It is neither a revelation nor a surprise that majority of Pakistanis are consuming poisoned water in treated and untreated forms. High rates of child mortality, kidney failures, liver cancers, hepatitis, gastronomical diseases, stunted growth and deformities are all because of the treated (mineral starved pure brands of bottled water) and untreated water. Drinking water for prolonged use has to be rich in minerals/nutrients and also hydrating for the body and blood stream.
It must be remembered that natural water is a rich source of minerals and nutrients for the body. In a country where majority lives below poverty line, water is a cheap source of minerals. The integrity of beneficial minerals must never be lost in water with dissolved solids less than 1,000 parts per million. The emphasis must be on selective removal of contaminants. The government and water companies must strive to deliver mineral rich natural water with over 300 mineral rich compounds rather than purified RO water with less than ten laboratory induced mineral compounds.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of Saaf Pani Company in Punjab. The CEO of the company informed the apex court that Rs150 billion had been allocated for the whole project while 116 plants had been installed at a cost of Rs4 billion. He also informed that Rs300 million had been spent on the services of foreign consultants. A day later, it was contradicted by Punjab Chief Secretary Zahid Saeed that despite Rs. 4 billion being spent on the Saaf Pani Project, not a single drop of clean water was made available to the people.
There is no doubt that Saaf Pani is a top heavy organisation with hefty pays and privileges to management, foreign consultants and still in process of reinventing a needless wheel. Whatever the scale of mismanagement and corruption in Saaf Pani Company, the water industry in Pakistan knows fully well that this is just the beginning and failure of yet another non-deliverable cycle that began much earlier in 2004. For the fourth time results will be no better.
So if the Supreme Court of Pakistan and National Accountability Bureau wish to impose justice, they must go back to 2004 and investigate how a largely foreign funded water initiative was mismanaged for greed and quick money. Hitting only at Saaf Pani Company and allowing others to go scot free will be perversity of justice and accountability. The Supreme Court must summon all ministers and Director Generals of these projects from 2004-2013 to ensure that Justice is inclusive.
It began as a Clean Drinking Water for All (CDWA) under the ministry of environment in 2004. Having failed miserably, it was taken over by the so called vibrant and innovative Minister of Industries in 2007. Ministry of Science and Technology was coopted as a minion. The name was changed to Clean Drinking Water Initiative (CDWI). The management lacked professionalism, knowledge and commitment and went the way of Saaf Pani. The ministry after having de-tracked the project and failed palmed off the sick initiative to a new Ministry of Special Initiatives that ran out its mandate in 2013 after the 18th Amendment. The project was in doldrums. Soon after devolution availability of huge funds commensurate to populations in Punjab and Sindh activated the two provincial governments towards water projects. The delivery to a common man remained pathetic.
The story of poisoned water in Sindh is no different. The government of Sindh put emphasis on expensive, high energy consumption reverse osmosis plants in Tharparker. It ignored urban, central and upper Sind that needed much cheaper conventional adsorption plants for removal of arsenic, fluoride, microorganisms, nitrites and coliform. The priorities went where the money was.
This poisoning of water can be categorised as untreated water supplies from the municipalities cross contaminated by sewage. This cross contamination exists because of distribution systems alongside sewage lines and faulty septic tanks that contaminate ground water with fecal material, coliforms and nitrites.
Nitrogen is a nutrient for plants. Nitrate contamination occurs when there are more nitrates than the plants consume. Other sources of nitrate in groundwater include waste dumps, animal feedlots, landfills, lack of sewage disposal and defective septic tanks. Groundwater contamination is enhanced when the soil is sandy or gravely (North Punjab and KPK) due to a high hydraulic conductivity. Contamination is more likely in areas where the water table is close to the surface, or results from seepage of faecal matter.
This also causes Lake Eutrophication (Rawal and Simli Lakes) and effects human health. The major concern affecting human health pertains to infants less than six months of age. This health hazard is due to a bacterium that exists in gastrointestinal tract and converts nitrate to nitrite (NO2). The nitrite produced then reacts with hemoglobin to form methemoglobin, which does not carry oxygen. As more and more hemoglobin is converted, the infant receives less oxygen to the brain resulting in slate blue skin, vomiting, diarrhea, mental retardation and suffocation leading to death. This is known as “blue baby” syndrome. The reaction with amines and amides produces cancer and kidney failure, a reason that explains high density of dialysis centers around Lei and Korang Nullahs in Rawalpindi-Islamabad. Nitrates and Nitrites can be effectively removed through a selective ion exchange media.
Arsenic is a toxic element that can cause hyper pigmentation, deformation of bones, skin and liver cancer and circulatory disorders in all forms of life. Arsenic occurs naturally in sea, ground water in areas of high geothermic activity and mountainous terrains. In ground waters, arsenic is present in the inorganic form as an oxyanion in the trivalent and pentavalent states in both anaerobic and aerobic waters. The best method of removing it from water is through a Ferric Hydroxide Adsorption media that guarantees waste disposal. Reverse Osmosis produces high quantities of concentrated arsenic that further contaminate the environment. Every arsenic removal design must include waste disposal.
High levels of arsenic and fluoride are found in Central and Southern Punjab, Upper, Central and Lower Sindh. Upper Sindh below the Kirthar range has the highest levels of Arsenic contamination in Pakistan.
Because the water treatment industry in Pakistan is mostly run by quacks and not scientific process engineering a sledge hammer solution to all water contamination is through reverse osmosis. This method leaches water of all minerals and dumps 30-60% concentrated waste that causes further environmental contamination. Ideally this solution should only be applied to water with dissolved solids above 1000 parts per million with a backup waste disposal method.
Every household must know that boiling water only kills microorganisms. In addition it precipitates calcium and magnesium that are essential to human health. Boiling water increases permanent hardness and with it the levels of arsenic, nitrates, nitrites, cyanide, baron and uranium in water. In other words, it concentrates the poison.
So next time think before you boil the water, or purchase a kitchen RO unit.
One drop of kitchen bleach in 18 liter bucket of water left overnight and strained with a filter/folded gauze cloth is the best home remedy. It will kill all bacteria and reduce 20-30% arsenic.
The writer is CEO of a water treatment company with projects in Pakistan, USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Norway. The company provides world’s best arsenic removal technologies