated in the school survey and had tested water both from the tube well source at home and after storing it in the water bottle. It was found to be contaminated both at the source and storage levels.

“I was not scared with the results. It was always known to us that the tube well water was contaminated as it was of a reddish colour and also tasted different. I suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhea because I would drink the water without boiling it,” said Maitreyee.

She led us to her house to help carry out a second test to determine bacterial contamination. This time around, water was directly collected from the tube well in a vial. A sample was also collected from where the drinking water was stored. Maitreyee said, “We no longer drink water from the tube well. We filter and use the municipality water for drinking.”

Within 48 hours, the test results surprisingly revealed that the water sample collected from the source was safe, whereas the storage sample was contaminated.

“Having a water source or supply point at/near home does not necessarily mean that the water is safe to drink. There are several problems that can endanger the quality of the drinking water and some diseases can occur by drinking improperly treated water. It is required to treat and disinfect drinking water before distributing it to the public, because of the possible presence of pollutants. Even if the water is safe at the source, it may be contaminated during transportation, storage and handling at home. As such, safer handling practices at the household level can make a great difference,” says Nripendra Sharma, Asst Executive Engineer, PHED, Nagaon     .

Experts say that boiling water is a well-known technique to prevent bacteriological contamination and it must be boiled for at least 10 minutes to imply that the water has reached a sufficiently high temperature. The boiled water must be stored separately to reduce the risk of recontamination during storage and drawing. On the other hand, bio-sand filtration can also be used as a simple, cheap and effective means to get rid of disease-causing micro-organisms from contaminated water. 

Eshani Das, another student who participated in the survey says, “This experience has been an eye opener for all of us. Now, I avoid drinking water outside – at food stalls or restaurants. I carry my own bottle of boiled water and follow all safety rules.”

Aparna Bhattacarya, under whose supervision the water survey was carried out believes that efforts should be made at local schools to educate both parents and communities, but that greater emphasis should be given on spreading awareness among women.

“Parents should have knowledge on safe water, sanitation and hygiene, but it is more important to educate mothers as traditionally they play a major role when it comes to these issues at the household level. They are the ones affected the most by the lack of water and sanitary facilities. Special efforts should be made to include women in all communication activities. Emphasis should be given on trying to provide them with leadership roles,” says Aparna.

Every year during the monsoon season, the Water Quality Task Force of the Assam PHE Department puts up a campaign to prepare communities in managing their water sources and taking precautionary measures to prevent water-borne diseases. This campaign was first implemented in three districts of Assam – Kamrup, Morigaon and Nagaon, using mobile testing vans for onsite analysis of drinking water sources. The PHED in collaboration with UNICEF had also taken up a drive for testing water contaminated with arsenic or fluoride during the monsoon season. They had visited remote districts and collected ground water samples from different areas. Moreover, for almost a decade now, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati in collaboration with the PHED, Assam and UNICEF has been working towards the development of sustainable mitigation strategies in arsenic affected areas of Assam. According to a report released by the Water and Sanitation Support Organization (WSSO) of the state PHED, thirty per cent of the total 56,180 water sources tested during a comprehensive screening and monitoring programme in 2006-2011 were found to have arsenic contamination above the permissible limit.

Experts, however, consider microbiological contaminants as a significant contributor since it is a matter of immediate threat to water safety and health. Though chemical contamination has been the prominent subject for media to focus, there are emerging stories of people falling sick due to microbial/bacteriological contamination which has raised serious concerns.

“A wide variety of bacterial and protozoan pathogens excreted in feces are capable of initiating waterborne infections. Contaminated water can cause many types of diarrheal diseases, including cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. It is important to keep clean, maintain proper hygiene and sanitation practices. One of the best ways to prevent diarrheal diseases is to wash hands with soap after defecating, after handling babies’ feces, before preparing food, feeding children, or eating,” says Dr Madhusmita Das, Department of Microbiology, Jorhat Medical College.

Weather influences the transport and dissemination of microbial agents through rainfall and water logging, thus facilitating the survival and/or growth of bacteria under different temperature conditions. It is therefore of utmost importance to maintain safe water practices during the time of flash floods in the city that occur with little or no warning. It is important to boil drinking water at all levels before using. Wells should be pumped out and the water should be tested before drinking. Faulty drainage systems can increase the risk of contamination. Spraying of disinfectants can be useful in destroying as well as preventing the spread of microbes. However, it is a greater challenge to fight contamination after the floods in both rural and urban areas, for once the water level recedes there is a risk of contamination events including outbreak of water borne diseases. It is mandatory to clean your private/individual water tanks after the monsoon and at least once every year. School authorities should ensure that water tanks are cleaned at least three times a year.

Many people enjoy the benefits of a home water filtration system, but not everyone takes care to maintain it or take out time to clean it. It is crucial to clean filter candles and scrub away any accumulated dirt that might lead to the buildup of bacteria or viruses. Wall mounted purifiers used in many households can actually turn out to be a breeding box for bacteria if not cleaned regularly and if the cartridges are not replaced.

UNICEF has been working in close collaboration with the state government and the NGOs to strengthen the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme in schools under the RTE Act. The greater need is to educate young children on safe handling of drinking water both at home and in school. 

A laudable initiative in this regard was carried out by the NGO called Eco Concept in collaboration with the PHE Department, Guwahati. A total of 1052 water samples were collected from 129 villages in the Rani-Deepor Beel-Gorchuk belt, for bacteriological analysis. A group of students from different schools around Kamrup (Metro) district were trained to carry out tests using field testing kits (FTKs) provided by PHED. The analysis was done on parameters including pH level, hardness, residual chlorine, iron and bacterial traces in drinking water. From a total of 1052 samples, 96 samples (9.12%) were found to be contaminated. Gorchuk recorded the highest number of samples tested positive for microbial contamination.

Nilutpal Das, President, Eco Concept says, “We impart knowledge to school children on ways of purifying water, sanitation and hygiene by demonstrating the correct way of washing hands and handling drinking water. It had been observed that groundwater accounts for the highest percentage of bacteriological contamination. People should be made aware on the operation and maintenance of tube wells, wells and the need to keep their surroundings clean.”

Despite high maintenance to ensure water safety, our systems may never be perfect unless we take responsibility for our own health. Providing safe water is an essential step for human health and development. By supporting clean water initiatives, public health programmes, microbial monitoring and measures to improve water and wastewater treatment systems, we can each contribute towards providing clean and safe water for our children and families. Together, we can save millions of lives.

This story is part of the Sanitation Scribes Project.

Karishma Hasnat

Karishma Hasnat

Karishma Hasnat is a journalist with a proven track record in print and broadcast media. She started with 'The Sentinel' in 2005 and had been associated with the regional television channel, News Live, for six years. A writer and an animal enthusiast, Hasnat has a keen interest in photography.