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Home / Analysis / Without clean water, fighting diseases is a pipe dream

Without clean water, fighting diseases is a pipe dream

As the number of coronavirus cases detected in India rises, health professionals have suggested frequent hand-washing as a precautionary measure. But getting people to do this may not be easy as many households across the country do not have adequate hand-washing facilities, according to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16).

analysis Updated: Mar 22, 2020 08:54 IST
Students wash their hands before attending a class at a governement-run high school, Secunderabad, March 4, 2020
Students wash their hands before attending a class at a governement-run high school, Secunderabad, March 4, 2020(AFP)

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 such days — the release of reports, speeches by experts and people-centric activities — will be muted this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a more appropriate time to underline the importance of water and its availability because there is a link between bad public hygiene and the spread of diseases. First, to avoid the spread of diseases, India has to ensure clean and adequate water for all. Second, there’s an express need to invest more in water conservation efforts to ensure long-term availability of the resource, given its indiscriminate use and the larger context of the climate crisis. And, third, the State and citizens must continue with the current push to improve general cleanliness and hand-washing even after the current coronavirus outbreak subsides. And for that, citizens will need an assured supply of not just water, but good quality water.

The scale of the water challenge, however, is humongous. A 2017 World Bank report said about 160 million of the country’s 1.3 billion people don’t have access to clean water and that 21% of communicable diseases are linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices. The government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, says 600 million Indians face acute water shortages. Even India’s public health infrastructure, which probably is the first port of call for the poor, often lacks adequate water and sanitation facilities. Barely 18% of rural households have access to piped water. Last year, the Centre said that at least 189.7 million rural habitations are getting less than 40 litres per capita per day, which is the norm while implementing rural water supply schemes for providing potable water.

Or take hand-washing. As the number of coronavirus cases detected in India rises, health professionals have suggested frequent hand-washing as a precautionary measure. But getting people to do this may not be easy as many households across the country do not have adequate hand-washing facilities, according to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16).

The enumerators could find a designated place for washing hands in about 97% of households surveyed, but not all of them with adequate cleaning facilities. Water was not available in 14% of these households at the place where hands were washed. In urban areas, the share of such households was only 6% compared to 18% in rural areas. To be sure, among the households that had water, about 19% had no cleaning agent such as soap, ash, mud or sand.

The Centre has been focusing on water conservation and trying to ensure piped water to households under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM). However, there is a question of resources. The allocation for JJM in the current financial year is ~11,500 crore, compared to ~10,000 crore last year.

The water challenge is only growing. Twenty-one Indian cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2030, affecting 100 million people, says a NITI Aayog report. Many villages too face a severe water crisis, leading to a development crisis, and it is also forcing people to migrate.

As the coronavirus episode shows, India doesn’t have the luxury of time to tackle the related challenges. Since building mega water conservation and distribution projects take time and funds, it is imperative that the State increases its push for small-scale, decentralised efforts to ensure a safe and healthy life for every citizen.

The views expressed are personal
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