World Earth Day (22 April): Increasing community ownership of natural resources will help in disease control

Photo by sergis blogOn World Earth day (22 April 2008), I must share an anecdote of my recent visit to Mehndiganj, Varanasi (India) where when I went to the hand-pump for water, there was not a drop of it despite of my efforts to furiously piston the pump.

Frustrated I looked around to see an acquaintance who told me 'there is no water in hand-pumps'. The reason was obvious, which I have been reading and writing about: the water bottling plants which have siphoned out most of the underground water depriving local communities from having access to water resources!

I was lucky: to have an acquaintance who could show me another water source at a considerable distance on GT road (major highway in India on which this village of Mehndiganj was located) where I can have some water and also use a make-shift cubicle of a toilet-cum-bath.

Recent postings on, have shown that Asian Human Rights Commission had to sound an alert for sleeping Indian authorities to respond to rising number of deaths in this village (Mehdiganj, Varanasi) due to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB).

This is a village of saree-weavers, and with fading interests in hand-woven saree, the demand for work is sulking. With this, the living conditions of most of the villagers have been difficult, with barely enough income to sustain them.

In 2000, the Coca-Cola bottling plant began siphoning about 2.5 million litres of groundwater everyday. The International convention, Indian court rulings and social justice norms say that ground water is for the local communities who live on that land, to use the water for meeting their personal and domestic needs. Water is not to be 'owned' or possessed, rather to be used for personal and domestic hygiene only.

However the rapid privatisation of water has given a thrust to bottled water companies. As a result of which, the water table sank and went down so much that the local communities weren't able to pull out any water from the tube-wells, hand-pumps or other water reservoirs they had in their communities.

The living conditions of the local villagers worsened with reduced access to safe water for their daily personal and domestic use. Those who were dependent on agriculture were worst-hit by this looming water crisis.

To top it all, the Coca Cola company released the waste from the company as 'fertilizers-for-free' in the fields. Later when BBC got the waste tested in the Greenpeace laboratories in the UK, it was found that Coca-Cola was right: the waste had potassium, a fertilizer element, but didn't tell the farmers about the other toxic and deadly content of the factory waste which had detrimental effect on the arable land.

With decimated options for livelihood, water scarcity, impending food crisis, malnutrition and lack of basic hygiene has further escalated the risk of people manifold to infectious diseases like tuberculosis. Especially multi-drug resistant tuberculosis was on the rise in this village to an extent that Asian Human Rights Commission had to sound the alarm bell!

According to the WHO, “through increased collaboration, the global community will be better prepared to cope with climate-related health challenges worldwide.” Examples of such collaborative actions are: strengthening surveillance and control of infectious diseases like tuberculosis (TB), ensuring safer use of diminishing water supplies, and coordinating health action in emergencies. And to add to the list should be stopping privatisation of natural resources and creating an enabling environment where communities can have continued ownership on and skills to responsibly manage their natural resources.

Bobby Ramakant-CNS

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