Battling the germs in Water

In the book "Guns, Germs and Steel", author Jared Diamond builds a beautiful case of how the white man (read the Western Civilisation) came to dominate the course of world history. Much of this dominance could be attributed to three factors; guns (invention of gun powder), germs (immunity to diseases because of urbanisation) and steel (related to the industrial revolution). While the guns helped win over the enemies on a battlefield, the germs the colonist carried with them spread afar, decimating populations that had never faced such biogens before. This is how the Incas were defeated by the Spanish, or even how the North American continent was brought under control by the progeny of the Mayflower settlers.

 Battling the germs in Water

India too has made a contribution (a rather dubious one) to the global bank of germs and diseases. Cholera is described as an acute diarrhoeal infection that is caused by the intake of contaminated water. Caused by the bacterium vibrio cholerae, the disease is a global one, infecting some 4 million people a year, and accounting for some 143000 deaths according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The origin of the disease is has been placed in India, the first recorded instance was in 1563 in an Indian medical report ( It was called as Haiza by the Arabs, caused by fasaad-e- ghiza (Decay of food) and Fasaad-e- hazm (Dyspepsia). (

But it was the 19th century when the disease acquired a global dimension. Traveling on board the Company ships that docked on the colonised ports in India, the rather innocuous invertebrate from the deltas of Ganges reached the banks of Thames. And so in 1831, London, the largest city in the world (back then) had its first devastating encounter with Cholera. The streets of London back then were overflowing with filth, human and otherwise, and the bacterium was much at home in all the filth. Thousands were infected and hundreds died within a matter of few days.

Over the course of next couple of decades, there were numerous outbreaks of Cholera. Sadly, much of it was attributed to the stench in the air or miasma (as it was called). The co-relation between contaminated water and spread of Cholera was discovered by a local doctor in London, named Dr. John Snow, who helped understand the dangers of drinking contaminated water.


As a result of this discovery, Great Britain took up the single largest engineering project in the 19th Century, namely creating a sewer network underneath the city of London. The same was completed in a span of some 18 years, under the watchful eyes of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. This network of sewerage has become the sort of template for all urban cities across the world.

It was this outbreak of Cholera and chance discovery of the correlation with contaminated water that is responsible for the setting up of the modern municipal structure. Considering that it was the same Britishers who ruled us, our cities too have the same structure and mechanism. This is how the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata got their sewer and water infrastructure. Gandhi’s India that largely lived in the villages, now steadily moved into the cities.

Sadly, the population has expanded many times more than the system could cope up with. Although access to drinking water has improved, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. In India, diarrhoea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily—the same as if eight 200-person jumbo jets crashed to the ground each day.


Yet, in spite of the obvious dangers, even today, hundreds of thousands of Indians are coerced to drink dirty water.

Thankfully, there seems to be a growing realisation on the need to resolve this problem. The government of India and the various state governments have instituted a series of reforms that are targeted providing clean water to the citizen. In addition, there are also efforts being undertaken by private companies like Eureka Forbes that have launched an initiative like Jaldaan, under which every signatory pledges to provide 5 litres of clean water to the needy. In fact, for every single pledge, the company has committed to provide Rs. 10 towards setting up special filtration plants in poor areas.

Humanity (be it white or coloured) has been battling the menace of germs for centuries. With science and technology, we have been able to redraw the battle lines. Today, with medical interventions like vaccinations, Cholera has been largely contained. Yet, the war is not over. Till every drop of water that is drunk by the people is not pure and healthy, the struggle will be on. Everyone can be a part of the movement, by taking a pledge at

So why wait? Do it now!

This is a partnered post.

Updated Date: Jan 18, 2017 17:55:03 IST