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Can India meet the water challenge?

Experts warn that India may very soon miss the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the population which does not have access to safe drinking water.
By Girish Chadha | IANS, Singapore
UPDATED ON AUG 03, 2007 04:52 PM IST

India has not been able to provide safe and adequate water supply for all even 60 years after independence. Even the national capital has very few pockets where 24x7 water supply is present.

Compare this with tiny Singapore, which has constant water supply despite the fact that it does not have any ground water and has seen a drop in per capita water consumption due to the government's proactive approach in demand management.

Experts warn that India will miss the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the population who do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities by 2015, if investments in the sector are not stepped up aggressively.

"India and other countries in Asia would have to make efforts in generating long-term finances from domestic sources and not depend on aid or external finance means," said Kulwant Singh, UN-Habitat's chief technical advisor for the Water for Asian Cities (WAC) programme.

The WAC programme was launched by UN-Habitat and Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2003 to support the implementation of water and sanitation related MDGs.

The Indian government should encourage more private investments in the sector and allow private companies to share their efficiency and commercial acumen in managing public utilities, experts said at a UN-Habitat sponsored media workshop in Singapore on urban water and sanitation issues in Asia.

There is an annual requirement of $8 billion to meet the 2015 MDG target of providing water in Asia. To provide both water and sanitation, the amount doubles to $16 billion yearly.

The investments look huge but experts say they are achievable. If one breaks down the figure in terms of per person, the cost for providing water in Asia comes to $2 and for water and sanitation it is $5.

KE Seetharam, ADB's principal water supply and sanitation specialist, said each Asian country required a water "champion" and the involvement of the non-government sector.

Though India has made impressive progress compared to some of its South Asian neighbours, in the recent past there has been a lull in investments made in water supply. If India relaxes in this regard, it runs the risk of achieving at best 94-95 per cent of its MDG target.

On the sanitation front too, huge gaps remain between the progress made and the target, caution experts.

UN-Habitat's water and sanitation section chief Andre Dzikus advised that India, along with Asian countries, move water and sanitation issues right to the top of their national agenda. "Further progress can only be achieved with a strong political will and commitment from the highest echelons," he added.

India, along with 188 nations, had during UN Millennium Summit in September 2000 adopted MDGs comprising eight goals and 18 targets that respond to the world's main development challenges.

On the water and sanitation front, India and other Asian nations are facing a major challenge. As much as 80 per cent of the global population without access to improved sanitation and almost two-thirds without access to improved water supply lives in Asia. In fact, the need for these basic services in Asia outstrips that of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean taken together.

Girish Chadha can be contacted at girishchadha@gmail.com

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