Water quality tests along the Wanhchhu and Pachhu have found traces of E.Coli, a bacterium that lives in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. Although many of the types are considered generally harmless, some strains can cause bloody diarrhoea, urinary tract infection, severe anaemia, or kidney failure that can lead to death.

Clean Bhutan and the Waterkeeper Alliance, a fast-growing global movement bent on making waters swimmable, drinkable, and fishable, collected the samples from Dechen Zam, areas near Centenary Farmers’ Market and the centenary park, Dodena and Dechenchholing in Thimphu, and from Utpal, Nyme Zampa in Paro, besides other places.

The attempt to gather, and provide, reliable and accurate water quality information of our rivers is laudable. It is timely. Right contamination information will allow us to design and implement urgent and necessary health interventions and to carry out advisory initiatives well in advance. As the test results show, water in these rivers is not safe for swimming, drinking or washing.

Mindless dumping of human and animal waste contaminates streams and rivers with E.Coli. Most of the sewerage systems drain in the river. Pathogens can enter the water from leaking septic tanks, wastewater treatment discharge and animal waste.

Following the outbreak of typhoid in Thimphu recently, Thimphu Thromde issues a public notification that sounded more like a disclaimer. Although the municipal water is treated to the desired levels before supplying, it said, contamination cannot be ruled out in the distribution system and, in particular, at the service level. In a society like ours that is known for pathetic sewage architecture, threats from water-borne diseases are ever present. We need only look at our bad city roads to figure how bad our sewerage systems are. Spillover from broken pipes and manholes enter the conduits that bring drinking water to our homes. In most places in Thimphu, proper sewerage lines are lacking. And, very disturbingly so, most of our towns are growing with conspicuous absence of safe and strong waste channels. Health impacts from such culture and style of living will be expensive in the long run.

Faced with such exposures to vulnerabilities, the best we do is just employ measures to avoid cross-contamination: washing raw produce thoroughly before eating, although so laving them won’t necessarily get rid of E.Coli, and washing utensils with hot soapy water before and after they come into contact with fresh produce or raw meat.

We may have robust set of laws and standards concerning provision of clean and safe drinking water. Left on the shelves to gather dust, they are often rendered toothless. Like in the country that gave birth to Waterkeeper Alliance, we need to act to “restore our streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries to swimmable, fishable and drinkable conditions.”