Why water and sanitation must remain top priorities | Opinion
They are critical in times of a pandemic. Despite financial constraints, don’t cut expenditure and investment in theseUpdated: Jul 15, 2020 20:02 IST
Could the coronavirus pandemic be the catalyst needed to aggressively pursue the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water and sanitation? Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are critical in protecting us during infectious disease outbreaks. Washing hands was one of the key messages when the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) goals were set five years ago.
The SDGs constitute 17 main goals, most of them interconnected. But the fate of SDG-6, to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” is critical now. This contributes significantly to economic development, poverty reduction, education, and, most important, at this point in time, health.
While rural India was declared open-defecation-free (ODF) on October 2, 2019, we now need to sustain the gains made under SBM to ensure that the health and hygiene benefits continue to be realised. It is critical that ODF behaviour is sustained, and every village/ward has access to solid and liquid waste management. Aligned to that, SBM Phase II both in rural and urban, brings challenges which are likely to be tougher.
SDG Target 6.1 requires achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. While this is a difficult target, the current pandemic may have encouraged governments to prioritise the supply of clean water. The government had demonstrated the willingness and vision to address water woes months ahead of the pandemic. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi flagged the growing water crisis even as the country neared the target of achieving ODF status, and declared that around ~3.5 trillion would be spent under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), aimed at providing potable water to all households by 2024.
The plan was to make JJM merit-based. A contest between state governments for central funds was proposed, which meant that states would be rewarded with funds based on commitments and outcomes. Besides, the central government also announced that it would be co-opting non-governmental organisations to help village councils and their sub-committees to manage the planning and running of the local water supply system.
There are challenges both because of the scale of operation of the programme as also finances, and both are turning out to be more difficult in this current crisis.
Historically, only 35 million Indian rural households have access to functional tap water. We have a total of 185 million households, which means we will have to cover four times more households in the next five years. After supplying water, we need to plan for the reuse of the grey water, or discharged water. Both these would have to be taken care of through the convergence of different government schemes.
A study on financial requirements and gaps for achieving the SDGs in India, conducted in 2015, at the behest of United Nations Development Programme and the ministry of environment, forest and climate change assessed that to achieve the SDG Target 6.1 would take ~4 lakh crore (2015-22) and Target 6.2 (related to sanitation and hygiene) would need ~1.56 lakh crore (2015-19). The expenditure on rural sanitation had increased at an annual growth rate of more than 20% over the last 10 years. This public financing, coupled with support from the World Bank ($1.5 billion loan for the rural mission), helped India to ensure that everyone in rural areas has access to improved sanitation, leading to the success of reduction of open defecation by 2019.
Providing adequate access to sanitation facilities did not end when onsite technologies were built (twin pits and septic tanks) under the mission. SDG Target 6.2 was upgraded to include the safe disposal or offsite treatment of excreta. This meant additional resources and a new time frame.
SBM Phase II addresses this in the rural context, getting positioned as a unique convergent and co-financing model wherein, apart from budgetary allocations from the Centre and states, funds will come from the 15th Finance Commission, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and private sector participation. The government had declared that phase II of SBM Rural, to be implemented from 2020-21 to 2024-25, will see investment to the tune of ~1,40,000 crore.
However, when things were right on track, Covid-19 struck and government budgets have gone haywire as resources have been reallocated to contain the spread of the virus and help those affected by it. So, water and sanitation have taken a back seat in the list of priorities. Based on a three-fold categorisation of ministries/departments, expenditure in several of these have been restricted to within 15-20% of that budgeted for FY21 in the April-June quarter — both SBM (Rural) and SBM (Urban) ministries fell within the 15% bracket.
There is evidence that similar viruses (but no evidence yet to suggest that SARS-CoV-2) can remain infectious for days to weeks in untreated wastewater (faecal matter included). Conventional wastewater treatment processes could reduce the risk, posed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus through untreated wastewater. While there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 due to contact with faeces of an infected individual, human waste is hazardous, contains numerous pathogens and so should be safely managed in all settings during and post the pandemic.
SDG Targets 6.1 and 6.2 remain relevant during this pandemic with their focus on hygiene, sanitation and provision of water, all of which impact the health of communities. Both central and state governments must direct spends to these areas — even in these difficult times.