Water in India: Stuck at the Crossroads

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Poonam Sewak

The Central Government, working in tandem with State Governments, has done substantial work to provide drinking water to the citizens of the country, but it is still to be equitable and readily accessible throughout the year. I strongly believe India has enough water resources for its population. All we need to do is to use it judiciously, plug the leaks, especially in the last mile and our homes. While this has been successful in metropolitan cities and State capitals, it is the peri-urban slums of the cities and the interiors of the States that face problems to create a dependable source of clean drinking water.

Currently, nearly 820 million people in 12 major river basins of India are facing high to extreme water-stress situations. Out of these, 495 million alone belong to the Ganga river basin, which generates 40 per cent of India’s GDP. The scarcity of water resources also has cascading effects including desertification, the risk to biodiversity, food security, industry, energy sector and risk of exceeding the carrying capacity of urban hubs.

According to the report Small Water Enterprises: Transforming Women from Water Carriers to Water Entrepreneurs 2019 which was released at World Water Week organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Stockholm last year, rural women collect as much as 80 per cent of water consumed by households, in addition to the other household responsibilities they hold.

This disproportionate water access, especially in the rural areas, demanded the creation of drinking water security for rural women who are burdened with the responsibility of collecting water for their families. According to the report Small Water Enterprises: Transforming Women from Water Carriers to Water Entrepreneurs 2019 which was released at World Water Week organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Stockholm last year, rural women collect as much as 80 per cent of water consumed by households, in addition to the other household responsibilities they hold. The report has been prepared by Safe Water Network India, an NGO, with grant support from Honeywell Hometown Solutions India Foundation (HHSIF), and working with USAID. The report further shares that India has a dismal gender empowerment record and is currently ranked 108th out of 149 countries. Domestically, women are grossly under-represented in the Indian economy, making up only 26 per cent of the workforce. It would be pertinent to note that globally, women spend over 200 million hours collecting water every day.

Hence, the next best option was to create a network of independent WATER ATMs which independently provide safe drinking water access for community members. Safe Water Network, with support from Honeywell Hometown Solutions India Foundation (HHSIF) and working closely with State and Local Governments, has set up a network of Water ATMs aptly called iJal Water Stations. Most of these iJal Water Stations are owned and operated by community women. The iJal Women’s Empowerment Programme has shown great promise and potential. These women are fondly called ‘Water Aunties’ within their communities. Through this programme, the endeavour to extend the national programme of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao to “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Beti Kamao”. Starting in Telangana, Safe Water Network working closely with the support from the State Government, Gram Panchayats and local communities, has set up 170 iJal Water Stations that collectively provide clean drinking water for 150,000 community members. Through this programme, rural women are relieved from the drudgery of water collection. The concept was well-accepted by the communities, and the women running these iJal Water Stations are now regularly consulted by the Panchayats whenever major decisions are to be taken.

The success of women entrepreneurs in drinking water in Telangana led to its replication in the aspirational, most backward, Naxal-affected region of India – Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra – which is designated as part of the Red Corridor. A very interesting case study from Bodali village, Gadchiroli, is of the women self -help group ‘Jan Sewa Mahila Bachat Gat’ operated and managed by two women – Bhawana Tai Jarate and Rupa Tai Kothare.

In 2019, Safe Water Network India rolled out a new approach to its SWE implementation to expand the participation of women especially in the backward Adivasi regions of India to mainstream communities. The programme looked beyond the role of women as safe water consumers. It worked to seek their participation in different positions of the iJal supply chain. It reached out to the women SHG ‘Jan Sewa Mahila Bachat Gat’ that were engaged in agriculture and animal rearing activities to become entrepreneurs, operate and manage iJal stations to deliver safe drinking water to their community. Bodali, Gadchiroli is an unsettling place where the Maoists and the police are continuously at war. There are banners outside every shop and household calling for the rejection of development and road connectivity; making India’s most socially and economically disadvantaged villages with its difficult terrain, a very tough place to work. Similar to other neighbouring villages in the area, Bodali’s groundwater has high fluoride, nitrate and salinity, contaminating groundwater, leading to weak bones, joint pain, and skeletal deformity.

