Addressing the water filter paradox

It may have missed common attention that a modern city like Ludhiana wastes an estimated 15 million litres of water each day. Ludhiana is not alone, large metropolitan cities waste double that amount while the lesser endowed cities waste only half as much.

Add such involuntary contribution from all cities and towns, and one would get an astronomical figure of unbelievable proportions. This has been so when the country's per person water availability is shrinking each year — presently at an alarming low of 1,300 cubic meters having slipped from a high of 1,816 cubic meters in 2001. Without corrective measures, the situation is unlikely to look any better. 

Thanks to the growing penetration of reverse osmosis water filters at the household level, water wastage is bound to remain inevitable. With the best of brands reporting no more than 50% recovery, each litre of water secured through the system pushes some four to five litres down the drain. RO is a wasteful technology by design, all claims to the contrary are only to fleece the customers. With public water supply evoking little confidence in terms of quality, the domestic water filter market continues to exploit public sentiment by knocking at every door. Celebrity endorsements and attractive offers have pepped up the water filter market. 

With an expected cumulative annual growth rate of 15%, water purifier market in the country is expected to reach $4.1 billion by the end of 2024 as compared to $1.1 billion in 2015. According to the report of the US-based Transparency Market Research, RO filters will continue to expand its share in the water purifier market which stood at 37% in 2015.

“The promise of offering exceptional services to the end users and making pure water affordable are the two key strategies being adopted," according to the report. For its quality, a growing number of consumers are investing in RO and UV technology. 

Water wastage from such filters notwithstanding, the demand for affordable and clean drinking water has continued to propel demand for RO water filters across the country. What's more, commercial RO filtration units are gaining popularity across rural and semi-urban areas. While large corporations taking pride in supporting non-profits under their CSR portfolio, several MPs are diverting MPLADS (MP Local Area Development Scheme) funds to finance such water ATMs. In the absence of any directives on waste water disposal from ATMs, discard from RO plants is invariably contaminating existing surface water sources. 

It is a Catch-22. People's lack of faith in the quality of water supplied by urban water utilities has come as a boon for the filter water industry. Filter water industry is perfectly placed to exploit the situation, presenting RO water filter as a new health status symbol. Coming with an enviable water quality tag endorsed by celebrities like Hema Malini and Madhuri Dixit, even those households who may do well with a gravity water filter are switching over to a RO system. Ironically, consumers consider water wastage as an unavoidable opportunity cost of using a RO water filter for maintaining a healthy life. 

There is no denying that a RO filter is best suited for water with higher turbidity and suspected dissolved contaminants, but it is also a fact that not all water supplied justifies the blanket use of RO filters. Gravity purifier, sediment purifier and other filters are as effective, provided consumers are aware of the quality of water supplied to them. There are two ways in which the crises of sorts can be averted. First, it should be made mandatory for the urban water utilities to flag their supplied water quality periodically for consumers to make an informed choice on picking the right filter to match the suspected water quality.   

Second, and perhaps more important, is the need to regulate the water filter industry. Not only should each brand explicitly reflect its water recovery data, it must carry a clear message on what quality of input water would suit best the RO filter under reference. It will then be left for the consumer to take a call. If celebrity endorsements carry such a message loud and clear, a significant saving on water can be expected at the household level. It is now for the Niti Aayog to take up this matter.

(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and development professional)

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