Countless people, local and visitors alike, queue up to fill a variety of containers, from empty oil cans and much used buckets through to plastic bottles and fancy flasks, with water gushing out from a filth encrusted pipe on the edge of Kashmiri Bazaar in the Galiat region of the country. The scene is far from bucolic: The water pipe, ‘garlanded’ with the remains of plastic bags and indescribable bits and pieces of obviously unhygienic gunk, emerges from between a couple of boulders that serve to channel the cold water down from the populated heights above and where, needless to say, sewage systems do not, on the whole, exist.

The entire area is thickly coated with slime and a mishmash of garbage, which should make any relatively sensible person to think twice before waxing lyrical about the ‘purity’ and ‘healing properties’ of the water they so enthusiastically collect. True to say that many local people have no other source of drinking water other than this dangerously polluted stream, but the supposedly educated visitors to the area do have choice aplenty, yet, ignoring the obvious, they totter up the rough access path in high heels and designer clothes to fill their containers and haul the water away - often as far as Lahore and Peshawar where, if they succumb to stomach bugs or other ills, they can conveniently blame anything, but the ‘magical’ spring water for their ailments.

Before anyone leaps to the stream’s defence: The water has been collected and scientifically and medically analysed by professionals at the Combined Military Hospital in Murree and has been classified as ‘unfit for human consumption’ due to the amount of contaminants, including worm eggs, it contains. It can, if no other alternatives are available, be drunk after being thoroughly boiled and filtered, but, even then, its safety is questionable and exactly the same applies to a tiny spring emptying into a small basin of rock by the roadside just outside Gariyal.

It is an acceptable fact of life that the indigenous local population does have to use this water and it also goes without saying that very few, if any of them, take the trouble of boiling and filtering it first. But one would expect ‘educated’ people from elsewhere to have more sense. It could very well be that the water in both the Kashmiri Bazaar stream and the Gariyal spring was, once upon a time and decades ago, perfectly pure and safe to drink. But this has most certainly not been the case for many years now and people need to recognise and accept that things have changed, instead of adhering to stories that no longer apply.

It is, frankly speaking, incredible that educated people are able to totally ignore the filthy conditions dominating not just these two water sources, but the entire area when, the writer has personally witnessed this, they will walk into a local restaurant and demand sealed bottles of mineral water along with their meal.

The purity of drinking water throughout the length and breadth of the country is highly questionable at the best of times and, irrespective of the ‘apparent’ cleanliness of its source, is well known to be unsafe to drink unless boiled. That is why mineral water companies do an increasingly roaring trade - some of these companies break the law by bottling and selling polluted water as being safe to drink, and some, not all, have been both apprehended and prosecuted.

It is, perhaps, surprising that in these so-called ‘modern times’ only an estimated 48 percent of urban dwellers and a mere 19 percent of rural households currently enjoy the luxury of piped-in water as, let’s face it, easy access to potable water is one of the basic tenants of existence. It is equally horrifying that approximately 60 million people, out of a population guessed to be around 180 million, do not yet have access to clean drinking water here in Pakistan and, when one considers these figures realistically, it should, therefore, come as no surprise that in excess of 100,000 children die from drinking contaminated water each and every year - this figure is, probably, on the low side as far from all child deaths are medically analysed and correctly reported let alone recorded in the books of the relevant authorities.

The water situation in Pakistan, this is one of the countries forecast to be worst affected by climate change in the coming years, is increasingly dire: Per capita water availability has shrunk five-fold from 5,000 cubic meters in 1951 to 1,100 cubic meters in 2006 when the most recent World Bank collected figures were released and is, by now and with ever-increasing population expansion, possibly below the 1,000 cubic meters mark which means that we are incredibly short of water indeed.

We have not yet reached the point where access to any water at all is completely denied to the majority of the population, this excludes those people struggling to survive in harsh desert and arid mountain conditions, and it is imperative that before we do, all people are properly educated about water related health issues and are seriously cautioned about drinking un-boiled water from places such as mountain springs and streams.

Ignorance may very well be bliss, but it is an extremely dangerous, possibly life-threatening, form of bliss in which to indulge.

n    The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com