Water Woes

As India gets ready for Holi, a reminder of our dire water problems

Almost 76 million people in India have no access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population.

It’s two days to Holi and the Delhi water minister, in festive and benevolent mood, has reassured the city’s revelers that they need not hold back in their celebrations for fear of running out of water. “People should play Holi with full heart, they should not think twice before using water," said the minister Kapil Misra to wire service IANS, adding that there was no water crisis in the city.

Delhi relies on water supply from outside the city-state. The disruption of water canals in Haryana during the Jat agitation last month underscored the city's vulnerability. Even if Delhi’s water supply is guaranteed for the moment, there’s little reason not to appeal for a Holi with as little wastage of water as possible when much of the rest of India is parched. Haryana, itself, just had its sixth drought in 11 years. Large parts of the country, from Bundelkhand to Marathwada to Mahbubnagar, have been reeling from back-to-back droughts and farmers reeling from consecutive crop failures.

India is currently the country with the greatest number of people living without access to safe water, according to a report released by international charity WaterAid on the occasion of World Water Day on Tuesday. There are close to 76 million people without access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population. The impact of this lack of access is seen in ill health effects, like the 140,000 annual child deaths from diarrhoea. Poor families that rely on buying water from tankers at the rate of Rs 1 per litre. To get the 50 litres of water recommended for a basic standard of health and hygiene, a person from low-income family in India will have to typically spend 17% of their income on buying water.

Infographic: WaterAid.
Infographic: WaterAid.

The WaterAid report contends that poor management of water resources has created India’s water problem. Most of our water, almost 85%, comes from our aquifers but over pumping water for agriculture and industry has sucked too much of this resource from the ground. With water being pumped out faster than it can be recharged by rain or surface water run off, water levels are falling in 56% of the country.

The parliamentary standing committee of water resources took note of this water crisis and mismanagement in a report to the Lok Sabha in December 2015. The committee noted that, while most rural households and industries tapped groundwater, 84% of irrigated farmland also relied on groundwater. The report estimates that there are 30 million structures to extract water from the ground across the country. Two hundred and forty five million cubic metres of groundwater is drawn up every year, which is 62% of the available groundwater.

Data from a 2011 assessment of groundwater resources by the Ministry of Water Resources shows in how many blocks in India the groundwater table has has been pushed too low. Blocks in which more than 100% of the groundwater table has been developed are called over exploited or "dark" blocks. Those in which more than 90% has been developed are deemed critical and those with more than 70% development are semi-critical.

The committee also noted that since the 2011 assessment “no serious and systematic efforts have been made by the government towards development, management, conservation and related issues such shortages, scarcity, depletion and pollution of ground water, in spite of the alarming trend towards ground water problems in both quantitative and qualitative terms”.

Our fast-depleting groundwater is also being polluted in cities and industrial clusters by municipal waste and industrial effluents. Geological process spurred in by over extraction of water has also caused arsenic contamination in places like Murshidabad and fluoride contamination in Birbhum, both in West Bengal.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the water scarcity is the general apathy to drought and the plight of a large number of invisible poor. In a column in The Indian Express in February, social worker and former IAS officer Harsh Mander wrote that governments are failing to respond to drought today and of the disinterest of people and the press in the crisis. Kapil Mishra’s encouragement not to hold back on Holi is another sign of that apathy.

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Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.