Access to safe drinking water is not only the basic need and pre-condition for a healthy lifestyle but it is also a basic human right. At the same time, water is a scarce resource and its shortage usually results in economic and health crises. This can be assessed from global trends as well as from Pakistan’s national and local struggles for ensuring that its population has a sustained access to safe drinking water .

Comprising 137 tehsils in 36 districts, Punjab is the most populous of the five provinces of Pakistan, with an estimated population of over 100 million people. Main drinking water source is groundwater in the province, which once was considered to be safe , but over the years it is increasingly found to be contaminated with bacteriological and chemical pollutants.

Water contamination in rural areas is mainly caused due to discharge of domestic sewage directly or indirectly into water bodies, open defecation, agricultural run-off during rainy season containing chemical fertilizers and pesticides and effluents from agro-based industries.

Majority of population in the province is exposed to hazards of drinking unsafe and polluted water from both surface and ground water sources. Contaminated water is a source of many diseases including diarrhea, typhoid, intestinal worms and hepatitis. Four major contaminants in drinking water sources are bacteriological, arsenic, nitrate and fluoride.

Access to tap water is very low in rural areas ­- 13 per cent -- as compared to 43 per cent in urban areas of the Punjab and quality of drinking water remains substandard as the major sources are hand pumps and turbines supplying contaminated or brackish water to local populations.

According to Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources Survey2011-12, it was found that 79 per cent sources of water supply schemes were unsafe for drinking . While, 88 per cent water supply schemes were found unfit at consumer’s end. Moreover, 35 per cent of the existing rural water supply schemes are either abandoned or non-functional.

Pakistan Social and Living Measurement Survey 2012-13 found that access to safe tap water is merely 13 per cent in rural Punjab.

Public Health Engineering Department survey carried out in association with UNICEF in 2014 highlighted that excessive chemical contamination comprising totally dissolved salts (TDS), arsenic, fluoride and nitrate has rendered water of 73 per cent of the total Punjab villages unfit for drinking . Percentage of contaminated water rises to 77 per cent if microbial contamination is also included. Resultantly, water-borne diseases are alarmingly affecting the health and economy of inhabitants of the province.

In 2010, UNICEF reported that diseases related to hygiene and water quality, such as diarrhea, contribute to Pakistan’s high child mortality rate, which accounts for 11 per cent of all deaths among children under the age of five with a total of over 40,000 deaths every year.

Punjab Health Department found that 2.8 million people were reportedly suffering from water-borne disease in Punjab during year 2014.

Lack of institutional capacity, weak water sector governance and inadequate investment in water sector coupled with poor operations and maintenance practices have contributed to uncontrolled water extraction and supply of contaminated water to the population in rural areas and settlements of the province.  

Realizing gravity of situation, government of the Punjab has launched multi-billion rupees robust program to provide safe and clean drinking water to marginalized and excluded segments of society inhibiting in far off villages and settlements of the province. 

For this purpose, Punjab Saaf Pani Company-South (PSPC-South) and Punjab Saaf Pani Company-North (PSPC-North) have been established to plan and execute the program with the aim of providing safe drinking water in phases. The safe drinking water program will cover villages and settlements in 137 tehsils to provide safe drinking water to over 56 million population in the Punjab province.

Geographically, districts of Punjab have been prioritized on the basis of poverty index, quality of water , service delivery and disease trend. Engineering Management Consultants (EMCs) led by international experts have been hired to carry out water quality and quantity survey of all areas, prepare GIS maps for all kinds of contamination, identify appropriate sources for water supply and carry out electrical resistivity survey (ERS) to determine aquifer quality and potential yield. They also conduct environment impact assessment (EIA) in the light of likely solution, propose treatment options based upon water quality, carry-out financial modeling to identify most cost effective option and prepare necessary documentation for hiring international engineering, planning and construction (EPC) contractors to implement water treatment projects.

Secondary data on water quality is also collected from all possible sources including but not limited to Public Health Engineering Department, Pakistan Council of Research in Resources (PCRWR), UNICEF, Local Government, Department of Land Reclamation, WAPDA, etc. all over Punjab.

Keeping in view the complexity of projects in terms of technology, sustainability, value for money  and associated risks, well-reputed international companies have been engaged for designing, procurement, installation, operation and maintenance of clean drinking water supply solutions across the province. Each contractor will be responsible for maintaining operations and maintenance of its plant at least for five years. 

As far as water treatment options are concerned, each contractor is bound to provide the most economically-feasible, technically-sound, environmentally and socially acceptable solution. Likely solutions include canal seepage based package plant involving sand filtration, activated carbon adsorption and disinfection. Contaminated canal seepage water will be treated by a contaminant specific column added to the package plant. Surface water from a reservoir will be treated using conventional treatment i.e. pre-sedimentation, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, dual filtration and disinfection. Surface water from a canal will be treated either through conventional treatment or slow sand filtration followed by disinfection.

If in certain areas the quantity of totally dissolved salt (TDS) is greater than 800 ppm, consultant will hunt for sweet water aquifer first. In case of failure, Reverse Osmosis Plant may be installed. In areas of small scattered communities where water TDS is less than 800ppm, Ultra Filtration Plant may be installed.

PSPC-South also forms Saaf Pani Tanzeems (SPTs) - village level community organizations - to take control of the projects in the longer run. These communities are mobilized to work with the company in acquiring land and running plants operations.  This is indeed a positive development that people in the rural areas of South Punjab have started getting safe drinking water . As many as 116 state-of-the-art water filtration plants have been installed in five tehsils of Lodharan, Hasilpur, Dunyapur, Khanpur and Minchinabad in Bahawalpur region, benefitting over 350,000 individuals in the area.

PSPC-South is all set to launching projects in Phase-I in twelve tehsils of eight districts, which will serve around 1,900 villages/settlement with an estimated population of 6.6 million. The eight districts include Lodhran (Lodhran tehsil), Bahawalpur (Hasilpur tehsil), Rahim Yar Khan (Khanpur tehsil), Muzaffargarh (Muzaffargarh tehsil), Rajanpur (Rajanpur Tribal Area & Rajanpur tehsils), Dera Ghazi Khan (Dera Ghazi Khan & Dera Ghazi Khan Tribal Area tehsils) and Faisalabad (Jaranwala, Chakjhumra, Faisalabad Saddar, Samundari tehsils).

The design work for all the above-mentioned twelve tehsils is in process by EMCs (Engineering Management Consultants). Two rounds of pre-qualifications of international contracting firms for eight tehsils of South Punjab (Tribal Areas, DG Khan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh, Laodhran, Khanpur and Hasilpur) have been completed. Pre-qualification of international contractors for other four tehsils (Sammundri, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad Saddar and Jaranwala) is in process. It is expected that the award of contracts of Phase-I would be completed by end year 2017 or at the start of year 2018. The average time for construction for each contract is planned to be 10 months.

The Punjab government is very much aware of the importance of clean drinking water because it understands that for poverty eradication, health and socio-economic progress, it must provide safe drinking water to rural communities.

This safe drinking water program is unique in the sense that it is for the first time in the history of Pakistan that such a gigantic step has been taken for ensuring provision of safe drinking water across the rural areas the province.

Once completed, safe drinking water program shall result in drastic cut in health expenditures and a transformed lifestyle of the communities in the biggest province of the country, who could not have imagined even in their wildest of dreams to have a sustained access to safe drinking water .

The writer is Manager-Corporate Communications at Punjab Saaf Pani Company-South.