High acidity in water threatens villagers in northeast India

by An AlertNet correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:20 GMT

By Amarjyoti Borah

Guwahati, Assam (AlertNet) - Thousands of villagers living near a power plant on the Kopili river in northeastern India are drinking and washing in water with dangerously high acidity levels, environmentalists and activists say.

Officials from the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), the government-owned hydro-electric project that stands on the banks of the Kopili in Assam state recently ran acidity tests on the water, which also feeds into a reservoir. They found pH levels as low as 4, a level experts say is alarming.

Â?When pH comes below 7 it is considered acidic ... It is a matter of concernÂ?, said Om Prakash Singh, a professor in the environmental department of the North East Hills University in Meghalaya, a neighbouring state.

Activists say acid effluent from unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya is polluting the water.

NEEPCO officials also said the acidic reservoir water had been seriously affecting the performance of the 275 Megawatt power plant, located at Umrangshu town in Assam, due to severe corrosion of the underwater parts of the generating units.

Â?We're worried about the present crisis of the Kopili plant because of the acidic nature of the reservoir water," NEEPCO Chairman and Managing Director Ishwar Prasad Baruah told reporters after seeing the test results.

Despite the findings, little is being done about the thousands of villagers who use the water from the Kopili river for household chores and for drinking and whose health is at risk, environmentalists say.

Â?The pH level is alarming. Since the pH level has been detected to be lower than 4.5 in some areas the presence of heavy metals is definite. If water containing heavy metals is consumed it could do a lot of damage to the human body," said Krishna Bhattacharya, a professor of chemistry at the Guwahati University in Assam.

State officials said they had no plans to take action, but they would if there was a crisis.

Â?We are aware that NEEPCO had tested the water of the Kopili river and found it to be acidic but there has been no study done by the government, and also we have not received any complaint from anyone," said S.N. Singh, a deputy commissioner of Umrangshu town.

Government doctors in Umransghu said they were not aware of the problem.

Â?We have not come across any medical case which could have been a result of the consumption of acidic water," said Dr. Subodh Sarmah, a doctor posted at the government medical centre at Umrangshu.

VILLAGERS STAY SILENT

More than 50 villages are dependent on the reservoir and downstream there are hundreds of villages which are dependent on water from the Kopili.

District officials said none of the villagers had complained about the acidic water but activists feel their silence is due to ignorance.

Â?Though the issue is alarming, very few of the villagers are aware of the consequences of consuming acidic water and how it could affect them," said Pankaj Gogoi, a researcher with Destination North East, a health-focused non-governmental organisation.

Lakpa Lama, a social worker and activist based at Umrangshu, said people's health was clearly being affected.

Â?Cases of several disorders of the stomach are in abundance in Umrangshu, it seems to be an outcome of the consumption of the acidic waterÂ?, she said.

Experts, however, say more information is needed to assess the situation properly.

Â?Consumption of acidic water can have a severe impact on the human body, starting from the mouth. There is a strong probability of the stomach being affected and ulcers being formed, but without a detailed study it is not possible to reach any concrete conclusion,Â? said Pronobika Mahanta, a doctor working with the Assam government.

COAL MINES POLLUTE

Experts say tests have shown that the coal mines of Meghalaya, near the North Cachar Hills District of Assam, are the likely cause of the pollution.

The Centre for Environmental Science of the North East Hills University in Meghalaya has found water surrounding the mines to be highly contaminated.

Â?The acidic water in the Kopili river is only one example, if a proper study is done more could be detected,Â? said Brian Daly, an activist with Meghalaya Adventure Association, which is battling for a mining policy to be implemented in the state.

Regulating mining in Meghalaya is complicated. Meghalaya is the only state in India where coal mining is done privately by mine owners and the government has marked the coal mines of Meghalaya as small-scale mines.

Under the Indian constitution, the state government has no direct control over mineral resources, which are owned by the tribes who own the land, according to Pankaj Pratim Dutta, an advocate at the Guwahati High Court, Assam.

There have been several attempts to implement a mining policy but all have failed. In November 2009, the Meghalaya government tried to implement a mining policy to regulate coal mining but it was opposed by small-scale coal miners who argued it would rob them of their livelihood.

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