Slum dwellers fear impotence from water-purifying tablets

“I cannot take these tablets as my husband has said no," said Shahida, a young housewife in Machar Colony, Karachi's largest slum. Shahida told Farooq Sultana, a community mobiliser and saleswoman for Saafwater, that her husband suspected the water-purifying tablets were birth control pills.

"It’s not a new excuse. People here have this misconception that we are selling them contraceptive pills and men think that somehow these tablets will interfere with their reproductive systems," said Sultana.

Machar Colony is the biggest slum in Karachi, housing 700,000 of the city's 16 million people. Given its illegal status, the colony has no access to civic amenities and is never mentioned in government plans and policies aimed at improving the city. Built over a government plot, the colony houses Pakistanis as well as Afghan, Bangladeshi and Burmese illegal immigrants. With no government help, the slum residents know things are unlikely to improve soon.

Into this grim scenario stepped Sarah Bird and her team with SaafWater. Bird, a British national and founder/director of SaafWater said: "I heard about Machar Colony from Concern for Children, another NGO working in the area. Given that the water situation in Machar Colony is very poor, we saw this as an opportunity to help and began working there in August 2008."

The SaafWater project began by employing local women and training them in giving information to the area’s residents (most of whom are illiterate with little or no knowledge of health and hygiene-related issues).

“We sell chlorine tablets. A week's supply costs Rs30 [less than 37 US cents] and each tablet purifies up to 25l of water.”

Sultana told IRIN: "Before, even I had no clue about clean water. I have lived in this colony for a long time and we do not have gas, electricity or a proper water supply. The tap water we get comes from a line buried deep within a sewage drain and as a result, the potable water mixes with toxic water."

She says it was normal for her to filter the water through a cloth and drink it. "We cannot boil the water as we do not have gas in our houses and rely on wood or gas cylinders, which are expensive and we have limited means," says Sultana.

Photo: Sahar Ali
Sewage pipes empty out into the unpaved streets in the absence of a drainage system in Machar Colony

Children at risk

Asma Shariq, a medical consultant at the CFC Mother and Child Health Centre, told IRIN that every day she saw young children with gastro-intestinal disorders. Unsafe water killed at least 20,000 children each year in Karachi, she said, with diarrhoea the leading cause of child mortality.

"Diarrhoea is so common here and most of the people who come to the [centre] cannot even afford medication. I tell them again and again to either boil the water or use water purification tablets but they always come up with excuses," said Shariq.

She said most blamed expensive fuel wood while others said the water tasted bitter when boiled. "However, the major excuse that these women have is that they fear these tablets will render [the men] impotent."

Picking up her supplies and heading for another house, Sultana told IRIN: “People say it’s my job that I promote these tablets but honestly, I feel that these tablets can prevent us from catching so many diseases. I have had doors slammed in my face but deep inside I know that out of 100 families if I am able to convince even two to use these tablets, I have done my part in saving someone’s life.”