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The big thirst

Your monthly water bill does not tell the whole story behind the social, economic and opportunity cost that millions pay for the most basic right – access to safe drinking water.
Last Updated : 10 December 2022, 20:08 IST
Last Updated : 10 December 2022, 20:08 IST

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What does water mean to you?

Gaddankeri Cross in the Bagalakote District of Karnataka is always buzzing. This busy junction on the highway is literally the midpoint between Hubballi and Vijayapura. A water kiosk right at these crossroads is a go-to place for a variety of people. The entrepreneur who runs the Annapurneshwari Hotel needs this clean, potable water for his business. So also Shanappa Sangappa, the owner of Nisarga Dhaba. The temple nearby offers this water to devotees. Bajantri, the headmaster of the Lower Primary Government School located right behind the water purification plant, ensures that all the children drink this water while at school. A lorry driver pulls up and fills his mobile water tank for his long drive, and of course, for his hot radiator. The water kiosk is a means of livelihood for one, a matter of public service to another, a source of long-term health and well-being for hundreds of young kids, and responsible for ensuring a thirst-free journey for a multitude of people.

Between 2010 and 2030, India’s water demand is predicted to increase at a 2.8% Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR), with the country facing a supply gap of 50% by 2030. That begs the question, what is the “value” of water, especially quality drinking water, to each person? It depends. Some of us have the capacity to pay more for the convenience, be it home delivery of purified water or a high-quality and expensive water filter at home. For many others, it is either lack of choice or a lack of access. Shocking as it may sound, it can simply be a lack of awareness. The benefits that some get and the price that others pay can have consequences over an entire lifetime. The damage in perpetual health issues is a huge price in itself. Simply put, there are winners and losers when it comes to access to water.

Economic benefits

Investing in safely managed drinking water not only protects health but also paves the way for positive social, economic and environmental change. Good quality water reduces healthcare costs and increases productivity, thus yielding economic benefits for the household. The lack of access to potable water exacerbates existing imbalances in society, be it the rural-urban divide or gender inequity. When safe water is made more accessible, less time and effort is spent in physically collecting it, and can instead be utilised for other productive activities. This makes a significant difference in India, where women and girls often single-handedly bear the burden of collecting water for the family. It is not an uncommon sight to witness women in rural India travelling long distances to obtain water. Indian women spend around 150 million workdays yearly just to fetch water, resulting in a loss of approximately Rs 10 billion in income.

Access to water can improve lives and is key for socio-economic empowerment. Sustainable Development Goal 6 (ensuring inclusive access to clean water and sanitation facilities) has a direct association with health, food security and livelihoods. As per the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s SDG Index Report 2019, India scores 56.6 per cent in terms of its SDG 6 achievement, and there is a lot to be done to reach the SDG 6 targets for 2030.

Water can be a great leveller. Just as it finds its own level by its very nature, water can level the playing field for many who are left behind. As it becomes an even scarcer commodity, equitable access and distribution will determine how this world will look in the decades to come.

What’s the game-changer?

Access to drinking water has been an area of concern in India as water supply and delivery systems are disproportionately spread out. While urban areas, despite their own issues, fare better in access, the rural pockets of the country lag behind. Enter the Jal Jeevan Mission. Enabled by community participation, focused target setting and fuelled by smart technology, the access-to-water map is being redrawn rapidly. If the same momentum is maintained, this could be a game-changer in rural India.

In 1992, the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in Dublin put forth that water has an economic value and should be recognised as an economic good, while also reflecting that it is the basic right of every person to access clean water at an affordable price. Irrespective of the price of drinking water, there are wide discrepancies in the accessibility, availability and quality of water supplied. Improved drinking water sources are those which can potentially deliver safe water, such as rainwater, household connections, piped water, tube wells, packaged water, etc. UN criteria specify that the highest level of drinking water service for households is safely managed drinking water, using an improved source that is accessible on the premises, available when needed, and free from contamination. A lesser service is basic drinking water, where drinking water from an improved source is not available on the premises. Households are considered to have access to basic drinking water when the time spent collecting water (including time spent in the queue) does not exceed 30 minutes.

The urban landscape is complex. Potable water for drinking and cooking is supplied through public water systems as well as private sources. While the government is the key player in fixing the price of water, economics is not necessarily the driving factor or the rationale behind the price of water. Users pay for water in the form of connection fees, water tax and fixed water charges. Drinking water is a subject regulated by State governments and there is quite a variance in water tariffs. The justification behind the pricing is not something the public is generally made aware of. As recommended by the 2012 National Water Policy, an independent statutory Water Regulatory Authority (WRA) at the State level ought to determine fair pricing for drinking water, with water charges determined on a volumetric basis. Currently, Maharashtra is the only state that has a functioning WRA.

The aspect of pricing

Pricing is just one aspect of the multi-layered equation. Availability of water is a big area of concern. India is the largest user of groundwater, and roughly 85% of our country’s rural drinking needs and 50% of urban requirements are fulfilled by groundwater alone. The Water Policy suggests that we should reduce the over-drawing of groundwater by regulating the electricity used for its extraction. In 2019, the government established the concept of a Water Conservation Fee (WCF), payable based on the category of the area, type of industry and the quantum of groundwater extraction. Climate change is going to upend a lot of assumptions and current calculations.

Access disparities are reducing between the haves and the have-nots in cities and major towns. However, affordability and availability issues cannot be ignored. Preventing leakages, revamping ageing pipe systems, and lowering the prices of smart meters that ensure efficiency and greater accountability -- these are just a few issues that need to be addressed.

The Jal Jeevan Mission [JJM], with the vision of “every rural household equipped with adequate drinking water supply”, is backed by a massive budget and political will, both at the Centre and state levels. However, Indian water supply systems are largely overstressed and underinvested. Governance is uneven at best and there are wasteful practices. Along with deep pockets, India’s drinking water conundrum requires optimal management of water resources and sustainable delivery of safe water access through collaborative action. With the increasing emphasis on access to water as a fundamental need for sustenance, awareness levels among communities are growing. Panchayats, households, and farmers, among others, are seeing a change in their quality of life when safe drinking water is accessible.

Women leading the way

It is well known how women and girls bear the brunt of the lack of access to safe water. How amazing would it be for women to be in a position of power when it comes to water, as opposed to being at the receiving end?

Many innovative efforts around the country are actually doing this. Self-help groups of women from Maharashtra to Telangana to Uttar Pradesh are coming together to be enablers of safe and affordable water in their communities.

Women across the country are also playing an active role in the village water and sanitation committees set up at the panchayat levels. The success of a national endeavour like the Jal Jeevan Mission is hugely dependent on the central role of women. NGOs in the water sector and the government are ensuring that women are in the driver’s seat as the effort to democratise water access further penetrates the nooks and corners of the country.

With inputs from Sruthakeerthy Sriram and Anshul Chiranth

The author is a global social entrepreneur working in the area of safe water access.

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Published 10 December 2022, 20:06 IST

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