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Odisha: Creating an Awareness of Water Quality in the City of Cuttack


Posted Wednesday July 06, 2016

Cuttack, Odisha, Water Quality  
No systematic geophysical seismic survey of the entire City of Cuttack, in Odisha, has ever been conducted, which rules out an authoritative discussion on the basement geology of this island city.  Superficially the island appears to be composed of unconsolidated sands, deposited by the River Mahanadi and its distributary Kathjodi. These unconsolidated sediments, at depths below the ground surface, constitute aquifers that have served as repositories of clean fresh water, stored for thousands of years, which is drawn by the populace all through their existence, in the last millennium, for their sustenance.  

Prof. (Dr) Nachiketa Das


The thousand year old City of Cuttack, ever since its inception, has remained the cultural heart of Odisha.  This old capital of Odisha was also the centre of administration and trading, and the hub of freedom movement.  The City of Cuttack plays host to the most venerable academic institution of the state of Odisha, Ravenshaw, which was established in 1868 as a college, and has become a university now.  Cuttack moreover, proudly hosts the High Court of Odisha established in 1948, S.C.B. Medical College founded in 1944, the Barabati Stadium established in 1958, and Annapurna Theatre established in 1936.  Quite justifiably the inhabitants of this millennium city, which is the seat of learning, judiciary, healthcare, sports and entertainment, take great pride in the customs and traditions of Cuttack.  And no wonder, Odisha follows to whatever this island city of Cuttack does.


Sources of Water for the Island City of Cuttack:

The elongated island of Cuttack that stretches from the west to the east is barely 25 km long and only 5 km broad at its widest.  Perhaps a bedrock, of Athgarh Sandstone of Upper Gondwana age prominently exposed at nearby Naraj on the south bank of Mahanadi, formed the core of this island that grew with the accretion of sand bars around.  Unfortunately, as of today no systematic geophysical seismic survey of the entire City of Cuttack has ever been conducted, which rules out an authoritative discussion on the basement geology of this island city.  Superficially the island appears to be composed of unconsolidated sands, deposited by the River Mahanadi and its distributary Kathjodi. These unconsolidated sediments, at depths below the ground surface, constitute aquifers that have served as repositories of clean fresh water, stored for thousands of years, which is drawn by the populace all through their existence, in the last millennium, for their sustenance.

Contamination of Drinking Water in the City of Cuttack:

Around 1960s this island town of Cuttack experienced urbanization, which now has gained considerable momentum making this city home to half a million people. Urbanization led to the inevitable generation of solid waste as well as wastewater, volumes of which, now in the second decade of the twenty first century, have assumed dangerous proportions.  Barring a noteworthy sincere effort by the then Mayor of the City of Cuttack, Sri Trilochan Kanungo, who had commissioned a systematic scientific study of the issue of solid waste disposal in mid 1990s, a master plan for disposal of solid waste for the entire city of Cuttack was never devised.  Consequently, solid waste that included household garbage, night soil, municipal garbage, industrial waste, medical waste, and the solid component of sewage, dredged manually from the innumerable putrid stagnant drains of Cuttack, was never disposed properly; was in fact dumped indiscriminately in the low-lying areas by the rivers on either side of the City of Cuttack. The innumerable stagnant drains of Cuttack, just alluded to, in the absence of a master plan, have nowhere to flow.  A wastewater treatment plant constructed long ago, got overwhelmed by the volume of sewage, and now stands broken, consequently abandoned.  Sewage water from the drains leading to this treatment plant has inundated a vast area, which now stands transformed as a putrid peat bog assaulting the senses of smell and sight.

The low-lying areas alluded to that became dumping grounds for solid waste of the city, in due course were reclaimed by sand filling, and upon these reclaimed land grew housing estates like the various sectors of the CDA (Cuttack Development Authority).  Inhabitants of these areas, often residing in beautifully constructed luxurious buildings, or shall I say palaces, generally unaware of the solid waste buried beneath their plots, assumed that they lived in their own little pieces of paradise, until rudely awakened by a dark coloration of water that they drew from the bore-wells sunk on their premises.  Such dark coloured water, left in a pot exposed to air for a while, turns red.  This I believe is due to the presence of ferrous iron bound to organic compounds present in the water drawn from the ground below, which upon oxidation, due to contact with atmospheric oxygen present in air, turns into ferric iron, and the water gains a reddish colour.  Such waters in CDA prove that the solid wastes buried beneath the housing plots have in fact contaminated groundwater below.  Mechanism of this contamination is simple, and involves percolating rain water infiltrating the solid waste buried underground, and carrying the extracts from the waste to the unconfined aquifers in unconsolidated sediments below.  Groundwater residing in the aquifers ends up thoroughly contaminated by a range of obnoxious organic compounds as well as deadly pathogens.  Sewage wastewater lodged in innumerable putrid stagnant drains, disposed across the length and breadth of the city, percolate into aquifers regularly on a daily basis to thoroughly contaminate groundwater.  In fact contamination of groundwater by the drains has been going on at least for the last 50 years, since the early 1960s.

I have also received reports of yellowish coloured water issuing from pipelines of drinking water supplied by the Cuttack Municipal Corporation.  Some of the drinking water supplies are possibly contaminated by sewage wastewater through leakages in the pipelines.

