After ODF, next goal should be clean drinking water

A boy drinks water from a bowerwell near SPV Circle in Kalaburagi. DH Photo/Prashanth HG

‘Swachh Bharat’ or, more precisely, making villages, districts and states ‘Open Defecation Free (ODF)’, has had mixed results, not unsurprising in a large and varied country like India. But what is fascinating is the amount of action and communication it focused on the goal and the effort and resources it helped mobilise and apply. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene are customarily clubbed into WASH. Can there be a drive, similar to the one for achieving ODF status, to ensure access to safe drinking water for all?

Diarrhoea and related deaths are preventable through a combination of safe sanitation and safe drinking water. While the country is moving towards ODF status in many cities and villages, the same cannot be said about clean drinking water access and availability. The seriousness of the situation has been emphasised in many reports at different points in time, measuring different dimensions (often not agreeing with each other), but the underlying message is hard to miss.

In the last few years, India’s efforts to tackle diarrhoea have led to a 52% fall in deaths of children below the age of four, but the prevalence of diarrhoea at 9.2%, as reported by the National Health Data Survey, is still high. Despite the improvement in both adult, maternal, child and infant mortality, diarrhoea remains among the leading causes of death in Indian children below the age of five, killing an estimated 321 children everyday. It is estimated that 163 million Indians lack access to safe drinking water.

The tragedy is, many households in villages that have been declared ODF are not yet ‘Contaminated Drinking Water Free (CDWF)’. As more villages and districts become ODF, the gap between ODF status and CDWF status will only increase.

According to the August 2018 CAG report, there has been a decrease in the share of allocation towards drinking water (from 87% in 2009-10 to 31% in 2018-19). The National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), despite spending 90% of its Rs 89,956 crore budget over five years till 2017, has not achieved its targets. Not only do a large number of rural households not have piped water connectivity, access is a challenge in urban households, including slums, too. More than 70% of piped water households in urban India get less than two-thirds of the promised quantity.

However, immediate attention is required on the ‘water quality’ front. India is placed 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated. It is therefore extremely important for government programmes on water to look beyond creating assets. This clearly means ensuring appropriate quality, quantity, and reliability of water supply, as a measure of preventive healthcare in both rural and urban areas.

There is another important dimension, that of inter-linkages of ‘access’ and ‘quality’ with ‘source sustainability’. In mid-2018, a Niti Aayog report cautioned us that by 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply.

There is therefore an urgent need to focus on reducing water wastage, primarily in agriculture. Of all the different uses, irrigation for agriculture alone accounts for over 80% of water use in India, followed by industry and lastly domestic usage. This suggests that a lot of water wastage in agriculture will have to be reduced, comprehensively focusing on conservation and water use efficiency.

The government has taken cognisance of this and Niti Aayog has developed a Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), based on the data from central and state resources to enable effective water management.

Non-state players

Another visibly bright spot with a lot of potential is related to the participation of non-state players, be it academia, corporate foundations or multilateral organisations like UNICEF, bringing in ‘proven’ models and know-how of technology application. This has a huge potential to address the crisis, provided their barriers to scale are addressed by the government.

For example, on the academia front, there are examples of IIT-Bombay’s contribution in devising a standard operating procedure for small pipe schemes, IIT-Madras’ work on addressing arsenic contamination, as well as the collaborative effort of Safe Billion with Gadgil Water Labs of UCLA. Similarly, Niti Aayog’s Aspirational Districts programme is working with multiple foundations and CSR initiatives, contributing from devising decentralised solutions to ensuring safe and affordable drinking water at the last mile to communities, to supporting recycling and treatment of wastewater to mobilisation through swachhta preraks. 

There is an urgency and criticality with which drinking water access and quality issues need to be addressed. Instead of one single blueprint, flexibility in approach allowing for contextual adjustments with a focus on community/habitation as a unit should be preferred. ‘Contaminated Drinking Water Free’ habitation status should become the outcome indicator.

Issues of water-borne health risks, water quality, access and source sustainability are all interlinked and should be addressed parallelly. This requires enhancing and strengthening of participation of academia, philanthropic and developmental organisations along with coordination and convergence in actions of various departments and ministries, ranging from those for natural resources to agriculture, drinking water and sanitation to health, housing and urban affairs to women and child development.

While the challenges are enormous, so are the opportunities for cross-learning. What will ultimately matter is how one galvanises a nation’s imagination and efforts towards a single goal. Therefore, realising ‘CDWF’ status for every habitation should be the next goal!

(The writer is CEO of Piramal Sarvajal, a social enterprise and part of the Piramal Foundation)

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After ODF, next goal should be clean drinking water

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