On Thursday President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared opened a huge overhead water tank at Kolonnawa to distribute water to the people in surrounding areas including Kolonnawa, Rajagiriya and Angoda. This tank, financed by the Asian Development Bank was built on part of the land belonging to the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) which was built by the British in the 1840s on the highest part of Colombo to minimise the spread of infectious diseases to the community.
According to informed sources part of this land was acquired from the Ministry of Health by the Water Supply and Drainage Board to build the overhead tank. However, when the work was going on and ADB official on a visit to Colombo is reported to have proposed that an underground tank, also be built in the same area to distribute water to Colombo city and the suburbs.
Hospital authorities and environmentalists say though they raise questions about the safety of such a underground tank, water board officials decided to go ahead with the project for reasons allegedly involving kickbacks and commissions.
According to hospital authorities thousands of patients with deadly diseases like Smallpox (Vasooriya), Cholera, Yaws or an infection of the skin, bones and joints (Parangi) had died over the years and were buried in this land. Though these diseases are no longer a problem in Sri Lanka, the germs or viruses and bacteria which caused those diseases could remain dormant for long years in the earth. They say that even at present the IDH treats thousands of patients suffering from ailments such as typhoid, diarrhoea and dengue and their faeces with all the germs go into underground septic tanks in the hospital land.
Health rights' activists and environmentalists are raising questions whether the germs in the land will gradually seep into the water and spread to the people who drink or otherwise use this water. No concrete wall can prevent such seepage, according to experts. Concrete has small holes called capillary pores which are 10 to 50 nanometres . So it is apparent that viruses and bacteria which are much smaller than the size of these pores can seep in to the water through the concrete wall of the underground tank. A small crack caused by the tiniest earthslip is enough to cause much bigger contamination.
Erika Henderson, director of research states in the journal'Water Efficiency' "… contaminated groundwater can also seep into the tank. …..pathogenic microorganisms that create water-borne diseases are still sometimes found in public water systems. …These infections can spread rapidly, and sometimes even create an epidemic”.
With the prolonged drought, Sri Lanka’s rivers are running low and we are looking for other sources to supply water to the people. But the project at Kolonnawa instead of building bridges over troubled waters appears to be more a case of where still waters run deep and we should look before we leap because we might end up with not only polluted food but also polluted water.
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