The City of Cuttack, as little as only two decades ago, boasted over a thousand ponds of various sizes, dotted all over the city.  These rain-fed artificial reservoirs not only constituted a source of water for ablutions and domestic use, but also served as traps to harvest rainwater that recharged groundwater.  Unfortunately, however, these ponds were never maintained properly, in fact most of them were terribly neglected so much so that they came to be used as pits for disposal of household solid waste.  Domestic sewage also flowed freely into these ponds.  The ponds upon receiving nitrates, phosphates and other nutrients, and minerals from the wastewater and solid waste, gradually became eutrophic.  The eutrophic ponds encouraged profuse growth of a range of aquatic plants, like water hyacinth, that eventually perished and decayed, making the ponds a veritable cesspool of organic matter and a range of nasty chemicals.  The severe water pollution of the ponds was never addressed; the ponds were never renovated, not even desilted.  These putrid cesspools, however, continued to recharge aquifers unabated, with thoroughly polluted water, which contaminated groundwater.

In the last two decades many of these putrid cesspools were sand filled, without ever undergoing proper treatment of the organic matter and pathogen rich silt lying at the bottom of the ponds.  Houses were built on these reclaimed lands, which continue to contaminate the aquifers, pretty much like the housing plots in CDA, discussed earlier.

The extent of contamination of groundwater, from a combination of sources, in the City of Cuttack, as of today, is difficult to sum up authoritatively.  Going by anecdotal evidence, contaminations have occurred in a number of locations in various sectors of CDA, and in some other parts of the city.  The extent of contamination could only be established by a systematic scientific investigation.

Remedial Measures:

Wall mounted water filters of various makes have become quite popular these days in Cuttack.  These water filters, however, may not be good enough to purify the earlier discussed contaminated waters drawn from bore-wells as well as from the damaged water supply pipelines.  Old fashioned boiling of water, particularly so at an elevated temperature of 121oC and at a higher pressure, encountered in normal pressure cookers, is very efficient to kill pathogens, to break down a range of nasty organic compounds, and to precipitate dissolved solids.  The boiled water, after cooling, could be poured into a filtration unit to produce a safe and clean drinking water.

Ensurance of cleanliness of drinking water by boiling and filtration is only an immediate solution for the short term.  A long term approach to ensure a supply of clean drinking water for the populace would require a careful maintenance of the drinking water supply pipelines, which can easily eliminate the problem of contamination by sewage wastewater at damaged leaky sites.  A far more important approach to ensure purity of fresh water in aquifers, however, would start with the designing of a protocol for collection of solid waste in the city, and creation of a master plan for their disposal in purpose built lined sanitary landfills.  Medical waste must be burnt by incineration or pyrolysis in purpose built incinerators.  A master plan for transportation of sewage wastewater in pipelines, laid above the ground, to a number of wastewater treatment plants constructed at strategic locations of the island city would significantly reduce percolation of wastewater into the aquifers below, which in turn will stop contamination of groundwater.

The hundred odd ponds that still continue to exist in the City of Cuttack now, must be desilted and renovated so that their water quality improves very substantially.  These reservoirs of fresh water can then continue to recharge the aquifers below without ever contaminating them.

Awareness Among the People of Cuttack:

People of Cuttack must become aware of the life-threatening issue of contamination of drinking water supply in their city.  The use of the term life-threatening is not an exaggeration, as some of you might think, it is only a reminder of a stark reality.  In this context, I would like to cite the case of “Cancer Train”, an epithet being used to describe an overnight Bathinda – Bikaner Passenger train that commences its journey from the agricultural heartland of Punjab, Bathinda District, to Bikaner in Rajasthan.  This train everyday carries, in an average, some 60 cancer patients for treatment at Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre (RCC) in Bikaner.  And all these cases of cancer are attributed to the consumption of polluted groundwater contaminated by pesticides, used extensively in the last five decades in agricultural fields of Punjab to boost the production of food grains.

I would like to mention here that Japan noted the harmful effects of application of synthetic chemical pesticides in agriculture way back in 1960s, and chose to devise biodegradable pesticides for application to eliminate the problem of groundwater pollution.  We must introduce biodegradable pesticides in India.

Groundwater pollution in Cuttack is reaching dangerous levels, and that requires creation of awareness among the populace through talks, speeches, meetings in community functions and in academic institutions, discussions in electronic media, and by written articles in the print media.  People of Cuttack must become vigilant of the issues of solid waste disposal, wastewater disposal, renovation of putrid ponds, and they must demand remedial action.  Once the people of Cuttack become aware, people of the rest of Odisha will also wake up to the problems of water pollution they face.

People of Cuttack must ensure the elimination of age-old practice of indiscriminate disposal of garbage.  The City of Cuttack must abandon open air dumping of solid wastes, and must dispose the solid wastes in purpose built sanitary land-fills.  The abandoned and improperly managed ponds in the city of Cuttack, must be desilted, and renovated so that they become reservoirs of clean fresh water, which will recharge groundwater without ever contaminating it.

I appeal to you to pay heed to the advice that I offer, not for my sake, but for the sake of your children, grand children, great grand children, and for the future generations and the future of Cuttack.  If you do not become aware of the massive ongoing contamination of drinking water now, and if you do not initiate any mass action to demand remedial action by the authorities, I assure you that in another two decades you will experience a paradoxical situation in Cuttack, of rising wealth and seriously declining health.  Do wake up and stop the contamination of drinking water, do preserve the water quality, and do take remedial measures to purify the groundwater that sustains you.


Author retains the copyright, 29 August 2013.

[Author is the Dean, School of Earth Sciences and Regional Studies, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack)


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