Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India needs to focus on water to fight Covid-19

Public health during the coronavirus pandemic depends on access to clean water for all, and as the summer intensifies, India needs to refocus on measures for long-term, sustainable water security

Divya J Shekhar
Published: May 29, 2020 10:42:03 AM IST
Updated: May 29, 2020 11:00:57 AM IST

India needs to focus on water to fight Covid-19Local residents line up rows of large plastic bottles and jerry cans in Siddarth Nagar, Versova, in Mumbai to fill water from a tanker that visits the neighbourhood every alternate day. The coronavirus pandemic has made the need for clean water even more acute
Image: Jay Mati @ Pani Haq Samiti

Sharda Shinde has fought for water all her life, but the last two months have been the toughest. She lives in a slum in the Ambedkar Nagar locality near Lower Parel in Mumbai, where a single pipeline supplies water to 150-odd households for about 2 hours every morning. Most homes, like hers, do not have space for storage tanks, and store water in utensils or drums. After she sets aside water for cooking and drinking, Shinde decides what she can do with the rest. There is only enough water for one thing at a time. “So if I have a bath, my three children cannot, and we cannot wash clothes or utensils. If we decide to wash utensils or clothes, we can’t have a bath,” says Shinde, a single mother in her 40s who works as an ayah.

Shinde knows that she is at the epicentre of the pandemic in Mumbai: The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in her municipal ward (G South) had crossed the 1,000 mark on May 10. As the outbreak intensifies and social distancing norms are enforced, Shinde cannot even walk out of her home to fetch water from pipelines in Worli or other nearby areas like she used to earlier. Requests to the municipal authorities to provide another water tap in the slum have fallen on deaf ears. “The families I work for have not paid my salary this month. On most days, we get by with people from the nearby housing societies distributing food. But what will we do with food when there is absolutely no water?”

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines suggest that hand hygiene—washing hands frequently with soap, or using a sanitiser—is obligatory to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But for many people in India, both in urban and rural areas, handwashing is a luxury because the quantum of water they have access to is barely enough to meet daily basic requirements of cooking and drinking.

India needs to focus on water to fight Covid-19
According to the report ‘On the Frontline: The state of the world’s water 2020’ released by non-profit WaterAid earlier this year, at least 7 percent of the 1.4 billion people in India do not have even a basic source of water close to home. Even as the Jal Shakti (water resources) ministry has set a target of providing piped water to every home at the rate of 55 litres per person per day by 2024, the coronavirus pandemic—where public health depends on access to clean water—has only further highlighted the urgency of long-term sustainable water security measures.

Mind over management
“People are overlooking the safety and quality of water just so that their households get some water supply during the pandemic,” says Eshwer Kale, senior researcher with the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) that works with vulnerable rural communities across India. He explains that many villages do not have taps at home and an entire village relies on a single public tank in which water is supplied at a specific hour every day.

“Earlier, people used to queue up to collect water. Now, since they have to maintain social distancing protocols, we are handholding panchayats to make a schedule whereby one or two persons at a time can go to collect water in slots.” One thing working in favour of villages and farmers even as the summer intensifies, Kale says, is last year’s healthy monsoon that has helped them store more drinking water and reduce their dependence on private tankers that are both unsustainable and expensive.

In urban areas, where intermediaries provide water in a lot of areas in the absence of municipal water supply, there are problems of a different nature. “During the lockdown, many intermediaries have started charging more. They look at this as an opportunity to make good money, and threaten to not supply water if people do not pay up,” says Sitaram Shelar, convenor of the non-profit Pani Haq Samiti, which works towards equitable distribution of water. “This results in people buying less water, which means usage is restricted only to basic necessities,” he explains. “In most cases, there is not even enough water to have a bath or wash clothes more than twice a week. This makes people more vulnerable... financially and health-wise.”

At the core of India’s water woes is depleting water reserves, particularly groundwater, which accounts for 40 percent of the country’s water supply. According to central government data, the water level of 171 billion cubic metre of water in the country’s 123 major reservoirs fell from 51 percent at the beginning of March 2020 to 43 percent as on April 23. The World Bank estimated that India accounted for 25 percent of all the groundwater extracted in the world as of 2019, and if the current trend continues, about 60 percent of India’s districts are likely to see groundwater tables fall to critical levels in the next two decades, putting at least 25 percent of the country’s agriculture at risk.

Experts believe that many states are yet to take data collection about water management seriously. The 2019 Water Management Index 2019 by government think-tank Niti Aayog made this observation too. “Poor data reporting by certain states and Union Territories suggests low investment levels in maintaining and recharging groundwater resources,” the report said. “This does not augur well with the fact that 16 percent wells in India are declining as fast as 1 metre per year, and states need to show stronger commitment towards conserving their groundwater resources.”

Water is a resource under the governance of individual states, and Kale says most government efforts or schemes seem to work at a superficial level, focussing on improving just surface water availability. That outlook, he believes, must change. “Like Maharashtra’s ambitious Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan. The focus is more on making water visible [through widening of streams, construction of cement and earthen stop dams, digging farm ponds etc], and not on purposeful groundwater or aquifer recharge systems that are long-term solutions,” he says. 

India needs to focus on water to fight Covid-19

Decentralise, localise
Experts believe that an important step in fulfilling both immediate and long-term water requirements is to re-examine how we demand and use water, and how we treat wastewater or sewage. There is need to mobilise community participation, decentralise implementation of water-related policies and use technology to monitor usage, says AR Shivakumar, water management adviser and scientist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. According to him, cities resort to using long pipelines to bring water from far-flung sources, which has a high ecological footprint. This method, he says, also introduces inequities in water distribution, whereby only a few have access to municipality water (including those who get water on-demand by paying for it). The solution is simple, Shivakumar explains: Harvest rain whereever it falls.

“Municipal corporations have budgets earmarked to create public rainwater harvesting systems, but implementation is consistently poor,” he says. As part of this budget, local authorities are expected to create rainwater harvesting pits in buildings and available open spaces in cities, establish water pits to replenish groundwater levels.

“Implementation is poor at the local level because there is no political will,” says Shelar. “In Mumbai, for example, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has a good water supply network across the city. They also have pipes to provide water to all households. But they do not want to do it. There is often a collusion between local goons, corporations and politicians. There is a lot of politics that determines who gets access to water.”

India needs to focus on water to fight Covid-19
Shivakumar suggests putting a cap on the water supplied to each household and monitoring usage with water meters. Treating wastewater instead of letting it flow back into our water bodies and contaminating them is also important. “Re-designing sewage management at the apartment level through small treatment plants would ensure that wastewater is recycled, and reused for purposes such as flushing and gardening,” he says, adding that this is an effective solution to adjust supply with demand and work toward equitable water distribution.

While waiting for authorities to act, what people can do in the middle of a pandemic is be conscious of how much water they are consuming, and how much water others need, says 26-year-old Sangita Fatangare, who has taken it upon herself to help promote water literacy in her village, Sarole Pathar in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.

The 350-odd households in her village receive tap water once in four days, and supply is monitored by the panchayat. “A few days ago, the motor that supplies water broke down and it took five days to repair it. The villagers decided that whatever water has already been collected by households will be shared with neighbours so that we can all see through the shortage together,” she says. “Right now, that’s all we can do to ensure everyone has access to water: Stick together, use whatever we have, and come up with solutions among ourselves.” 

(This story appears in the 05 June, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)