Making clean, piped water available in a water-stressed country
Lack of access to clean drinking water can adversely impact an Indian’s right to life and hinder fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6)—ensuring inclusive access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
By Kamal Narayan Omer
Chennai gets an average of 1,400 mm rainfall every year and yet, in 2019, it had to bring truckloads of drinking water for its residents. This isn’t a surprise, as the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) ranks India at 13th among the world’s 17 extremely water-stressed countries. It means that the demand for water here exceeds the available volume, or that poor quality limits its use. Big cities such as Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nashik, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Indore face ‘extreme risk’ of crunch in steady availability of drinking water—one of the basic needs of life. It is imperative for every country to provide its citizens with safe access to drinking water.
However, in a vast country like India, it is easier said than done. Lack of access to clean drinking water can adversely impact an Indian’s right to life and hinder fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6)—ensuring inclusive access to clean water and sanitation facilities. Together with sanitation measures, clean and safe drinking water is critical to mitigate the risk of water-borne infections and enable people to earn their livelihoods—the cities at risk are economic hubs and securing water resources will be an important consideration for businesses to ensure continuity of their operations.
Clean drinking water in India: Access to clean and safe-to-use piped water at home is a feature in middle-class urban residential quarters, but is still a pipe-dream for those living in community set-ups—urban slums and rural areas. Answering a question in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Jal Shakti stated that around 3.27 crore rural households, of a total of 17.87 crore, get water through pipe connections—so, access to clean, treated and safe water is only available to 18% of India’s rural households. While treating water to get rid of impurities and pollutants incurs a cost, providing adequate or supply water features as a prominent election promise, and a sizeable chunk of it is provided for free. There are two problems here: firstly, unviable economies of scale. For example, in Delhi where 20,000 litres of water per household is free, the fee for extra consumption is Rs 28 per month. But what is the cost of clean and safe water? It is intriguing to see practically no discussion around it, but if private estimates are to be believed, getting one litre of clean drinking water, sourced from borewells and treated through reverse osmosis (RO) in a micro industrial setup, costs about Rs 200. The gap is telling. This brings us to the second problem—the consumers fail to value this finite natural resource. Examples can range from leaving the tap running as one brushes teeth or the abundance of bathtubs in the luxury hospitality sector. Estimates show that soaking in a bathtub needs about 370 litres of water every time, while taking a shower requires 70 litres; some may argue a bucket-and-mug set can help save more.
Awareness and engagement for better coverage: While policymakers need to assess if access to clean and safe piped drinking water is provided for free, it is time for increasing popular involvement to increase access. Possible measures for rationalisation of water use and inculcating water-saving habits may include:
—Incentivising solutions such as rainwater harvesting (RWH): This can prove beneficial in cities and towns that do not have direct access to water sources for supply. Smaller cities such as Surat in Gujarat and Gwalior and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh have set examples—the Surat Municipal Corporation has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for new buildings with a plot size of more than 4,000 sq-mt and provides a subsidy of up to Rs 2,000, while the other two cities incentivise a building owner with a 6% rebate in property tax in the year of completion of RWH construction.
—Information, education and communication for behaviour change: Sustained communication for inducing change in the way people use water is critical to ensure wider availability. Besides this, the government needs to sensitise people to help them understand the importance of graded tariff for water for domestic use better and balance distorted recovery of cost and help in expanding coverage.
—Rationalisation of water usage for agricultural and industrial purposes, two of the biggest consumers of water, is critical. Besides this, innovative ways to use water for regular jobs, such as washing solar panels, and creating artificial aquifers to assist the recharge and recovery of groundwater systems, can help.