How to fix India's water woes—and why that's good for economics

With so many Indians struggling with access to water in the first place, not enough thought has been put into making sure that water is safe to drink. Unsafe water isn't just dirty, it's deadly—for health as well as for livelihoods

Updated: Jul 22, 2021 10:50:05 AM UTC
Image: Sonia Dhankhar / Shutterstock

In 2018, the Primary Healthcare Centre in Gujarat’s Math Village, Kodinar, noticed a severe spike in viral fever among villagers during the monsoon. The community decided to get the water tested and found high levels of bacteria; the local water storage tanks were contaminated and needed cleaning.

Access to drinking water vs. access to safe drinking water
While access to drinking water continues to be a major problem in India, assuring that it is safe for human consumption is a whole other challenge. With so many people in India struggling to simply find access to water in the first place, the quality of the water has become an afterthought. This is especially true in rural areas where more than 80 percent of drinking water supply comes from groundwater, which is often contaminated or has high ‘Total Dissolvable Solids’, making it unfit for human consumption.

The nexus between water, health and poverty
Access to safe drinking water for all plays a crucial role in poverty reduction. It not only impacts the health status of communities, it impacts livelihoods and the resultant economic status of people. The provision of clean water can be the tipping point people need to move them over the poverty line.

Unsafe drinking water isn't just dirty—it’s deadly. The health burden of poor water quality is enormous. It is estimated that around 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases annually; 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne disease each year. The resulting economic burden is estimated at $600 million per year.

Improved water supply has the following economic impact:

  • Better health: Healthy people live more productive lives
  • Time management: Time and effort spent collecting water can be reduced, and this time can be allocated to other income-generating activities
  • Expenditure saving: Improved water supply means less money is spent on buying water from vendors and on the treatment of illness.
  • Food security and nutrition: Backyard irrigation or keeping livestock becomes easier. Whilst home-based production may be small, it provides a nutritious and secure form of food.

What needs to be done?
Community participation in water management and surveillance is exactly what Math Village undertook to turn their water situation around. They worked hand-in-hand with a corporate foundation, and undertook a three-phase approach, educating themselves about the importance of regular water quality testing and understanding the steps necessary to treat and manage the water. By empowering themselves and learning the skills to address water quality issues, the problem was solved sustainably.

The provision of clean drinking water has been given priority in the Constitution of India, with Article 47 conferring the duty of providing clean drinking water and improving public health standards to the State. The Government of India’s flagship program, Jal Jivan Mission (JJM) has given priority to motivating local panchayats and community groups for community water quality surveillance.

Community awareness on water quality aspects is therefore paramount. Many water quality problems are caused due to communities being unaware of the different aspects of managing and maintaining the quality of water resources.

Prioritisation of both access and quality
Supplying drinking water for India’s population is a gargantuan task. It requires a focus on ensuring access to water, while simultaneously ensuring that its quality is safe for consumption. The issue is complicated and no one institution can address it alone. There is a role for everyone to play—communities, government and civil society—and collaboration is key to is success.

The writer is a CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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