KOCHI/THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Picture perfect rivers and backwaters. Joy to the beholder, and pride to the Malayali. Beneath the sheen, though, lies something sinister - Escherichia coli, a bacteria normally found in the intestine. In simple terms, human excreta. In abundance. And Kerala is gearing up to shout from the rooftops, in a month’s time, ‘We are an Open Defecation Free state’!
Technically, yes. But ecologically, it makes little sense to boast of ODF status if ‘closed defecation’ cannot prevent faecal matter from finding its way into the ‘open’ waters. E.coli thrive in excrement thrown into the water bodies from just about every nook and cranny along the voluptuous paths of these once pristine natural beauties.
Very little of the process is secretive. Sans septic tanks, most toilets are little more than ‘sheds’ with outlets running right into rivers, lakes, canals and backwaters. Wells aren’t immune to the malaise either. For pit toilets - coupled with a high density of population - ensure wells close by are never in short supply of the bacterium.
Confounding matters are the state’s high water table and the surreptitious dumping of septage collected from elsewhere in water sources. Conceding surface and groundwater sources are highly polluted, Kerala State Pollution Control Board chairman K Sajeevan said: “It's for the local bodies to ensure a proper waste management system. But due to lack of funds our underground sewer system projects are getting delayed. This results in filth flowing into water. There's an urgent need to ensure safe disposal of human waste.”
Is the government just happy to announce Kerala an ODF state? More importantly, has the government given any serious thought to eradicating the shameful practice? Statistics, or the lack of it, do not suggest so. No data is available so far about the number of households using toilets without septic tanks. Perhaps, no survey has been commissioned to that effect!
Researchers say almost 80 per cent of our water sources have a very high concentration of E.coli. Even the water distributed by the Kerala Water Authority after clarification, filtration and disinfection is not safe unless boiled, experts warn. The latest edition of ‘Environmental Monitoring Programme on Water Quality’ by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE) and Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) reveals the extent of pollution and E.coli contamination in six river basins: Ithikkara, Pallikkal, Uppala, Ayiroor, Manjeswar and Mamom.
The 2016 report - jointly authored by KSCSTE joint director Kamalakshan Kokkal and CWRDM scientist P S Harikumar - concludes that the high value of total coliform and faecal coliform indicate increasing pollution through the discharge of sewage and domestic effluents into rivers. Bacteriological analysis of groundwater samples also indicated presence of pathogenic organisms like E.coli.