Making surface water safe for drinking

Making surface water safe for drinking

Babita Dalai, of Harasapara village in Puri district, leads us to the pond that the village draws its water from.  The pond, turbid and muddy, was their source of drinking water, cooking, washing and cleaning. Just about everything. 

“But we do not bathe animals in the pond,” says a curious onlooker. 

Well, that is just one thing off our minds. It does not, in anyway, take away the fact that the pond was unfit for use. In fact, the boundary of the pond is a site for open defecation. When it rains, one could very well imagine what happens - human faeces flows into the pond. This water is contaminated; it causes waterborne diseases like cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea and so on and so forth. 

Of course, they know it. 

In fact, a survey, conducted by SOLAR (a Puri based NGO) in 2013-14, showed that in Harasapara village the incidence of waterborne diseases was high between the months of April and July. 12% of the village reported sick in June-July. 

“But this was our only source of water. The river is a few kilometers away and the water from the handpump is high on iron- it is red in color, it smells bad and is unfit for drinking,” says the onlooker, Prasadin Biswal, who has now decided to join us. 

Puri is one of the 11 districts in Odisha that has very high levels of iron contamination. These are higher than the prescribed agreeable limits of iron contamination — 0.3 mg/l to 1 mg/l — approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Though not toxic like other heavy metals like lead and arsenic, high iron content is undesirable in potable water.   

Harasapara is one of the villages, in Kanas block, that Oxfam India and SOLAR jointly work in. Since 2013, they have been working towards making communities resilient. Puri, apart from contaminated water, is prone to natural disasters. Providing clean and safe drinking water was, thus, paramount. 

In 2014, Oxfam India and SOLAR built an innovative Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) model in the village. A freshly painted water tank, built on stilts, close to the pond is the model, we are told. “This is now our source of drinking water,” Babita says. The stress is on ‘now’.  The water tank has been their source of drinking water since 2014. Well, Mostly. 

The water tank – a flood-proof Pond Sand Filtration (PSF) unit – draws water (through an electric motor) from the pond, and cleans it by passing it through chambers of stone chips, sand and charcoal. The six-chambered unit filters out physical contaminants. WASH volunteers clean the unit regularly. The 10-feet high stilts make the water tank flood-proof. The Unit has the capacity to hold 10,000 liters of water. 

The PSF unit has helped reduce the dependency of the village on the pond. It provides almost year-round access to safe drinking water; especially during floods, it can treat both rainwater and flood water. “For us, this is the most viable option for drinking water. The incidence of diseases like typhoid and diarrhea has reduced. But it would be better if we could use the same for cooking as well. We need more units to meet our other requirements,” says Babita. Apart from the 250 households in the village, an additional 30 from the neighbouring village collects water from the tank. 

But before more PSF units are built, it is important to ensure this one runs at its full capacity.  An electric motor, run a couple of hours every morning, draws water into the tank. A hand pump fitted to the unit, serves as an alternative when there is no electricity. Getting safe drinking water is, thus, contingent to erratic electric supply; using the hand pump to fill the overhead tank is an onerous task. This means that villagers have to go back to the handpump, river or pond. 

Perhaps here lies the scope to innovate and improve its longevity. In order to keep the tanks running at all times, sources of renewable energy like solar panels could be used. The electricity generated from the solar panels can be used to draw water. This will ensure water is available for cooking as well. 

As we spoke some women headed towards the pond with their load of unwashed clothes and utensils, others with their aluminum pots queued up at a tap below the water tank. They chipped in. “Because of the long queues sometimes we simply collect water from the pond.” 

Perhaps, building an additional storage tank will ease the long queues, which clearly are a huge deterrent for women. Women have to juggle water collection and rest of the household chores, so time is of the essence. A solar panel and storage tank will ensure that women can collect water whenever they want to and not compromise on the water quality – either for drinking or cooking– and their health.



Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator- Development Practices, Oxfam India

Photo credit: Animesh Prakash

Humanitarian Response and DRR

Oxfam India saves lives by building the resilience of communities to disasters and conflict

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