North 24 Parganas Project

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It’s the beginning of a new narrative of a district to change its profile in distress, etched out in the past few centuries.

West Bengal Drinking Water Sector Improvement Project, through its priority sub-project, is redefining living in North 24 Parganas by taking up a 30-year plan until 2046 to mitigate arsenic contamination in drinking water.

The Sub-Project straddles parts of the industrialised, thickly populated northern and eastern part, and comparatively less habitated and largely agricultural part of forest-reclaimed southern portion.

It would reach bulk surface water from rivers or water bodies to every village and urban households 24x7 in the affected blocks, unprecedented in the State. PHED sample surveys of shallow (20 to 80 m) tube well water had shown that 22 blocks in the district had presence of arsenic above the permissible limits.

A PHED study suggested that 55.55 per cent or 3860 of the total district habitations is hit by arsenic contamination in the ground water.

Now, the infrastructure creating process has begun. The substantial part of the work tenders have been out and bids have been placed for untreated water main laying, construction of additional treatment plants, pumping stations and 2-year operation and maintenance services.

Legacy and the present

Since the inception of the colonial era through the 20th century, potable water became scarce in the large part of the district. On the one hand, lack of sweet surface water flows through rivers and aggressive progression of salinity towards north owing to tidal flow from Bay of Bengal gradually transformed surface aqueducts. On the other, declining water table because of large-scale pumping out of ground water exposed acquirer deposition of arsenic.

Short-term disaster management actions by the PHED in the last decade stemmed the rot, literally arrested pandemic cancer of skin and internal organs. The alarmed State Government as a next step opted for a long-term sustainable arsenic-free drinking water supply programme in this district that has been seeing rapid urbanisation and changing land use, particularly in the vicinity of Kolkata.

In the 1980’s, bore wells sucked out ground water for large scale boro (summer) cultivation depressing water table and accelerating the occurrence of arsenic contamination in drinking water, fetched mostly from shallow tube wells.

Encroachment or abuse of Ichhamati and Bidyadhari rivers saw the principal fresh surface water source almost vanish, except for a brief monsoon period.

Given the current demographic growth trends, the district’s 2 project blocks -- Rajarhat, Haroa and Bhangor-II of South 24 Parganas are estimated to see a 50 per cent increase population over that of 2011 Census in the next 3 decades.

Rajarhat or Newtown throws up statistical challenges in long-term projection of its exponentially growing population. According to experts, it may outgrow any probable estimate in the next few years.

Pros and cons

The West Bengal Water Supply Improvement Investment Project (WBWSIIP), an initiative of the West Bengal Government with funding from Asian Development Bank, is providing the technical and financial support for this WBWDSIP priority Sub-Project in North 24 Parganas.

The Sub-Project is to provide safe drinking water to areas in the district that have not covered by earlier Arsenic Sub-Mission.

Following the District Water Quality Action Plan, a comprehensive programme has been drawn up ensuring sustainability of the existing water sources. Closer scrutiny of water quality has been taken up to arrest propagation of contamination into unaffected areas where people continue to depend on ground water.

The forest area in the district, though relatively escaped population pressure, availability of safe drinking water has been influenced by rising salinity for lack of sweet water sources.

A part or six blocks of the district falls within the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve Area – Sandeshkhali I & II, Hingalganj, Haroa, Minakhan and Hasnabad.

Rain fed and tidal rivers like Ichamati, Bidyadhari, Kulti, Dansa and Raymangal surrounds the area. The area is also crisscrossed by numerous creeks and channels carry brackish water.

Embankments in the area to guard against invasion saline water from Bay of Bengal, except for Haroa, are vulnerable to breaching during high tide and cyclone.

A specific component of the Sub-Project would take care of these special needs.