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Madhusudankati Sulabh Safe Drinking Water Project (SSDWP) uses modern filtration technology to create affordable potable water for residents.

Access to affordable potable water has long been a dream for Manu Ghosh, a native of eastern India's arsenic belt. Groundwater contamination there has poisoned and killed people for years.

"Groundwater is largely unsafe here and branded packaged drinking water is quite expensive for us," Ghosh told Khabar South Asia.

She is delighted the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (SISSO) has found a way to provide much needed clean water at 0.62 rupees ($.01) per litre – about one-third of the market rate.

Since July, SISSO's Sulabh Safe Drinking Water Project (SSDWP) has provided clean water to villagers by using filtering technology to treat pond water.

"We know this water is free from contaminants – most importantly from dangerous arsenic," said Ghosh, a cook in Madhusudankati village, which lies 75km north-east of Kolkata. "It has come truly as a wonderful gift to poor people like us."

Due to the high levels of arsenic contamination in groundwater in at least eight districts in West Bengal , environmental experts have long suggested the use of surface water as a better solution to the region's water crisis.

More than 5 million people in West Bengal were drinking water with arsenic levels five times higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended standard, according to a 2010 report by Jadavpur University's School of Environmental Studies.

Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and skin lesions, and has been associated with developmental defects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes, according to WHO.

Now, SSDWP is being hailed as a pioneer project in the area.

The Madhusudankati pond water decontamination plant was funded by SISSO and the 1001 Fontaines, while the Madhusudankati Samabay Krishi Unnayan Samity (MSKUS) runs the plant.

MSKUS founder Kalipada Sarkar said the treated pond water is slowly becoming popular among villagers.

"Some decades ago, villagers were advised to stop drinking surface water to protect themselves from water-borne diseases like cholera and other infections when they switched to tube wells," Sarkar told Khabar. "Now many are still hesitant to drink pond water although we are cleaning the water using very good modern technology."

He said many villagers also remain afraid to drink the pond's water because they use it for washing clothes or bathing – even though the practice is prohibited.

To change that mindset, MSKUS organises awareness campaigns to educate villagers about the hazards of drinking groundwater and to explain why SSDWP's treated pond water is safer for drinking.

"Now the demand of our water is 2,000 litres a day. I am sure we have to increase our production soon," Sarkar said.

Subal Chandra Sarkar, a physician in Madhusudankati, has noticed the difference.

"Among people who have been using the Sulabh water for some months now, the occurrence of dermatitis, dysentery, some gynaecological diseases and other ailments, which are often triggered by overdose of arsenic in drinking water, have dropped considerably," he told Khabar. "Sulabh water users too must have noted this. I am sure more people in Madhusudankati will switch to this water soon."

Local Shital Ghosh – whose monthly income is about Rs. 4,000 ($64), happily spends about Rs. 450 ($7) a month on water from the plant.

"Some people in the surrounding area died of cancer and doctors said that they got the disease because they drank poisonous tube well water. We have to be careful about choosing drinking water," Ghosh said. "This Sulabh water does not carry that poison, many educated people said. So, I have happily opted for it."

SISSO launched two similar plants in Murshidabad and Nadia districts where water from the Ganga River is being used to feed the Sulabh plants.

SISSO founder Bindeshwar Pathak said he is happy his project is helping locals get clean water.

"These three plants are basically part of a pilot project. We hope to launch more such plants to meet the need of the entire arsenic-risk zone of the state," Pathak said. "We shall keep the price of this water as low as possible so that the poor people do not lose access to it."

Jadavpur University's School of Environmental Studies Director Dipankar Chakraborti welcomed the Madhusudankati initiative.

"We have seen how many groundwater [decontamination] plants have failed to solve the arsenic crisis. It is heartening to know that they have set up the drinking water project using the pond water," Chakraborti told Khabar. "It is undoubtedly the smartest way to bypass arsenic in drinking water in this area.

"If they can keep the water finally free from pesticide, insecticide, fertiliser, harmful microbes, etc., the project will meet with big success. We hope we will see scores of such projects across the entire arsenic-risk zone of the state."

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