Without clean water, fighting disease is an impossible dream: analysis
Today is World Water Day. The theme for 2020 is “Water and Climate Change”, and how the two are inextricably linked. The official functions that mark those days, the publication of reports, expert speeches and people-centered activities, will be silenced this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, there is no more appropriate time to emphasize the importance of water and its availability because there is a link between poor public hygiene and the spread of disease. First, to prevent the spread of disease, India must guarantee clean and adequate water for all. Second, there is an express need to invest more in water conservation efforts to ensure the long-term availability of the resource, given its indiscriminate use and the broader context of the climate crisis. And third, the state and citizens must continue the current push to improve overall cleanliness and handwashing even after the current coronavirus outbreak disappears. And for that, citizens will need an assured supply not only of water, but also of good quality water.
The scale of the water challenge, however, is enormous. A 2017 World Bank report said that approximately 160 million of the 1.3 billion people in the country do not have access to clean water and that 21% of communicable diseases are related to unsafe water and lack of hygiene practices. Government expert group NITI Aayog says 600 million Indians face severe water shortages. Even India’s public health infrastructure, which is probably the first port of call for the poor, often lacks adequate water and sanitation facilities. Barely 18% of rural households have access to running water. Last year, the Center said that at least 189.7 million rural homes are receiving less than 40 liters per capita per day, which is the norm when implementing rural water supply schemes to provide drinking water.
Or take the handwash. As the number of coronavirus cases detected in India increases, health professionals have suggested frequent hand washing as a precaution. But getting people to do this may not be easy, as many homes across the country do not have adequate hand-washing facilities, according to the National Survey of Family Health (2015-16).
The enumerators were able to find a designated place to wash their hands in approximately 97% of surveyed households, but not all with adequate cleaning facilities. Water was not available in 14% of these households at the place where they washed their hands. In urban areas, the proportion of these households was only 6% compared to 18% in rural areas. Without a doubt, among the households that had water, around 19% did not have cleaning agents such as soap, ash, mud or sand.
The Center has focused on water conservation and has tried to guarantee the piped water supply to the homes of the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM). However, there is a question of resources. The allocation for JJM in the current financial year is ~ 11.5 billion rupees, compared to ~ 10 billion rupees last year.
The water challenge is only growing. Twenty-one Indian cities, including Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2030, affecting 100 million people, according to a report by NITI Aayog. Many villages are also facing a severe water crisis, leading to a development crisis, and it is also forcing people to migrate.
As the coronavirus episode shows, India does not have the luxury of time to face related challenges. Since the construction of mega water conservation and distribution projects requires time and funds, it is imperative that the State increase its pressure for small-scale decentralized efforts to guarantee a safe and healthy life for all citizens.
The opinions expressed are personal.