“If people cannot enjoy their right to water, they cannot enjoy their right to life,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Currently, three in ten people do not have access to safe drinking water across the world. Even though access to safe drinking water is a basic human right and despite the fact that the UN has clearly defined this as Goal 6 in its Sustainable Goals, there remains a barrier to change and there are huge inequalities that prevent millions of people from accessing drinkable water.
Access to reliable and clean water is essential for creating and maintaining prosperous communities and eradicating poverty. How is it then possible that something so crucial is considered a privilege that some have and some can only dream of? In fact, why is it that there is disproportionate discrimination in the distribution of something we can easily call the basic need of all living beings?
Dera Ghazi Khan is a prime example of the consequences of inaccessibility to clean water. The district has such immense potential to develop prosperous industries that could transform it into an economic center, however as a result of the extreme water contamination it remains mostly barren. There is an increased demand for water because of the rising population which has reached over 2,872,201. Coupled with the increased demand for water there are also higher levels of waste in the streams which has impacted aquatic life and also contaminated the ground water.
Over the years, many samples of the groundwater from random areas within D.G Khan have been collected and tested, keeping in mind the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe and clean drinking water. Most samples collected in D.G Khan were found unfit for human consumption, containing high levels of sulfates, chlorides, sodium, magnesium, bicarbonates as well as bacterial contamination. The pH and electrical conductivity of water were also taken into account while testing the samples. According to a report done on groundwater pollution in D.G Khan, there was a mild enrichment of arsenic in shallow aquifers in populated areas where the pollutant organics promote the reduction of HFOs, which release its arsenic to the groundwater.
One can imagine that such high levels of contamination would have drastic effects on not just the health of the people but also the agriculture and livelihood of the locals. Assessing the situation in D.G Khan, it is important to note that 86 percent of the population lives in rural areas compared to the 14 percent in urban areas. The death and birth rates are higher than the national average and people, in general, suffer from mortality, morbidity, and disability. Many people tend to suffer from nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, learning disabilities, stomach problems and cholera.
Another noteworthy aspect of the acute water issues is the impact that gender inequality has on the accessibility to water. According to UNICEF, girls from the ages between five and nine until their adult years spend approximately 40 million more hours a day on household chores than boys. Fetching water back and forth reduces the time available for educating women and disincentivizes families from prioritizing girls’ education. This is especially troublesome because where women could be involved in productive, income-generating work or bringing new ideas and perspectives to businesses, legal, and justice systems and where they could be in positions of influence to create the change, they are stuck in a vicious cycle of tiresome work finding water.
The problem is far too deep for negligence and the stories of the people of D.G Khan should alarm us; we should worry about the millions of mothers who allow their children to drink contaminated water out of necessity. We should ask our government why it has spent so much time and resources developing infrastructure in already developed areas, when people in cities like D.G Khan are without essential resources. Curating innovative ideas for providing clean drinking water such as water filtration plants are key to developing a long-term solution to the water problem for areas such as D.G Khan. Newer methods that tackle the problem of contaminated water and ensure the distribution and accessibility of clean water can uplift the general economic and social conditions of an area and lessen the present inequalities for women allowing them to part-take in more productive work.
The conversation around access to water needs to move beyond sympathy and understanding – we need a paradigm shift that views water as a basic right, not a privilege.