The picturesque Venna lake (that doubles up as a dam and is the main source of drinking water) greets you as you enter Mahabaleshwar, the most popular tourist destination of western Maharashtra; be sure that its shimmering surface hides life-threatening viruses and bacteria, causing a serious high health risk to visitors and its residents.
The recent findings of the health risk assessment research project conducted by the nationally-acclaimed Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics reveal that the source of this contamination is equine waste that is entering the waters thanks to the many horses that are parked right above Venna Lake. While this portion of land is demarcated strictly for car parking, horse-owners have captured it to offer rides, which are a magnetic attraction here.
The Mahabaleshwar municipal council suggested this study due to many health issues affecting the residents and visitors. Stated Dr Priti Mastakar, the chief researcher of this project, at the press meeting, “For decades, local and tourist populations in Mahabaleshwar were facing health problems of diarrhoea, food poisoning, acute respiratory infections, fungal infections and even typhoid, with morbidity, patients had to be admitted in hospitals for treatment.”
She further informed, “Vulnerable populations like children were suffering from severe Rotavirus infections. Even after being vaccinated, these cases took time to recover in hospitals. Diabetics and other vulnerable populations suffered from severe infections, too. Mahabaleshwar, being a very popular tourist destination, both the local and tourist population were exposed to this high health risk.”
Once the research team found that the cause was contaminated drinking water, its members conducted thorough water samplings from the waters of Venna Lakeµthe drinking water source of both Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. They also collected samples from all other sources, like the water treatment plants, households, commercial establishments and groundwater. Subsequently, they also studied the hospitals’ records in Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani.
Gurudas Nulkar, who heads the Centre for Sustainable Development at the Gokhale Institute, says, “All water samples showed high contamination, including groundwater. The research team then set about finding and moving around the lake as well as the presence of horse waste on all the roads and along the water pipelines in Mahabaleshwar. Equine waste contains viruses and bacteria.”
Dr Mastakar says she was shocked when they found various viruses and bacteria in Mahabaleshwar’s water filtration plant too.
The extensive health risk assessment report mentions the high hazard of equine excreta to human health. It observes in its study: “Horses are commonly used for tourism activities, such as horse riding and carriage rides, in Mahabaleshwar. It hosts as many as 150-170 horses that are parked next to the drinking water source, raising concerns about the safety of drinking water. The proximity of horses and horse excreta and human activity on the lake is, therefore, a strong reason for the drinking water contamination as per existing scientific literature and poses a high health risk to the local and visiting population as they contain pollutants that can pose a threat to both human health and the environment.
“Horse manure contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella, Rotavirus and Hendra virus, which are harmful to human health. When manure is not managed properly, it can lead to the contamination of water sources, resulting in various problems. In terms of surface water, it is concerning when excreta enters lakes, streams, ponds, drains, ditches, and wetlands. To prevent damage to stream banks and shorelines, it is important to control horse access to waterways.”
The project was headed by Dr Mastakar with the five research assistants from the Gokhale Institute—Nikhil Atak, Disha Sawant, Rohinee Satpute, Suraj Bhole and Vinit Dupare. All expenses were borne by the Gokhale Institute.
(Tomorrow: The Solution for Mahabaleshwar Drinking Water Issue and Whether it is Feasible Politically and Socially)
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Media Person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)