With a long experience of actively working on social programmes like agriculture, animal breeding, construction of toilets to end open defecation, and rainwater harvesting, Bhawana Tai Jarate and Rupa Tai Kothare understood the need of safe drinking water to improve the health of the community. Upon learning about Safe Water Network and its mission to facilitate iJal Water Stations for safe drinking water in the social franchise model, they embraced the opportunity. They were confident that they could convince the community to pay for safe drinking water, operate and manage the plant. They felt that an iJal station in their village is a window to good health. They underwent extensive training on the technical and operational aspects of running the facility; financial management; water quality monitoring; and monthly reporting. Friendly and passionate, Bhawana Tai and Rupa Tai worked tirelessly to enrol new customers. They enjoyed the trust of the community due to their work and position and quickly enrolled iJal consumers by going door to door, advocating in the SHG meetings and activating the SHG women to spread the message that safe water means good health. They conducted demonstrations using field test water quality kits to compare the quality of groundwater with that of treated water. Apart from selling affordable water, they provide free water cans to the local schools and anganwadis. They were also passionate about engaging with pregnant women and nursing mothers to ensure newborns and expecting mothers are healthy. Bhawana Tai and Rupa Tai believe that this initiative will go a long way toward meeting their goal of improving the health of their community, infant children and pregnant mothers.

In terms of water supply in rural India (as of February 2018), 74 per cent habitations are fully covered (receiving 55 litres a day), and 22 per cent habitations are partially covered (receiving less than 55 litres a day). However, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation under the Jal Jeevan Mission aims to cover 14.6 crore households, which accounts for 81.67 per cent household with functional household tap connection (FHTC) by 2024. The total project cost is estimated to be about Rs 3.60 lakh crore. The Central share will be Rs.2.08 lakh crore, and each State will contribute accordingly.

Increasing urbanisation and migration exerts tremendous pressure on the existing water resources in the urban areas, leading to concerns of inadequate quantity, quality and the distance of the nearest available raw water source to the cities and towns. This problem is magnified in regions where residents belong to the low-income bracket, and those residing in slums. Despite the efforts made by the Central and various State governments, more than 50 per cent of the 14 million urban families living in slums do not have access to clean tap water despite efforts made by the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). The coverage norms set by the Central Public Health Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO) for towns with PWS and no sewerage system is 70 lpcd, for cities with PWS where existing or contemplated sewerage system is 135 lpcd, and for metropolitan and megacities with PWS where existing or contemplated sewerage system is 150 lpcd. As per benchmarks set by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs for piped water supply to track service delivery by the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), only 60 per cent of the served population receive piped water and that too for less than three hours per day. Moreover, access to piped water supply has decreased from 74 per cent to 69 per cent in urban areas during the period 2001 to 2015.

Another drawback is the contamination of groundwater which is affected by geogenic contamination. Geogenic contamination of groundwater refers to elevated levels of naturally occurring chemicals in groundwater that are harmful to health. It has been estimated that there are 74,724 quality affected habitations in India. There are five integral contaminants tracked, namely arsenic, fluoride, nitrate, iron and salinity and multiple new contaminants are emerging due to deeper extraction of water like nickel, strontium, cadmium, uranium, radon, etc. Data from groundwater quality monitoring by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) indicates that 17 States have a higher concentration of heavy metals such as lead, chromium and cadmium beyond norms prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards 10500:2012 norms of drinking water quality standards. Groundwater contamination is spread across the country. For instance, high arsenic contamination has been found in 68 districts of 10 States – Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, and Karnataka. Chemical contamination of groundwater has also been reported due to deeper drilling for drinking water sources.

The water crisis was recently magnified in India in 2019 when India’s sixth-largest city, Chennai, did not receive any rainfall for 193 days, resulting in long term heatwaves and drying up of the city’s freshwater lakes, triggering protests and violence amongst thirsty residents. However, this phenomenon is not restricted to the Southern States; it is spread across the country. According to a report published by World Resources Institute, a US-based think-tank, India is the world’s 13th most water-stressed country in the world and is home to more than three times the population of the other 16 worst-affected countries combined. It is estimated that a staggering 600 million people across the country face ‘extremely high’ water stress, leaving a narrow gap between supply and demand, which further leaves the country vulnerable to fluctuations like droughts or increased water withdrawals. In light of this, a study by the government’s thinktank – NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) estimates that 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020. This was seen in the summer of 2019 when Shimla, the summer capital of India, ran out of water and residents requesting tourists not to plan their annual holiday there. Recognising the severity of this crisis, a new ‘Jal Shakti Mission’ was set up in 2019 to prioritise water security and the provision of clean drinking water. This new Ministry merges the former Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, to addresses all water-related works.

