The United Nations considers universal access to clean drinking water to be a basic human right.

According to the World Health Organization, one-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by increasing access to safe drinking water; improving sanitation and hygiene; and improving water management to reduce the risks of water-borne diseases.

In Barbados, the Ministry of Health is one of the agencies charged with protecting the island’s water supply through a programme of systematic monitoring and surveillance.

According to environmental health specialist in the Ministry, Steve Daniel, the programme’s objective is to identify any potential hazards or risks in the drinking water supply within the distribution system; and in the event that hazards are identified, to promptly take the steps necessary to resolve the issues.

He assured: “Our methodologies allow us to quickly respond to put mitigation measures in place for the protection of public health. As it relates to drinking water, Barbadians can be assured that the Ministry of Health utilises all its resources and follows all internationally recognised standards and protocols for the monitoring of water.”

The water quality specialist defined good drinking water as water that was free of pathogenic or toxic materials. “Outside of that, there are also what we call organoleptic properties of water, which speak to the quality in terms of taste, colour and odour. Good drinking water is free of colour, taste and odour.”

Barbados’ water supply originates in underground aquifers that are accessed through the digging of deep wells, while a small percentage comes through the desalination process.  It is pumped by the Barbados Water Authority to the reservoirs and from there, feeds into the distribution system.

Water wells are located only in Zone One protected areas, where development is restricted to minimise the potential contamination of the water supply aquifer from disposal waste.

Potable water samples being tested at the Best-dos Santos Public Health Laboratory. (B.Hinds/BGIS)

The Environmental Health Department conducts routine sampling of potable water on a weekly basis within seven public health catchments, as well as the ports of entry. A minimum of 44 samples is delivered to the Best-dos Santos Public Health Laboratory for analysis each week.

Mr. Daniel explained that the findings which would constitute a public health threat related to microorganisms that fall within the coliform group. “Within that group of microorganisms, I’m making reference to E-coli, total coliform and faecal coliform. In addition, toxic chemicals that can be in water are periodically tested for by the Environmental Protection Department, which collaborates with the Ministry of Health.”

In light of the challenges posed by the sewage spills on the south coast, the Ministry official said the Environmental Health Department was particularly focused on the area to make sure that public health was maintained.

“The methodology that is employed there is a risk assessment methodology, whereby the focus is on chlorine residual testing that is done on a weekly basis, in addition to taking the routine samples.”

He explained that the purpose of chlorine residual tests, which were carried out on site, was to determine the level of chlorine in the water. “The reason we do this is that chlorine has an inverse relationship with pathogenic microorganisms, so in other words, the presence of chlorine to satisfactory levels basically indicates to us that the risk of dangerous microorganisms is low.

“In the case where the officer suspects there may be a need for further investigation, the samples are taken, the appropriate chain of custody forms filled out, and the protocols in terms of delivering in ice and within the correct time periods are followed in terms of delivery to the laboratory for analysis.”

The water quality specialist also cautioned householders about the importance of making sure that their water filters and storage tanks were properly maintained, since failure to do this could also affect water quality.

Environmental health officers sampling potable water at a south coast property. (B.Hinds/BGIS)

“Water can start at the source and be safe as it relates to the chemicals that are added to protect it. And, it can continue to be safe throughout the distribution system. However, there are many environmental factors that can affect your quality when it is delivered at your tap.”

Mr. Daniel said that a household filter, which was not maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, could become a source of delivery for all the residue or contaminants that it was intended to remove. The same was true for water storage tanks, he submitted, and he advised that these containers should be routinely cleaned and sanitised.

“So, if you go on vacation, for instance, and you don’t use your water for a period of time, you must appreciate that the water in your tank will stagnate. When water stagnates, it basically allows for the build-up of some microorganisms, such as pseudomonas, or what we sometimes refer to as heterotrophic plate count microorganisms.”

The growth of these microorganisms, he disclosed, could significantly impact the quality of water received at the tap and would not necessarily be a reflection of what started out at the source.

Mr. Daniel, therefore, advised: “There is some responsibility on householders to understand how their water supply system works and to monitor it, so that they can put correct measures in place to ensure that they are receiving the safest possible supply of water.”

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