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The Parched Himalayan Villages

April 4, 2012 - Dehradun

On 6th March this year, the United Nations announced that the international target to halve the number of people who do not have the access to safe drinking water has been met, five years before the 2015 deadline.

Between 1990 and 2010 more than two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Programme for water supply and sanitation (JMP).

What came as a pleasant surprise was that of the two billion people who have gained access to drinking water since 1990, almost half live in China or India. For India, with 17 percent of world population and access to only 4 percent of world's renewable water resources and only 2.6 percent of the land area, providing safe drinking water to one and all is a huge challenge and being able to achieve the current status demanded the right strategies and intent.

Undoubtedly, we are on the right track but can we sit back satisfied? We must not. Recently, Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development, while answering questions during the Rajya Sabha session, repeatedly pointed towards the need to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to the rural regions of the country. He surely isn't satisfied with the current situation - same as a person sitting in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, ironically waiting for the local authorities to listen to his request for safe drinking water.

The Himalayan range in Uttarakhand state is responsible for fulfilling the water requirements of a large population in the country, but as the local saying goes- the water and the beauty of the mountain do not serve its people. There is an acute shortage of safe drinking water in the foothills of Himalayas. To overcome the situation, the Government of Uttarakhand is planning to come up with 432 several small-big dams, far from the idea of exploring the traditional water reserves.

Over the years, locals have suffered due to the inefficiency of the state government to provide them with safe drinking water - one of the requisites for good health. Tahseel headquarter, Garud is just 19 km away from Bageshwar Janpad Headquarter where the sub-divisional magistrate and Tehsildar are based. There are six hand pumps and two nalahs, an ancient system of water management, all in bad condition. Hand pumps throw up contaminated water, evident in the yellowing pots used for storing water.

The department of water supply fixed a filter in one of the hand pumps; yet, the water from these hand pumps is not clean enough to be used for drinking.

In 2009, the Himalayan Trust collected water samples from 20 different villages and conducted quality test on them. The results, as expected, reflected the gravity of the situation: 60 percent of the samples were unfit for drinking. This exposes the poor strategy adapted to provide drinking water to the villagers - hand pumps are installed without testing the quality of soil and water.

Hem Chandra, a young man from the village, said, "All the hand pumps in our village throw up polluted water. Unfortunately, we are bound to use this contaminated water as we do not have any other source of water." According to Anil, a member of the NGO Himalayan Swarajya, who also lives in this village, the department should, instead of increasing the number of hand pumps in a village, provide only two filter-fitted hand pumps, and take steps to clean it every year. This has not happened, resulting in water shortage.

Many villagers have dared to raise their voice and bring the problem to the notice of the administration. Sadal Mishra is one such person. With suppressed agitation he shares with us the administrative failure and negligence of the government to address the water issue. The nearby Primary Health Centre is crowded with dozens of victims of polluted water. Most of them are diagnosed with water borne diseases like diarrhea and jaundice.

When we contacted the Executive Engineer of Drinking Water Department, he was on a foreign visit to share at the international platform the success of his department in installing several hand pumps in remote villages in order to provide "safe" drinking water to the rural communities!

The locals are aware of the irresponsible attitude of the Drinking Water and Irrigation Department but they do expect the SDM and Tahsildar to listen to their requests. Carrying out inspection would be a good start. In front of a poorly managed hand pump, a signboard reads, "Adarsh Gram Gadser" (Ideal Village Gadser), ironical in the face of the current situation of the village.

If this is the situation under the nose of the Tehsildar, one can only imagine the condition of the rest of the villages lying in the remote foothills of the Himalayas. We have lost the traditional sources of water and are looking for options, which will further damage the environment. Steps should be taken to restore traditional methods and conserve every drop of water.

The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that like drops of water, we need to come together to create a massive sea of community. By Vipin Joshi


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