It has been less than a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government’s goal of ‘Har Ghal Jal,’ an ambitious program to provide clean water in every rural household in India. At the time, it was seen as an ambitious challenge in a country where only 18% of rural households have piped water at home.
Now, with COVID-19 threatening to sweep across India and hundreds of millions of Indians in rural villages being asked to wash their hands with water they do not have, the urgency of solving India’s eternal water crisis has rarely been more apparent.
Not that major cities have it much better. Even in Delhi, millions of families rely on illegal water tankers to make up for the capital’s hopelessly outmatched water system. Even as public health officials ask the public to respect the rules of social distancing, both urban and rural Indians have no choice but to share taps. India’s most burgeoning cities, including Bangalore, lack the infrastructure needed to keep themselves sustainably watered even under normal circumstances.
While the central government deliberates how to handle its path forward through lockdown, can it also seize this opportunity to drive home the need for a fundamental change in how 1.3 billion Indians use and access the water they need to survive – and, ultimately, to thrive?
A longstanding issue
Water scarcity has been a fact of life across India for generations, dating back to the harsh changes made to communal water management practices by British colonial authorities but more recently compounded by the rapid growth of India’s major cities. Whereas 31% of Indians lived in urban areas in 2011, 46% of the country will live in cities by 2025. By 2050, an estimated 814 million Indians will be city dwellers.
In these constantly growing urban areas, municipal water systems were simply not built for the numbers of people who now rely on them. In Delhi, an estimated 40% of water distributed by the official grid is ‘lost,’ either through leaks or, more often, quietly tolerated theft.
In rural areas, the changing climate has altered the seasonal monsoon patterns villagers depend on to water their crops and replenish their groundwater. In some areas, rainfall totals are dropping off precipitously. In others, excess rainfall is resulting in deadly flooding.
The lack of access to clean water, both for drinking and for bathing, was already putting hundreds of millions of Indians at risk from infectious diseases before COVID-19 emerged late last year. Communicable diseases including cholera, dysentery, and typhoid all continue to spread through rural India, in part because of subpar hand hygiene.
Between 2013 and 2017, Indian government statistics found that waterborne illnesses had killed 10,738 people. 60% of them had died of diarrhea, which can easily be prevented with proper sanitation and access to clean water.
The novel coronavirus’ not-so-unique dangers
Like these other diseases, the SARS-CoV-2 virus (widely known as the “novel coronavirus”) is able to spread more widely and more easily where clean water is scarce, but especially where sewage systems are failing to properly handle human waste. Researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) already suspect that the virus can spread through stool.
Evidence from the 2003 outbreak of the related SARS virus in Hong Kong has shown how fecal transmission caused by faulty plumbing can spread this type of respiratory illness among a community. Suspicions of the novel coronavirus spreading through unsealed pipes have already arisen during the current pandemic.
This means the daily open dumping of thousands of tons of human waste, where it can contaminate the water supply, is a potential vector for the further spread of the epidemic. Here again, infrastructural shortfalls are putting lives at risk. While the Modi government has built over 106 million toilets in four years, more than the country had constructed since independence 68 years prior, practically none of them are connected to the sewer system.
This means the toilets need to be pumped and the waste transported, which many in India refuse or are unable to do. Nor does the country have enough treatment plants to handle all the waste generated, whether or not it makes it to the sewage system. In urban areas, India only has enough capacity to treat 37% of the sewage its cities generate.
Pressing challenges demand long-term solutions
What, then, can both urban and rural Indians facing an extended lockdown do to protect themselves from this deadly new virus, and how can the government quickly expand access to clean water?
For many Indians, the solution has long been bottled water. Sales of bottled water were soaring in India even before the outbreak, with the market growing 19% annually in 2017. $1.38 billion (Rs9,010 crore) worth of bottled water were sold in India in the five-year period between 2012-2017.
With many poorer Indians unable to afford the expense, volunteer groups have taken to distributing it among the supplies they offer to the homeless and to stranded migrant workers. While major beverage brands like Coca-Cola have shut down most of their operations in the country, they continue to produce bottled water as an “essential beverage.”
Ultimately, however, the best possible outcome would be for the government to seize on this moment of crisis to drive forward with more ambitious and comprehensive programs to rapidly expand access to clean water and sanitation to all Indian families, regardless of where they live. Nearly ten years ago, the World Bank found inadequate sanitation was costing India 6.4% of its GDP. As diseases like COVID-19, cholera, and dysentery show us, however, the human costs of unequal access cannot be counted in rupees.
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