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Environment 13 March 2017 38 8314

Cry of a River. The trouble with India’s toilets and drinking water

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It’s surprising how long we can live without food, but without water, survival is impossible, that’s why it’s the most precious of our natural resources. Now though, only 1% of the world reserves are safely drinkable. Yet, we consistently fail to see or treat water as the life-giving treasure that it really is. Supplies are being contaminated with industrial and biological waste, aggravating a water crisis that is already crippling countries in every continent. Even India, which has tended to treat its waters with respect and awe, famously worshipping the River Ganges, has a cautionary tale to tell.

Related: India's Water Crisis: A Warning To The World

Hindu people believe that if their sacred Ganges should ever be lost, the Universe would disappear too. Locals who have lived and worked on the river since childhood confirm that water quality has deteriorated dramatically over the years. For generations it has been the local custom to cremate the deceased and scatter their ashes on the river. However, many poor people can’t even afford firewood, they often resort to water burials in the river without burning, inevitably, this causes even more pollution. As serious as the health risks are, that is just a small part of the Ganges’ wider pollution problems. Two other major factors are contributing to the river’s toxic decline; raw sewage flows directly into the once sacred water and factories dump huge quantities of chemical waste.

The proper disposal of human waste is a pressing issue in India with proper toilets a rarity in rural areas. Many millions of villagers never even consider installing a regular toilet, held back either by poverty or blind acceptance of the status quo. Defecating in streets and fields is unsanitary and leads to the faecal contamination of ground water and so, waterborne diseases are commonplace. The government is attempting to address the problem with financial support and education initiatives for villagers.

Related: Flint water crisis chronicles: the poisoning of an American city

Progress is slow though; there are already places in India where local water reserves are now unfit for human consumption, or even for agriculture. Kolkata for example, on the Ganges Delta, has an abundance of water but the city has to depend on freshwater deliveries because its own supplies are so contaminated, they can’t even be used for laundry let alone drinking.

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