There needs to be a sustained campaign to spread awareness about water reuse, recycling and conservation
The provision of safe water is essential to protect humans from waterborne diseases. Sadly, more than 600 million Indians are facing high to extreme water stress and 75 per cent of households do not have drinking water, according to the NITI Aayog. At least 163 million people are without access to treated piped water and approximately 70 per cent of the water supply is contaminated, resulting in nearly 2,00,000 deaths each year. India ranks 120th out of 122 nations in the water quality index.
This disproportionate water access, especially in rural areas and peri-urban slums, demands the creation of drinking water security, especially for women and girls who are burdened with the responsibility of collecting water for their families. According to a report, Small Water Enterprises: Transforming Women from Water Carriers to Water Entrepreneurs 2019, which was released at the World Water Week organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Stockholm, women collect as much as 80 per cent of water consumed by households, in addition to their other responsibilities.
The report has been prepared by Safe Water Network India, an NGO working with USAID. The report further reveals 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, comprising only 26 per cent of the workforce. It would be pertinent to note that globally, women spend over 200 million hours collecting water daily.
Under the Jal Jeevan Mission scheme, around 84.83 lakh rural households were provided with tap connections. Post the Corona unlocking, around 45 lakh tap connections have been provided so far. On an average, daily about one lakh households are being provided with tap connections across the country. Although the scheme promises piped water in every rural household by 2024, unfortunately most of the water systems are rife with operational issues due to poor maintenance. While the Government has set itself a target of providing treated and safe 24x7 piped water supply at 135 litres per capita per day (LPCD) in the cities, its efforts are hampered by raw water availability, a debilitated and old piped water supply infrastructure and the inability to create new infrastructure in slums.
The global decentralised water market is expected to grow to $22 billion by the end of 2021. Most community water players are currently focussing on the drinking water market as it represents the highest yield per litre compared to other end-use applications. According to Frost and Sullivan, smart Internet of Things (IoT) and digitised sustainable solutions will be the two major growth drivers in the water industry in the future.
For 2020-21, a sum of Rs 23,500 crore has been allocated for the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission. Under this scheme, rural women will be trained to test water quality, repair hand pumps and fix broken taps. Women will also be trained to test piped water for biological and chemical contamination and use field test kits to know the extent of contamination. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has tied up with the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Kendra for skilling women so that they can participate at all levels, starting from planning to implementation, management, operation and maintenance of the in-village water supply.
However, safe water is a collective mission. We need to recognise the role of Small Water Enterprises (SWEs), decentralised water treatment plants that provide 24x7 affordable safe water, also called Water ATMs, as integral sources to mitigate the issue of poor water quality while providing affordable safe drinking and cooking water reliably. We need to understand that SWEs are cost-effective and can provide customisable drinking water solutions specifically at places where flagship Government schemes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission cannot reach or are yet to reach.
Water is an integral part of our lives and SWEs should be recognised as a support to the Government. They not only provide livelihood but also save lives and contribute to the economy. The lockdown following the Coronavirus outbreak has hugely impacted operations of the SWEs located in rural and urban India. The inability to set up new plants, the reduced consumer footfall, affected distribution systems, delay in resolving technical issues due to restrictions on movement, and the consequent loss of revenue for local entrepreneurs as well as on-cost recovery on operations are some of the major challenges faced by SWEs.
Although, post-lockdown, footfall has increased, consumption has reduced, leading to sustainability challenges. Financial sustainability has become the most important determinant for the survival and scaling up of SWEs as water is priced within certain socio-economic parameters to reach all.
Although there is a provision for the private sector to invest in SWEs, this brings its own set of challenges such as delayed infrastructure delivery, complex institutional frameworks with multiple regulatory authorities, politicians offering free water leading to lower probabilities of recovering capital investment, and high operating costs. Reforms are required at the policy and implementation levels. There is an increasing need for holistic collaboration with the Government in terms of technology, monetary and resource-sharing partnerships, single window clearance and development of an ecosystem.
“There should be GST exemption on equipment and water delivery services for cost-effective operations. Further, Corporate Social Responsibility funds should be allocated towards strengthening decentralised community water systems,” says Madhu Krishnamoorthy, Head of Business Development, WaterHealth India. The critical role of SWEs in providing access to water needs to be acknowledged besides a sustained campaign to spread awareness about water reuse, recycling and conservation. The SWEs can make a lasting social and economic impact by improving health, creating jobs, improving vocational skills and bringing new technologies to bridge the existing gaps in the water supply chain.
(The writer is vice-president, Safe Water Network)