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Thar drinking water quality

March 09, 2013

THE water the people drink in Thar is a poison. It has dangerously high levels of fluorides -- as high as 32mg/l. In my 40 years of professional experience in water supply engineering, the maximum value of fluoride in drinking water that I came across was 7mg/l. The WHO guideline value for fluorides in drinking water is 1.5mg/l (WHO, 2008). The US Public Health Service has recommended an ‘optimal’ fluoride concentration of 0.7-1.2mg/l to prevent dental caries and minimise dental fluorosis.

Generally, people are given to understand that the adverse effects of fluorides are on dental aspect only. That is true. If fluoride level in drinking water is less than 0.5 g/l, it will result in dental caries. At the same time, the maximum value of fluoride in drinking water should not exceed 1.5mg/l. The health impacts of fluorides go beyond the dental aspect.

In 2006, the US National Research Council of the National Academies of Science released a major, authoritative report on fluoride toxicity. The report identified a range of other health effects of fluoride in drinking water, which include damage to the brain, disruption of the endocrine system (thyroid gland, pineal gland, and glucose metabolism), and bone cancer.

The report says: “On the basis of information largely derived from histological, chemical, and molecular studies, it is apparent that fluorides have the ability to interfere with the functions of the brain and the body by direct and indirect means.”

The report adds: “Fluorides also increase the production of free radicals in the brain through several different biological pathways. These changes have a bearing on the possibility that fluorides act to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”

What these findings mean in the context of Thar people is that during the episodes of family violence, joblessness and linger-on diseases the changes in brain brought about by high fluoride ingestion forces the affected people to resort to extreme action -- suicides. This is akin to suicides committed by depressed people due to serotonin changes in brain.

It is the responsibility of the Sindh government to provide safe drinking water to the Tharis who have been suffering for the last three decades due to unsafe water. Through Resolution 64/292 the UN Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential for realisation of all human rights.

The NGOs of Thar should request the Bill Gates Foundation and USAID to come to their rescue. The Gates Foundation has paid grants of $25bn on water and sanitation; and USAID is already working on water sector in Sindh.

Specifically, Thar NGOs should ask for (a) availability of surface water, by building canal and conveying water from the nearest canal to the Thar region; (b) rapid sand-water treatment plant with the provision of advanced water treatment (activated carbon, selective ion exchange, membrane filtration, etc), since pesticides and heavy metals may be expected in raw water; and (c) extended aeration-based wastewater treatment plant, as the supply of adequate quantities of water will generate wastewater, which would require treatment.

Five years down the road, the Thar region can become lush green, with thriving economy and minimum of diseases and, for sure, suicide-free.

F.H. MUGHAL Karachi