Daily life in India: Lining up for drinking water


India’s water scarcity is further aggravated by water pollution. But today “water heroes” are emerging all over the country. They want to restore to their fellow Indians a natural resource that the country actually has in abundance

The status quo (1)

Water scarcity

Early every morning, Sumathii, a domestic worker who lives in a slum in Mumbai, turns on the solitary faucet in her household

On one of these mornings, she fills a large drum with water. She has only an hour to do this, because the faucet will be dry for the rest of the day. All the same, she’s one of the lucky few.

Her neighbors across the road don’t even have a water faucet in their homes. There, thirteen families share a public pipeline that provides water only between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. Each resident is allowed to fill ten pots of water a day. But the families don’t even have so many pots, so they have to go back and forth several times. Often, the water runs out before everyone has gotten his share. That’s why each family gets to go first once in thirteen days. “This idea to form a sequence came about only recently, after years of fighting over water,” explains Kaalima, who makes her living by washing dishes in prosperous households where water is always available. Basically, well-off Indians are also affected by the country’s water scarcity, but they can deal with the problem by purchasing large quantities of water and storing it in tanks in their homes.

liters of sewage are generated daily by India’s major cities, according to the country’s Central Pollution Control Board

In another slum located 700 kilometers away in Hyderabad, the inhabitants face the same hardships as Kaalima. Here too, women stand in line in the early morning in order to fetch water from a communal supply point. For poor people in rural areas, the situation is even worse. The documentary film H2wOe. India’s Water Crisis: A Warning to the World presents the water crisis in the Indian state of Punjab, which was once known for its abundance of water. Today, Punjabi farmers and other rural dwellers are going bankrupt because they can’t afford to pay the exorbitant prices that are being demanded for water delivered from other regions. Some farmers are committing suicide in desperation because their crops are drying up and their debts are skyrocketing. According to WaterAid India, the Indian section of the international charitable organization WaterAid, the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are also facing high levels of water stress.

“India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, from its deepest aquifers to its largest rivers,” says Puneet Srivastava, a Policy Manager at WaterAid India. “Groundwater levels are falling as India’s farmers, city residents, and industries drain wells and aquifers. What water is available is often severely polluted. And the future may only be worse, with the national water supply predicted to fall 50 percent below demand by 2030, according to a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute.”

Polluted water causes skin lesions

The status quo (2)

Water pollution

In India, water is already a rare commodity— but even the water that is available is not suitable for drinking

Studies indicate that 80 percent of the country’s surface water is contaminated—and that 80 percent of this pollution comes from domestic sewage. A WaterAid report estimates that about 140,000 children die from diarrheal diseases each year after drinking dirty water.

According to UNICEF, 20 administrative districts in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, are affected by arsenic contamination. In the eastern parts of the state, including its capital city, Lucknow, the arsenic content of the groundwater is between 20 and 60 times higher than the permissible limit. The health effects of this pollution can be clearly seen on the skin of many local inhabitants, such as 40-yearold Ramesh Yadav. The palms of his hands are full of lesions caused by severe arsenicosis.

In other parts of the country, the situation is not much better. The Central Pollution Control Board of India has calculated that the country’s major cities and towns together generate 38 billion liters of sewage every day. Only 30 percent of it is collected in public sewage systems, and less than 20 percent of this amount is treated by the available sewage plants. The remaining dirty water is invariably emptied into rivers, lakes, and ponds. The holy Ganges River has literally become a stinking sewer. The lack of dilution due to fresh spring water flowing into rivers is raising the degree of pollution even further. In addition, large quantities of fertilizer runoff from farming are entering bodies of water.

percent of sewage flows into the sewage system, and only 20 percent of this amount is treated

NGOs are providing children with clean drinking water

The causes

Growth and wastefulness

India’s water crisis has a lot to do with the country’s rapid industrialization— and with failure to use the resources systematically or even at all

