Only 16.8% of stream water sources and 28% of spring water sources are safe for drinking, showing that the majority of drinking water sources in rural Bhutan are a potential source of diseases if consumed directly.
Water resources is visibly not a cause for concern in Bhutan with more than 90% physical coverage of Rural Water Supply Scheme (RWSS) in the country but the question remains on its safety in the rural areas.
A study was carried out on the existing functional rural water supply schemes by the Public Health Laboratory (PHL) team under Department of Public Health (DoPH). The team came up with a report named ‘Drinking Water Quality Assessment of Rural Water Supply Schemes in Bhutan, 2012’.
The study’s main focus on the quality of drinking water was based on two types of water resources that are “The Stream Source” and “The Spring Source”.
The regional drinking water quality of stream sources in the eastern, central and western regions were safe for drinking at 10.1%, 37.8% and 10.5% respectively while for spring sources it was 44.2%, 33.3% and 10.3% respectively.
Except for Dagana District which has 100% safe, drinking water from streams and the rest were not protected from unsafe stream water sources.
When it comes to spring water, only Mongar and Gasa were found 100% safe while rest of the districts was unsafe.
Routine monitoring of quality of drinking water in urban areas is in place whereas rural water supply systems were not monitored due to various reasons such as lack of motorable road, lack of sufficiently trained manpower and resources.
Therefore, the level of drinking water safety in rural Bhutan was still unknown.
The water surveyed is used for various purposes such as drinking, cooking, bathing, washing and sometimes feeding animals.
The report stated “overtaken by the priority on the quantity of water supply, the quality of available water is least understood by the users and therefore ignored by the suppliers”.
It further stated that in Bhutan, most of the drinking water supplies were not tested for bacteriological and chemical content before the commencement of the design and construction.
The study has been conducted in all the 20 Districts which were divided into the three regions of western, central and eastern.
The study found that the magnitude of socio-economic impact of human health due to the quality of Drinking water in the district is directly affected by the population size. Based on that, population as an index to sample size selection for the tests was found valid.
As per the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline for Drinking Water Quality E.coli or thermo-tolerant coliform bacteria must not be detectable in any 100 ml sample.
The term ‘coliform’ refers to a broad class of bacteria in the environment including the feces of man and other warm-blooded animals. It is also said the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water may indicate a possible presence of harmful, disease-causing organisms.
Although the WHO microbial drinking water quality guideline value for safe water is universally accepted, PHL categorized microbial water quality in terms of Health Risk Assessment that is based on the number of E.coli or thermo-tolerant coliform bacteria colony count.
Recommendations to protect consumers in the rural areas include revisiting of spring sources and correcting the problem if found at the source by adopting sand filtration and bio-filtration to reduce the threat.
It also includes advocacy on the protection of water-borne diseases.
Concern on safe drinking water was also raised in the mid-term review of the Ministry of Health (MoH) in 2011 as well as Annual Health Bulletin of 2011 where diarrhea and dysentery cases figured in the list of top ten diseases in terms of morbidity and major concerns for public health.
Public Health Engineering Division (PHED) under the health ministry (MoH) designs and institutes the construction of rural water supply system.
PHED also conducts the monitoring and evaluation of the system quality and performance in the country.