Regulatory vacuum, unregulated splurge

The water purification industry needs to be regulated to protect people from bogus claims on quality.

Notwithstanding the decision on a petition concer-ning water wastage by reverse osmosis filters pending with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Delhi Jal Board has taken a proactive stance to review the fate of its automatic water vending machines at six different locations that have been providing potable water to those without access to piped water. Following the success of the pilot initiative, 500 more water vending machines have been planned across the city. 

In collaboration with the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, the first water-ATM was set up at Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in Southwest Delhi, in June 2014. A reverse osmosis system-treated, locally-pumped groundwater was dispensed through 15 water kiosks located in the colony. Using smart cards, a customer could draw 20 litres of water at a time. At 30 paise for a litre, some 850 families have been using the pay-and-use facility.  

Such decentralised water-vending machines based on reverse osmosis (RO) technology have been in use for some years in many water-stressed rural areas in the country. They have been the favourite intervention to provide water under the corporate social responsibility initiatives. Under the public-private partnership model, hundreds of such units have mushroomed across the country with support from many international water development agencies. 

Inadequacy of the existing municipal services to reach out to households with assured quantity and reliable quality of water has led to a spurt in water purification technologies, both at the community as well as at household levels. Lack of regulatory restrictions on groundwater extraction has further contributed to the inevitability of the situation spiralling into an endless demand for a technology that ensures quality but not without creating an endless stream of wasted water.

This is what the petition to the NGT has brought to attention, on the basis of which the court has issued notices to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change and the Central Pollution Control Board. The petition concerns the unavoidable wastage of some 50-80 per cent of the feed water which, in the process of filtration, gets enriched with undesired salts as the RO filter pushes filtered water through a membrane.

Be it at home or at an industrial level, feed-water wastage is inevitable in all kinds of RO filters. The pressure with which feed-water is pushed through the membrane determines the wastewater output. No surprise, therefore, that while an industrial reverse osmosis filter may convert 30-50 per cent of feed-water into waste, a household filter ends up converting as much as 60-80 per cent of the same into concentrated waste.

This wastage of water may seem insignificant if one were to factor the cost of drinking polluted water in terms of its potential health risks. Rightfully so. But, given the fact that no less than five million domestic water filters are currently in use across the country, the cumulative water wasted cannot be easily ignored. Add some 3,000 bottled water brands with numerous small firms using the RO technology; the feed-water wastage is much serious than it has been perceived.

Unrestricted growth

Much of it has gone unnoticed on account of unrestricted growth of the water purification industry – estimated to be worth US$ 5 billion – for the following three inter-related factors: mistrust on public supply of water; unregulated access to groundwater resources; and unflinching faith in the RO technology. The shocking reality is that the popular trust on the RO technology has hardly been backed by any scientific research.

In a free market economy, pa-ckaged water and personalised purification technology will continue to evoke demand. Consumer protection through a validation of claims by the industry ought to be in place. No sooner had the petition been filed with the NGT, a leading brand had advertised its unsubstantiated claim that its RO filters were not wasting feed-water. In reality, a small storage tank has been in-built into the filtration unit to hold waste water.

The water purification industry needs to be regulated to protect consumers from bogus claims on water quality. It must be made mandatory for domestic water filter industry to mention feed-water discharge as related to water pressure, on their filters. It will be befitting to make consumers aware about the need for getting their water tested to justify the need for buying a water filter in the first place. As of today, buying RO filters is akin to a social status. 

Public health is another serious concern that needs to be looked into. Some water filters have introduced TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) controller to address consumers’ concern regarding the taste of water. This means that water gets randomly filtered of its dissolved solids. This could be dangerous, but as RO is a relatively new technology in the market, consumers tend to believe such claims without any regard to their health.

Since use of purification technologies at home and consumption of bottled water are a reflection of mistrust on public supply of water, public utilities should not only inform people about their purification process but must make public the quality of water supplied on a daily basis. Like the recently launched air quality index, a daily water quality index alone can address the unregulated splurge by the water filter industry.

(The writer, a researcher on water issues, is with the Ecological Foundation, New Delhi)

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