76 Million Don’t Have Safe Drinking Water: India’s Looming Water Crisis

76 Million Don’t Have Safe Drinking Water: India’s Looming Water Crisis

Nearly 76 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water, as polluted rivers and poor storage infrastructure over the years has created a water deficit which may become unmanageable in the future
World Water Day Special
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Nearly 76 million people in India are without safe drinking water
Highlights
  • India is heading towards an unmanageable water crisis
  • By 2030 India will have a water deficit of 50 per cent
  • River pollution and poor storage infrastructure main reasons for scarcity

Bharat from Sunder Nagri in East Delhi has a weighty kit bag which he carries around and opens alongside water taps in the area. Every day, he collects water from the taps and begins testing it for impurities. A part of ‘Youth User Group’ first set up in 2012 by Action India in Sunder Nagri with support from WaterAid India, Bharat utilizes his water testing kit to determine if the water is safe for drinking or not.

Unfortunately, millions of Indians across the country are not equipped with such facilities to test whether the water consumed and used by them is safe enough or not. The dual problems of not having access to water, or having access to unsafe water have resulted in safe and hygienic water, a basic amenity becoming a luxury.

While drinking water, people usually check if the water is clear. If it looks clean, they assume that it is safe to consume. But this is often not the case. Water looking clean might not be always safe, Bharat says.

Access to safe drinking water has been a grave problem for India, especially in rural areas where lack of usable water has resulted in decades old sanitation and health problems.

Water being tested before use is quite common in India
Water being tested before use is quite common in India

Government records show that in 1980, just 1% of India’s rural areas had access to safe, usable water. By 2013, that had increased to 30%, but the majority of rural India continues to live without proper access to safe drinking water.

A WaterAid report in 2016 ranked India among the worst countries in the world for the number of people without safe water. An estimated 76 million people in India have no access to a safe water supply, and the situation is only getting more serious.

The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50 per cent. The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the country’s current water requirements to be around 1100 billion cubic metres per year, which is estimated to be around 1200 billion cubic metres for the year 2025 and 1447 billion cubic metres for the year 2050.

India's projected water requirement in 2025 and 2050
India’s projected water requirement in 2025 and 2050

With a projected population growth of 1.4 billion people by 2050, the total available water resources would barely match the total water requirement of the country.

India is not a water scarce country. Along with having major rivers, we receive an average annual rainfall of 1170 millimeters. But lack of sensitisation with regard to both conservation of water and pollution of water sources has resulted in a large part of the population for whom water has become more of a curse than a boon. Infrastructure for storage of water must be developed properly to ensure that people have access to safe water across the country, said Dr. Narayan G. Hegde, Trustee of the BAIF Development Research Foundation and author of the report ‘Water Scarcity in India.’

Polluted Rivers, Shrinking Access To Water

Water supply in India has two principal sources, namely water from rivers and groundwater. However, the rivers are shrinking because of pollution and industrialization, while the population keeps growing, pushing us towards an enormous water deficit.

Rampant pollution, dumping of sewage waste and abuse of the rivers has led to large sections of important rivers like Ganga and Yamuna becoming unfit for use. Take for instance, the Ganga, which flows through 11 states of India and provides water to more than 500 million people.

Many parts of the Ganga in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have become completely unfit for use because of incessant waste disposal, ranging from dead bodies and to industrial waste. Earlier the water in many parts of these two states could be consumed and used for other purposes, but pollution has rendered the river water completely useless, said Vikas Chandra, an activist who has been campaigning for a pollution free Ganga for the last 19 years.

Vikas, who has spent nearly all his life near the banks of the river in Patna, says that the gradual decay in the quality of the water due to pollution over the years has created a deficit between the population and the volume of clean river water they have access to.

Pollution in Ganga has been a major problem in India
Pollution in Ganga has been a major problem in India

Safe drinking water, a basic amenity has become a luxury in many Indian households, especially in semi-urban and rural areas. Official figures show that each day, approximately 500 million litres of wastewater from industrial sources is dumped into the Ganga. The Yamuna, similarly receives 850 million gallons of sewage every day from Delhi alone. For those who are dependent on groundwater sources, the presence of arsenic in the eastern belt in the Ganga-Brahmaputra region poses equally dangerous threats.

Arsenic is a major problem, especially for people residing in the Ganga-Brahmaputra belt in eastern India. Arsenic laden water has many adverse health effects and affects over 900 million people in India. With India’s rivers becoming more polluted with every passing day, the dependency on groundwater resources is increasing. But steps must be taken to ensure that people do not end up using arsenic laden water, as that would be more harmful than beneficial,  said K.B. Biswas, Chairman, Central Ground Water Board.

Several initiatives have been undertaken to deal with the water crisis looming ahead of India, both by government and non-government bodies. In 2014, the 20,000 crore Namami Gange program was announced by the Union Government. It is a holistic program that not focuses on cleaning the Ganga, along with setting up biodiversity centers, crematoriums and toilets along the river banks to reduce pollution in the river.

Looking for water solutions beyond rivers

Cleaning up rivers is not the only solution India should look at, as rainwater and groundwater resources of India are also facing risk.

Data collected from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation states that 45,053 villages had access to piped water and handpumps by the end of 2016-17, accounting for 64.19 per cent of India. Almost 19,000 villages across the country still do not receive regular water supply.

18,917 villages in India are still without access to piped water
18,917 villages in India are still without access to piped water

In 2015, a report by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation stated that though India receives an average annual rainfall of 1170 mm, poor storage infrastructure allows it to store only 6 per cent of rainwater, compared to 250 per cent stored by developed nations.

Rainwater storage and harvesting is still not a regular practice in India. In 2001, the Tamil Nadu government made it compulsory for each household to have rainwater harvesting infrastructure and the results reflected in the improvement of overall water quality within 5 years. A similar experiment has been tried out in the cities of Bangalore and Pune, where housing societies are required to harvest rainwater. However, apart from these few examples, there is no pan India infrastructure for rainwater harvesting. It is important to empower local people and enable them to save water for usage.

The key is to look at securing drinking water and the role communities play in doing so. We are working to promote locally owned and managed drinking water security plans which are simple and can be used, monitored and managed by people and local governments, said Avinash Kumar, Director Program and Policy, Water Aid.

While ambitious government projects like the Namami Gange are slowly sowing the seeds of cleanliness on the river front, non-governmental bodies like WaterAid are reaching out to people, especially in semi-urban and rural areas where water scarcity can reach unmanageable proportions. By providing water testing kits, rainwater harvesting solutions and alternate water supply systems such as development of surface water, WaterAid is providing accessibility and storage solutions for available water resources.

Efforts have been made to clean up Ganga
Efforts have been made to clean up Ganga

With continuous efforts by both government and non-government bodies to improve the water situation in India, undoubtedly improvements have been achieved with regard to water accessibility. For such efforts to yield continued results, the focus on cleaning India’s major water bodies as well as proper management of rain and surface water resources should be further prioritised.

Also Read: A Woman Paddle-boards Across The Ganges To Spread The Swachh Message

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