With the pace of increasing urbanisation, the Government of India needs to increase the number of urban local bodies (ULBs) to promote their role in the planning and development of urban areas, bring efficiency in conducting businesses, and ensure effective service delivery for, and participation by, the neediest population. Urban Small Water Enterprises (USWEs) provide a safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable alternative in addressing the need gap among consumers in many cities and towns.

The Government of India launched several initiatives in 2015 to address challenges resulting from the rapid pace of urbanisation, and to promote efforts aligned with achieving Sustainability Development Goal (SDG) 6, which addresses issues about water and sanitation, and SDG 11, which deals with sustainable cities and communities. Among them was the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transportation (AMRUT) and the 100 Smart Cities Mission, which are aimed at recasting India’s urban landscape and making urban livable, sustainable, smart and inclusive. Small water enterprises are a solution that can meaningfully contribute to safe water supply and resilient cities. With the pace of increasing urbanisation, the Government of India needs to increase the number of urban local bodies (ULBs) to promote their role in the planning and development of urban areas, bring efficiency in conducting businesses, and ensure effective service delivery for, and participation by, the neediest population. Urban Small Water Enterprises (USWEs) provide a safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable alternative in addressing the need gap among consumers in many cities and towns. USWEs require a lower investment than an alternative supplemental water supply, yet they reduce incidences of water-borne disease, generate livelihoods, and prevent reliance on expensive plastic bottled water, thereby addressing the scourge of plastic pollution. As such, they provide a sustainable alternative to water tankers and standpipes that consumers are currently using.

SWEs can fill the gap while ULBs work toward providing piped water supply. At Safe Water Network, we are working with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) at the central level and with city municipalities under the project SEWAH – Sustainable Enterprises for Water and Health. This project is a collaboration between Safe Water Network India and USAID to support the journey of self-reliance of ULBs to increase access to safely managed drinking water for public health improvement. The strategy goes beyond traditional linear thinking and emphasises on adopting the ‘System Change’ approach, to catalyse the sector through collective action by promoting collaboration between the citizens, public and private sectors to address the multidimensional challenge of urban water supply concerning availability, accessibility, quality and sustainability by incorporating lessons learned from different cities’ water supply. This will be done by unlocking the hurdles through policy recommendations and advisory services, capacity-building, consumer activation, IEC activities, and dissemination. SEWAH also promotes the scale-up of Water ATMs and other innovative models under different contexts to deliver affordable safe drinking water to the urban poor through strengthened Sustainable Water Enterprise Alliance.

For such projects to be successful and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need the power of collective action and a self-sustaining ecosystem through cross-sectoral collaboration and women’s empowerment. We need to change the traditional top-down patriarchal approach to water provision, open opportunities for social enterprise, and women to participate in income-generating activities.

For such projects to be successful and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need the power of collective action and a self-sustaining ecosystem through cross-sectoral collaboration and women’s empowerment. We need to change the traditional top-down patriarchal approach to water provision, open opportunities for social enterprise, and women to participate in income-generating activities. With capacity-building and responsive tools, women can create their future and act as change agents in their communities. We should capitalise on the power of collaborative action, with the participation of multiple stakeholders, including men from within the community, to create a women-supportive ecosystem that provides opportunities to enable change. This requires the engagement of the government to strengthen existing women’s empowerment initiatives, financial institutions to facilitate easier access to capital for potential female entrepreneurs, development agencies to influence the national policy and regulatory environment and social enterprises to create opportunities, provide capacity development, and develop tools for women’s success – an inclusive culture of active and productive involvement of women that bridges generational and gender-related divides in an increasingly interconnected society.

We know that the pressure on water supplies is poised to continue due to rapid urbanisation, population growth and most importantly, climate change. The only way this situation can improve is increasing agricultural efficiency, having a robust infrastructure for rainwater harvesting and recycling of water, and investing in grey and green infrastructure. But despite being aware of all the circumstances, will we make the effort to adopt all these recommendations to ensure our water security? Only time can tell.

Poonam Sewak is Vice President, Program & Partnerships, Safe Water Network