How do you know if the water you are drinking is safe? Most of us take water for granted because it is always available. However, for water to be safe and clean for human consumption, it must be free from any hazards and contaminants, such as chemicals or bacteria.
Wastewater emanating from a variety of sources – such as domestic, commercial and surface run-offs – can contaminate drinking water sources if it is not disposed of properly or treated. Although most people in Pakistan have access to water, it is not always safe and clean for drinking purposes.
World Water Day is commemorated globally on March 22 to bring attention to the importance of water-related issues and advocate the sustainable management of water resources. This year’s theme focuses on wastewater and calls for efforts to improve access to reliable sources of clean water. This provides an opportunity to underscore the importance of safe and clean drinking water as a valuable investment to improve people’s health and well-being.
In the rural areas in the country, groundwater – which people rely on for drinking purposes – often contains a high concentration of salts and minerals. In contrast, water in urban areas is not always properly treated. This has, in the past, resulted in the outbreak of waterborne diseases in cities such as Faisalabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.
There are numerous testimonies about the positive impact that clean water can have on families. I am reminded of a field trip to Balochistan where we met Haji Mohammad Jan, who is a construction worker in Qilla Saifullah. His extended family of 22 – including 16 children – had benefited from a rehabilitated source that provided them access to safe drinking water. Haji Mohammad Jan recalled how for many years water was a precious item in the region and children had often suffered stomach ailments and diarrhoea after consuming contaminated water from an open source. After they began using the new source, the children seldom fell ill.
Rapid population growth and urbanisation in Pakistan have put additional strain on the already overburdened water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure. Urban slums and densely populated rural areas have to contend with the malfunctioning sewage systems and the lack of regulation on wastewater disposal. Untreated sewage water flowing into a river has the potential to harm people further downstream. This often leads to serious public health concerns – especially for Pakistani children, many of whom are already suffering from poor hygiene and chronic malnutrition. We need to collectively work on innovative solutions to tackle these challenges.
Positive examples show us what these solutions can look like. In Punjab, the Society for Empowerment and Environmental Protection – which is Unicef’s partner – installed solar-powered sewage water treatment systems in two villages. The technology makes the water cleaner, so it is safe for irrigation and does not contaminate the fresh water sources. Village sanitation committees were trained to maintain the equipment, allowing the community to continue to use safe and clean water.
It goes without saying that there are immense benefits of safe and clean drinking water on our health and well-being. As such, access to safe and clean water should not be a luxury. Everyone deserves access to clean water. The government has introduced many initiatives to address the issue, including the National Drinking Water Policy. This policy aims to provide adequate quantities of safe and clean drinking water to reduce the incidence of death and illness caused by waterborne diseases. However, more needs to be done to increase awareness about the importance of drinking safe and clean water. The federal and provincial governments need to strengthen mechanisms to ensure that the water people are drinking is safe and clean.
In addition, stronger management of wastewater could have countless economic benefits. It is widely known that farmers obtain better yields through fertiliser that is free of chemicals, compared to using fresh water. At Unicef, we approach our work from the only perspective that matters: the best interests of the child. This involves working with communities to promote simple methods to improve water before drinking. We also advocate proper management of wastewater to avoid the pollution of water sources. In doing so, we are not only improving children’s health but are also investing in their future.
The UN has recognised access to quality water and sanitation as an imperative for the realisation of human rights. This implies having access to affordable and safe water within a close proximity to the home. This is particularly important for women and girls, who tend to spend a lot of time collecting water for their households. Providing water in or close to their homes gives free time for other activities. It also protects girls and women from exposure to any risk of harm that may arise on their way to and from the water point.
Unicef lauds the government of Pakistan’s commitment to the sustainable development goals that aim to ensure adequate and equitable access to affordable, safe and clean water for everyone.
Serious consideration should also be given to the impact of wastewater management on the country’s social development. On its part, Unicef will continue to support the government in its efforts to ensure the provision of safe and clean drinking water for all and address the potential impact of the unregulated disposal and poor management of wastewater.
The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.