Is Day Zero nearing?

Is Day Zero nearing?

First published in 1798, these near-prophetic lines from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ seem to have been written with 21st century India in mind,...

“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

First published in 1798, these near-prophetic lines from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ seem to have been written with 21st century India in mind, for the country is – and has been for some time – dealing with a growing safe drinking water issue that is as massive and widespread as it is troubling.In a 2016 report, global water and sanitation non-profit organisation WaterAid estimated that 76 million Indians did not have access to that most basic of necessities: safe drinking water.

Around 76 million – that is almost half of Bangladesh’s total population, and more than one-third of Pakistan’s current population. Let that information sink in.

If this sounds bad, consider this: a 2017 ASSOCHAM-PwC joint study estimates that, by the end of the next decade, India will be unable to meet 50 per cent of its water demand. The report also highlighted how India would need to invest around $291 billion more to improve the infrastructure just enough to address the ever-widening gap between demand and supply of water. According to government data from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, almost 19,000 villages in India are yet to receive regular water supply. In a country that is estimated to be home to more than 1.4 billion people by 2030 and is looking to establish itself as a global politico-economic superpower, this is an extremely worrying statistic.

Pollution and population:
The twin founts of India’s growing water problem

What makes all these projections surprising is the fact that India, as a nation, is not water scarce. It has some of the world’s largest rivernetworks and has numerous fresh water bodies spread throughout the country; the Ganga alone is estimated to provide water to around 500 million people across 11 states.

According to a 2014 AQUASTAT report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, India has approximately 1,911 billion cubic metres of renewable water reserves, making it the world’s 8th largest renewable water supplying country. It also receives nearly 1,170 millimetres as average rainfall every year. So why does India still face such a huge challenge when it comes to providing for the water-related needs of its citizens?

Two of the biggest reasons behind India’s growing water concern is rampantindustrialisation and growing urbanisation. Having largely been an agrarian economy till the 1960s, the country has witnessed anexplosion in the number of installed industrial unitssince the early 1970s. This shift towards industrialisation coincided with a mass migration from sub-urban and rural geographies to emerging urban centres across the country in search of better professional and educational opportunities – a trend which continues till date.

These changes, by themselves, are not problematic.Their subliminal impact, however, is. Most manufacturers operating in India don’t implement adequate waste disposal processes and often discharge untreated waste into nearby water bodies. As a result, contaminants like fluoride, arsenic, iron, nitrate, and heavy metal make their way into the groundwater table and river streams. Moreover, the rapid, unplanned urbanisation trajectory that India has been on has led to multiple issues, such as that of improper sewage disposable.

All these factors leave water from most major freshwater sources in the country unfit for consumption; an estimated 500 million litres of industrial wastewater is fed into the Ganga on a daily basis, while New Delhi alone dumps around 800 million litres of untreated or partially-treated sewage in the Yamuna.

Surface runoff of rainwater caused by ever-increasing urbanisation also hinders the rate at which groundwater tables can get replenished. An almost non-existentrainwater harvesting infrastructure across India further adds to the problem; where developed countries save and store around 250 per cent of their annual rainfall, India barely saves 6 per cent. As a result, water consumption in many parts of India exceeds the locally renewable water resources by a factor of two, and major metropolitan areas such as Bengaluru and Chennai are facing water-related issues of epic proportions.Bengaluru, in particular, is estimated to be fast approaching a ‘DayZero’ scenario where taps across the city will soon run dry.

What also exacerbatesan already-critical water crisis in the country is the lack of awareness around the need for clean and hygienic drinking water, especially in the regions outside metropolitan and tier-1 cities. People living in semi-urban and rural geographies often don’t associate their health issues with unsafe drinking water. This, combined with the dearth of accessible sourcesof clean drinking water in these areas, leaves a significant percentage of Indians at extremely high risksof chronic health issues; it is estimated that more than 900 million citizens in the country are vulnerable to ailments such as fluorosis and arsenic poisoning caused by contaminated drinking water.

Let there be water:
The solution to India’s water crisis, and technology’s role in it

To even think of addressing the country’s clean water demand-supply deficit, there has to be a concerted effort towards raising awareness about the issue on a pan-India level. Sensitisation programmes around water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) need to be made a part of the school curricula in order to ingrain the importance of this most critical of resources. Large-scale campaigns need to be initiated in order to educate people about the ill-effects of drinking unsafe water, as well as the steps they can take to ensure that the water that they drink and use is fit for consumption.

The emphasis of such training must be more on smart water management, reducing water losses, and increasing the uptake of water-efficient technological practices; desalination must only be used asthe last resort, with cheaper and less energy-intensive desalination methods implemented.

Technology can play a key role in providing innovative solutions to age-old problems. Several new-age companies have already launched tech-led water ATMs that are enabling better access to clean drinking water across the country.

Based on smart technologies such as cloud, mobile, big data, analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT), these machines can provide real-time visibility over the quality of water being dispensed on a 24x7 basis. Moreover, since they are developed and designed for flexible operations and area-specific customisations, they can be deployed to cater to the precise requirements of a particular region without any hassle. Such socially conscious businesses have already impacted the lives of millions and millions of Indians living in less-developed rural/semi-urban areas and urban slums across the country.

The government, too, needs to ramp up its focus on water-related issues through larger financial allocation, better on-ground deployment of initiatives, and greater involvement at the grassroots level through public-private partnerships.

Stringent guidelines and policies against improper waste disposal into water sources should be formulated and implemented, forcefully and immediately, across the country in order to restrict water pollution.

In case water vending machines have been installed in a particular area, public agencies must take charge of running awareness campaigns to inform each and every individual within that geography. Interactive maps which highlight the locations of water ATMs can also be designed for large cities to create greater awareness.

Access to clean drinking water is the most critical concern for India at present, and enabling this will require nurturing a water-efficient culture across the country. Providing convenient access to clean drinking water is not only a basic requirementfor human sustenance, but is also the most fundamental right for any nation’s citizens, whether developing or developed.

By: Dr Vibha Tripathi
-The writer is Founder and Managing Director, Swajal Water

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