Raamis in India

Raamis is a sophomore President’s Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. During summer 2012, he is traveling to Aligahr, India, as a Richter Fellow to conduct research on water contamination, child psychology and public health in a slum.

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Testing the water

It’s that time.  I think I’ve delayed getting to this point, and maybe some of that has been on purpose.  For the past week, I have been going daily to different areas of the city, slum or no slum, to take water samples and test them.  There were a lot of thoughts running through my mind as I zoomed by on motorcycle, stopping to collect water from hand pump, Russian pump, municipal water lines, and submersible pumps, input the point on my GPS, take pictures, label the sample, and note all observations in my diary.

In between, I met rickshaw drivers, orphaned children, large families, poor families, wealthy families, students, and mothers.  Every single person was concerned about the water they used to drink, cook with, wash clothes with, and bathe in.  When it came to water, all were equal.  Some of the richer folks have the money to install expensive reverse osmosis water filters, and they felt relatively safer, but in the slums, nothing is certain.

I met one rickshaw driver who was so happy that I had come to test water, he said “At least someone in the government cares.”  I had to tell him I wasn’t from the government, that this was for my project, but I would make sure to let him know how the water tested.  He took me to his house, gave me his own water to test, offered me tea, and bid me good luck.  There were many stories like this.  Once, I told a student who goes to Hamara School, the same slum school the book project is concerned with, that the water from his house had a strong concentration of E. Coli, and he simply looked at me, smiled, and said, “What then? There isn’t any other water I can drink.  This would explain why someone at our house is constantly sick, but that’s all I have to drink.”  I didn’t really know what to tell him.

So far, I have performed about 25-30 tests and look to add about 10 or 15 more, before I call it a day and ship back all the samples to SMU in Dallas, Texas.  What did I test here, in the field?  I noted the pH, salinity, temperature, presence of total coliforms, of E. Coli and definite fecal contamination, type of water source, age of water source, presence of rust, and boring depth of water source.  I also jotted down any observations I had relating to the surroundings.

Of course, the biggest test is the E. Coli one, and that’s really the one people are concerned about here.  The same goes for me.  I really wanted to look at how disease is spread, and I knew water would be the place to start.  From the results so far, the question really isn’t anymore where disease exists and where it doesn’t, where water contamination is and isn’t, but how large this problem really is.  From the tests (and I will get into the details in the next post), the conclusion is clear: there is fecal contamination everywhere and it is downright scary.  I’m not sure what else to say.  Out of the 26 tests that have definitively yielded results, 13 show fecal contamination.  That is a huge percentage.  Even more scary when you consider that some of those 13 are from wealthy homes, where deep reaching submersible pumps are installed.  Generally, submersible pumps are considered the safest of all water sources, but even they haven’t been spared.

My next goal is to test the water provided in railways, hospitals, and other public places.  Clearly, my mother and father knew what they were doing when they absolutely forced me to only drink water from my grandparents’ home and carry it around with me like a talisman.

Word got around quickly that some tall, skinny boy from America was conducting research on water contamination. So far, at least 10 people have requested me to come to their homes and test their water, and my uncle even sent 4 large bottles to my house today after he found the water in his bathroom sink was contaminated.  I feel that since hard evidence is coming out for the first time, it is getting people’s attention in spades.

Well, that was a lot of rambling on my part, but I really wanted to get some of my thoughts out.  It feels nice to write this all down because for the past week I developed a habit of obsessively checking the cabinet where the samples are incubating to see if any more had turned the ominous yellow indicator.  In the next post, I’m going to present you with the full details on how many samples I tested exactly, how many were contaminated, and further specifics such as salt content and pH.  I will also post a bunch of pictures showing you why it’s clear that contamination is occurring (hint, hint: half of all hand pumps are located on top of open sewage moats) and other mind-boggling information.  Until then, it has been a pleasure writing for you.

May your water be safe,

-Raamis

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