Diving deep into rural India’s water security issues: Complexities require smart solutions

By: Vrindaa Sharma*

Access to safe drinking water is a serious concern, especially for rural communities. Better management practices involving agriculture and household water treatment will help in increased availability and access to safe water in rural areas. Water is a topic of huge concern for policymakers and public officials around the globe as well. Changing climate, rising populations, and expanding economic activities are all creating pressures on the finite water resources available. Twenty-one Indian cities are predicted to run out of groundwater this year (NITI Aayog, 2018). If consumption continues at the current rate, India is predicted to have only half the water it needs by 2030 (Jain, A. and Anand, R., 2020). Water is a matter of urgent concern as human lives and the entire economy depend on this critical resource. 

Though India has only 4 percent of the global water resources for 18 percent of the global population (World Bank, 2019), the situation is not hopeless. A large chunk of the problem can be solved if water management is improved at the local, state, and national level. India has the highest number of people with no access to safe drinking water, and the government is making efforts through schemes like Har Ghar Jal1 to bring piped water supply to every citizen. However, the quality of water supplied will need careful monitoring and assessment. A study on the existing condition of water supply systems found the water quality in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru to be highly unsafe and poor for drinking (Desai, D., 2019). In rural parts of the country, people must fight hard for their daily share of water. Weak infrastructure and inefficiency of the municipal bodies play a major role in cities and require strict action to be taken by the government. 

This struggle is not unique to India as water infrastructure globally has failed to deliver universal access to safe drinking water. Most African and Asian countries face this challenge, which is why it is given key importance in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The very first target under SDG 6 is to ensure clean water and sanitation aims to achieve “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all” by 2030. As India, along with the rest of the world, attempts to reach this target, two important areas of concern emerge. Availability of water and water quality are primary issues that Indian citizens struggle with, particularly in poor and rural households. This article looks at two solutions that can bring about much-needed improvements to resolve safe water availability and access issues for the rural populace.

Agriculture

In a predominantly agrarian economy, Indian farmers use 80 percent of the freshwater sources for irrigation, the majority of which comes from extracting groundwater (2030 Water Resources Group, 2009). Though only 48.2 percent of cultivable land in India is irrigated, water-intensive crops are grown on 54 percent of total cultivable land (GoI, 2017). Removing this high dependence on groundwater, by making other options such as check dams and canals suitable and easily employable, will reduce overexploitation of freshwater in irrigation and make potable water available in required quantities. Efforts by Sehgal Foundation, a rural development organization, to create 65 check dams, 183 recharge wells, and more than 185 rainwater harvesting structures in villages and schools has significantly helped communities in improving their access to water. Their work with rural communities over the last two decades has proven to have helped over 400 villages access water for irrigation as well as for drinking purposes (Sehgal Foundation, 2020).

Designing policies that promote the use of smart irrigation techniques and pushing farmers to conserve water and promote its judicious use will be an added push toward better management. Focusing on groundwater recharge and rejuvenation while controlling its over-exploitation are important steps to ensure water security in rural areas. Acting upon all of these steps together will help the country meet the needs for water.

Promoting HWTS

Improving water quality at the household level is a method recommended by experts. Villages rely heavily on groundwater for their drinking requirements, with 43 percent of rural households dependent on hand pumps as their principal source of drinking water (NSO, 2019). As most drink this water directly from its source, they have a high risk of suffering from water contamination and exposing themselves to waterborne disease. Groundwater in many parts of the country is contaminated with effluents like iron, fluoride, and arsenic that affects the health of the individual consuming it, making them unable to work, reducing their productivity, increasing financial burden due to medical expenses, and can even be fatal. Ill health and increased fatalities due to water contamination are major challenges that require proper treatment of water before consumption. Though some efforts by the government have paid off, with 87 percent rural households now having access to basic water, assessment of its quality can yield questionable results and can hardly be considered successful.

In such conditions, household water treatment and storage (HWTS) techniques are widely recommended and have proven to be beneficial especially for the vulnerable communities (UNICEF/WHO, 2009). Point-of-use water treatment solutions that are sustainable and low-cost options for villagers to treat their water directly include JalKalp, a biosand water filter developed by Sehgal Foundation that can be easily used by villagers as it requires minimal maintenance and delivers the intended results. The foundation’s research and work done on water treatment solutions at the household level have proven to be sustainable, ensuring safe and good quality water at point of use. The JalKalp filter removes biological impurities along with arsenic and iron contamination at a very low cost. Such innovations around the country have successfully helped local villagers treat their water before consumption and helped them save their families from waterborne illnesses. Promotion and scaling up of such technologies across the country will help reach the poorest people who suffer from the lack of safe water access.

Increasing evidence is available that household water treatment and safe storage are associated with significant health gains where available water is contaminated. Interventions to improve water quality at the source, along with treatment of household water and safe storage systems, have been shown to reduce diarrhoea incidence by as much as 47 percent (WHO, 2008). Household treatment can provide these benefits to underserved populations much more quickly than it will take to design, install, and deliver piped community water supplies (WHO, 2002). That is especially true for rural India, where only 11.3 percent households receive potable water directly in their homes (NSO, 2019) and where community-based solutions often fail owing to lack of resources, technical assistance, and/or regular maintenance. 

Water is a scarce natural resource that is complicated to manage. Water is mobile in nature; it flows, seeps, and evaporates. It is heavy and hence difficult to store; transportation is costly, and its quality differs in its different forms. Such complexities require careful planning and smart solutions to ensure efficient management of all water sources. The solutions described have proven to be successful and have the potential to solve water-security issues if scaled up properly.

*Vrindaa Sharma is Research Associate at S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development organization, registered in India since 1999

References:

Desai, D. 2019. Quality of water in India’s state capitals. Observer Research Foundation. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/quality-of-water-in-indias-state-capitals-58308/.

Government of India. 2017. Annual Report 2016-2017. Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at http://agricoop.gov.in/sites/default/files/Annual_rpt_201617_E.pdf.

Jain, A. and Anand, R. 2020. 10 things you need to know about the water crisis in India. India Development Review. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at https://idronline.org/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-water-crisis-in-india/.

National Statistical Office (NSO). 2019. NSS report no.584: Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing condition in India, NSS 76th round (July –December 2018). Government of India. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at http://www.mospi.gov.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/Report_584_final_0.pdf.

NITI Aayog. 2018. Composite Water Management Index. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at https://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/2019-08/CWMI-2.0-latest.pdf.

Sehgal Foundation. 2019. 20 Years Anniversary Report. Accessed on 12 June 2020. Available at https://www.smsfoundation.org/wp-content/themes/wpbootstrap/pdf/sehgal-foundation-20-years-anniversary-report.pdf.

UNICEF, WHO. 2009. Diarrhoea: why children are still dying and what can be done. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund, 2009.

World Bank. 2019. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at http://data.worldbank.org.

World Health Organization. 2002. Managing Water in the Home: Accelerated Health Gains from Improved Water Supply. WHO, Geneva. Accessed on 12 June 2020. Available at https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/WSH02.07.pdf?ua=1

World Health Organization. 2008. Safe Water, Better Health. WHO, Geneva.

2030 Water Resources Group. 2009. Charting Our Water Future: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making. Accessed on 26 March 2020. Available at https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/dotcom/client_service/sustainability/pdfs/charting%20our%20water%20future/charting_our_water_future_full_report_.ashx.

1 A scheme launched by the Government of India in 2019 with an aim to provide piped water supply to every rural household by 2024.

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