– Michael Vortmann
Two additional bathing days have passed on the 10th and 15th of February, and after two hard days of rain, our colleagues still at the Kumbh say the City is significantly emptied from its estimated peak of 30 million.
One of the key logistical challenges at the Kumbh is managing water flows for the millions of people who come to bathe. Qualitative observations indicate the government sinks boreholes and runs extensive piping to supply each Akhada area with drinking water. The Akhadas then build smaller networks of piping for spigots for personal use. Some these spigots can be found at irregular intervals facing the street for public consumption. In addition to the public supply there are private companies giving away free water. Many of the clinics have an Aquaguard (a brand-name UV purification system) spigot in a kiosk immediately outside their gates. Some intersections host manned water stations provided by Tata (a ubiquitous manufacturer) that provide samples in small cups.
In addition to the extensive systems providing clean drinking water, greywater also has separate and actively managed catchment systems. Runoff from spigots is collected in sandbag-lined ponds that flank the roads. The water is treated with pesticides and lime, pumped into trucks, and used to spray down the grounds to mitigate the considerable amounts of dust and smoke created by the milling crowds.
In spite of the well-planned segregation of clean and greywater, and frequent sources of clean water, people still drink from the Ganga and sometimes collect greywater from the trucks watering down the roads – this in spite of large written warnings to the contrary.
A question that arises is whether the efforts to segregate different water streams and provide clean drinking water translates to a reduced burden of diarrheal diseases, a known side effect of consuming contaminated water. The overall percentage of diarrheal illness presenting to the clinics we surveyed was relatively low – about 5% of total presenting complaints. Controlling for the massive influx of people on bathing days, we would like to see if the percentage of diarrheal cases increases relative to the population, and whether this correlates to the cleanliness of the water. A small subproject of the public health team has plated water collected from the Ganga both upstream and downstream of the major bathing areas to see the coliform and E coli counts in the water – as a marker of human fecal contamination and general cleanliness. We suspect the water is dirtier when millions bathe in it but will this translate to more diarrheal disease? And if we discover the river is in fact dirtier, and we know people are drinking it, an even more interesting question is why not?