Undiluted truth of clean drinking water: How to quench the parched earth

At Sonbardi village, in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, irrigation tanks, meant to be used by villagers in summer, are already running dry. In the past few years, fetching water has become a full-time occupation for the villagers. “It is only March and water shortages have already begun here,” said Mansur Khorasi, who is with Dilasa, a non-government organisation (NGO) working to revive traditional watershed management and rainwater harvesting techniques in Vidarbha.

 

Khorasi added, “Clean drinking water is a pipe dream for many here.” Even as World Water Day is observed on Wednesday, Khorasi estimated at least 50 per cent of Yavatmal is going to be affected by drought this summer.

 

Yavatmal is not an isolated case. India, the fastest-growing big economy, is at the bottom in a recent ranking of countries with access to drinking water, published by WaterAid, a global advocacy group on water and sanitation. According to the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), 70,992 people in rural areas do not have access to clean water. The official Ground Water Resources Assessment says more than a sixth of India’s groundwater supply is being overused. This dismal picture is at odds with the NRDWP’s ambitious goal of providing piped water to at least 90 per cent of rural households by 2022, and universal availability by 2030. Experts believe a systematic approach and a concerted effort by the states (water is a state subject) can help achieve this goal.

 

Safe Water Network’s (SWN’s) Country Director Ravindra Sewak said the goal of supplying water to every household by 2030 can be hastened by facilitating more public and private partnerships.

 

Its iJal station project has provided over a quarter of a million people with daily access to safe water since 2008, and is a good case. It provides 20 litres of drinking water for Rs 5 in ATM-style dispensing stations in some of the most arid districts in Telangana and Uttar Pradesh.  Rural entrepreneurs are trained to operate these stations; they earn up to Rs 9,000 per month, investing in all the fixed assets. SWN puts in the filtration technology, training, technical assistance and continuous monitoring. Each station costs less than Rs 2 million to set up and services 300-350 households.  Another example is of Amrita University’s Jivamritam, a modular water filtration system that uses activated carbon filters and ultraviolet radiation to render water safe for drinking. It is currently being tested at nine places in Kerala, and can be adapted to rid water of different, region-specific contaminants. Second — most topical since the theme of World Water Day, 2018, is Nature for water — is the need to sharpen the focus on watershed management, rainwater harvesting, and raising ground water levels.  In Rajasthan’s Karauli district, one of the 100 most backward, ‘Water Man’ Rajendra Singh’s NGO, Tarun Bhagat Sangh, is trying to improve the depleted water table and decreased water-absorption capacity of the soil by setting rainwater harvesting systems. In Yavatmal, Dilasa has installed doha models — traditional water-harvesting tanks dug inside seasonal river beds in 175 villages. Seventy of them no longer need to depend on government water tankers — or, an increasingly erratic monsoon. Sitaram Kowe of Rajani village recalled how, six years ago, his well had water at a depth of 25 feet. In Kowe’s village, an ecological transformation occurred after two dohas were constructed on a nearby riverbed.

 

“These tanks have ensured a plentiful water supply through the year,” he said. “But even more importantly, they have recharged the groundwater, and today, we have water at a depth of 10 feet!”

 

A comparison of water levels in neighbouring villages in Yavatmal —Mangurda (where Dilasa has installed watershed management systems) and Sonbardi (where there are none) — reveals the difference that two years can make. In Sonbardi, water levels have fallen from 1.4 meters in 2016 to 0.2 meters now. In Mangurda, water levels in wells have risen from 0.5 meters in 2016, when the watershed intervention began, to 1.5 meters. Developing a sustainable supply of clean water, recharging beleaguered aquifers and harnessing rainwater are important, but changing how we, as a society, consume water is crucial. For example, in the arid regions of central India, farmers could be incentivised to eschew water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane in favour of multi-cropping, using indigenous and drought-resistant varieties of millets and cotton.

 

Similarly, in urban households, reliance on water-guzzling reverse-osmosis filters can be reduced by installing community or resident welfare association-owned water treatment systems.

 

PIPE DREAM?

 

Status report on water in rural areas

 

  • Rural habitation fully covered by adequate, potable drinking water at 40 litres per capita per day (LPCD): 77.69 %
  • Rural habitation partially covered by adequate and potable drinking water at 40 LPCD: 18.19 %
  • Rural habitation not covered by adequate and potable drinking water at 40 LPCD: 4.11 % (total of 70,992 households)
  • Rural habitation that depends on non-piped water sources such as hand pumps, borewells and other similar water sources: 57.3%

Source: Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation report, Status Of Rural Habitation With Respect To Drinking Water Supply As On Date