India: Delhi belly turns deadly (and embarrassing)

NEW DELHI, India — Last week, Delhi belly turned deadly — drawing attention to one of the biggest problems plaguing India.

According to press reports, at least 70 people fell ill and two people died from drinking tap water.

Rural areas and slums battle against dirty water every day. But this time the outbreak struck a prominent government institute — the National Council for Educational Research (NCERT), which defines the curriculum for millions of school children. That makes the problem more difficult for the government to continue to ignore.

“Residents informed us that some people were getting contaminated water in their houses,” Hemant Kumar, a spokesman for the research council, told GlobalPost. “[But] by the time we could react, some people had already consumed that water.”

NCERT officials issued an advisory telling residents to immediately begin boiling water before consumption, and started distributing packaged water as soon as the problem was brought to their attention, Kumar said.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD), the organization responsible for piping city water to the campus residences, has nearly completed work on new pipes to prevent the backflow of sewage believed to have caused the contamination in the first place, and it has launched a probe to ascertain who was responsible for the maintenance failure. 

But it's probably only a matter of time before the next such incident. Across the city, sewage, heavy metals and other dangerous substances all too often trickle into the water supply, say experts.

Nationwide, it may be even worse.

More than 100,000 Indians die every year from water-borne illnesses — 1,600 a day from diarrhea alone, according to nonprofit Water.org. Meanwhile, the constant battle against water-borne infections is the primary reason that more Indian children are stunted and underweight than in sub-Saharan Africa, even though the income levels here are significantly higher, according to UNICEF.

In many places, the root of the crisis lies in open defecation.

About half of India's huge population defecates outdoors, compared with just 4 percent in neighboring Bangladesh.

But as last week's deadly outbreak of Delhi belly illustrated, even where there are toilets, the pipes themselves are often not properly maintained.

Already this year, similar outbreaks have happened across the country in urban centers like Allahabad and Kanpu, in Uttar Pradesh, and Rohtak, in Haryana.

No big deal, right? All you need is a water filter? Think again: Dirty water costs India as much as $50 billion a year, according to a recent report by the Water and Sanitation Program.