Tackling the safe drinking water crisis

by Poonam Sewak

Safe Water Network’s initiatives are giving a fighting chance to communities dealing with a scarcity of clean drinking water while generating livelihoods, especially for women.

Highlights:

  • 21 cities in India are predicted to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting around 100 million people according to a report by NITI Aayog.
  • Safe Water Network aims to promote a safe drinking water model and provide technical assistance to other NGOs and government to scale it.
  • Safe Water Network has been working with communities in Ghana and India to promote Water ATMs – water dispensing kiosks operated and maintained by social entrepreneurs which give communities access to 24×7 affordable, safe drinking water.

Dependable supply of safe drinking water is imperative for the growth of Indian economy. India faces its severest water crisis due to climate change, surface water contamination and excessive exploitation of groundwater. It is predicted that at least 21 cities in India will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting around 100 million people and 40 per cent of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, according to a report by NITI Aayog. Scarcity of water will disrupt the region’s stability, hamper economic prosperity and destroy ecosystems and local ecology. To continue on the economic growth trajectory, India needs to urgently strive for water availability, accessibility and quality. Water management needs to be judicious and improved so that we have enough water for our farms, firms and families.

According to the World Health Organisation, each individual requires about 25 litres of water daily for meeting their basic hygiene and food needs. The rest is used for non-potable domestic and other purposes. This indicates that for most of the non-potable uses, a quality lower than drinking water is required. Thus, water must be treated and supplied according to usage for economic efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Annually, about 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases, 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea and 73 million working days are lost leading to an economic burden of $600 million a year. An additional problem arising out of this shortage is that women of the community are being burdened with the responsibility of water collection, for which they need to walk for miles every day or wait for water tankers leading to loss of economic opportunity. India ranks a dismal 108th out of 149 countries in gender employment. It is estimated that women contribute only 17 per cent to the countries’ GDP as compared to a global average of 37 per cent. It is interesting to note that 80 per cent of water is collected by the women in households that do not have access to drinking water in their premises, and globally, women spend over 200 million hours collecting water every day.

Although the government has allocated a budget of $70.4 billion (Rs 500,000 crore) to provide piped water to every home by 2030, we need immediate, cost-effective solutions so that we do not lose a generation waiting for water from for large infrastructure projects. Thousands of social entrepreneurs have thus surfaced to develop solutions to solve the water crisis.

It is logical to make safe drinking water available through ‘Water ATMs’ or Any Time Water dispensing kiosks operated and maintained by social entrepreneurs through which community members have access to 24×7 affordable, safe drinking water. These automated Water ATMs dispense water through a coin or a pre-paid smart card, for Rs 5/20L in containers that consumers bring, thus preventing plastic scourge. This alternate solution can provide safe drinking at a fraction of the cost.

Safe Water Network has been working with communities in Ghana and India since a decade to promote this social enterprise, safe drinking water model and provide technical assistance to other NGOs and government to scale it. These decentralised kiosks sustainably provide access to affordable, reliable drinking water to communities to improve public health and generate livelihoods. They have also helped reduce women’s drudgery and provide for water security. Each water kiosk equipped with a water treatment plant provides safe drinking water complying to national water quality standards and services about 3,000-5,000 residents living within its vicinity. It has brought safe water access to over a million people and has generated about 800 livelihoods of which 23 per cent are women entrepreneurs or operators.

In the last decade, Safe Water Network has developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for setting up these kiosks, training and capacity building program for water entrepreneurship development, deploying internet of things and digital platform for training and monitoring. In a sector that suffers from 66 per cent failure rate of defunct or sub-optimally performing safe water kiosks, Safe Water Network is able to provide sustainable 24×7 water for five years with less than 2 per cent downtime to communities.

This program is a successful example of a Public-Private partnership as it is the collective responsibility of all stakeholders to ensure drinking water to all. The government provides the infrastructure – land, raw water source and electricity – the private sector provides philanthropic grants for one-time capital expenditure for setting up the water purification kiosk, the NGO trains social entrepreneurs and monitors the program and consumers that buy water. The revenues from the water sale pay for the operating cost of electricity, consumables, operator salary and entrepreneur return. Thus, the community gets safe drinking water for five years. Through this social innovative model, we can deliver safe affordable drinking water to a million more communities to improve public health, bring gender parity and combat climate change.

Poonam Sewak is Vice President, Knowledge and Partnerships at Safe Water Network India.

About the Author: Poonam Sewak