“India is facing this acute water crisis because of several factors,” says Ayyappa Masagi. “For instance, Indians are not acknowledging that rainwater is our primary source of water.” Masagi, who is popularly known as a “water warrior,” is the founder of the Water Literacy Foundation and the Rain Water Concepts company. “Around 97 percent of rainwater is simply being al- “Water mother” Amla Ruia helps villagers build check dams “Even if efforts are made by various agencies, it is not enough as long as the public is not involved” T. Raghavendra Rao, founder and Chairman of Sustainable Technologies & Environmental Projects (STEPS) lowed to flow off into the oceans,” he says. He also cites wasteful water management as another reason for the crisis. “We have been treating water as a commodity and not as a resource,” he points out. Excessive deforestation is one result of this attitude.

percent of rainwater flows into the oceans unused, say India's “water warriors”

T. Raghavendra Rao, the founder and Chairman of the Sustainable Technologies & Environmental Projects Pvt. Ltd. (STEPS) company, explains that even though the total amount of water within the earth’s system remains fairly constant, population growth, the uneven distribution of water around the globe, environmental pollution, and the effects of global warming are contributing to water scarcity. “India is also being affected by rapid industrialization,” he says. “Industries such as food processing, power plants, textile mills, and paper and pulp manufacturers require vast quantities of water. The share of water consumed by these industries is so huge that not enough water is available to the populace and agriculture.” India accounts for only four percent of the world’s water resources, but it has 16 percent of the world’s population.

“Water mother” Amla Ruia helps villagers build check dams

“Water Man” Rajendra Singh explains how to build dams

The solutions

High tech and mud

“There is hope,” says Rao, pointing out that India is well positioned because of its monsoon rains and the Himalayas

“However,” he cautions, “if we do not reduce water consumption by industry without lowering production, we are inviting trouble. Also, if we do not quickly find water-saving methods in agriculture without reducing yields, we will be in danger of scarcity. In short, we have to recycle water and stop the severe evaporative losses and pollution of water reservoirs.”

These goals are already being pursued. WaterAid is working in partnership with the Water Programme of the HSBC Bank to improve the supply of safe water in villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where pollution is especially high. Project workers test water quality and install filters to remove arsenic. Ramesh Yadav, the man with severe lesions on his hands, now fetches safe water from a well equipped with such a filter. Project coordinators such as Anand Singh even go to private households to conduct water quality tests.

In Uttar Pradesh, children can now be seen carrying safe water home in buckets. Together with its partner organization Shramik Bharti, WaterAid has repaired hand pumps in one community in the city of Kanpur. Still, it takes several hours for the community dwellers to collect a few buckets of water. The children often have to walk back and forth several times carrying their heavy buckets.

Through his Water Literacy Foundation and his company Rain Water Concepts, the “water warrior” Ayyappa Masagi is striving to restore the hydrological balance of the ecosystem by increasing “water literacy” and promoting efficient and sustainable water management practices. “If we can harness even just 30 or 40 percent of the available rainwater, we can uproot the water crisis that has been plaguing us,” he asserts. To implement his ideas, Indians are building rainwater harvesting systems. This includes digging pits in the earth to collect, filter, and store rainwater for immediate domestic use.

percent of the world’s population lives in India, but the country has only 4 percent of the world’s water resources

The “water warrior” Ayyappa Masagi teaches responsible water utilization

The overflow is directed to borewells in order to recharge the groundwater. In Masagi’sopinion, such seemingly simple solutions are more effective than megaprojects such as building huge dams and redirecting rivers. “We have had hundreds of success stories ranging from individual houses and apartments to farms and industrial companies—if they can have success, why can’t the rest of the country?” he asks.

The ambitious goal of this “water warrior” is to make India water-efficient between now and 2020. Although the country is still nowhere close to this goal, Masagi displays a “never say no” attitude as he promotes his vision.

Another such visionary is Rajendra Singh, who is known as the “Water Man of India.” In 2015 he was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize. He is working with villagers in the state of Rajasthan to build mud dams called johads—a traditional technique for collecting rainwater in artificial ponds. There are already more than 8,000 johads throughout the state, providing water to over 1,000 villages.

Another “water hero” working in Rajasthan is Amla Ruia, the “Water Mother of India.” She has transformed over 100 villages in the state by helping the villagers to install traditional water harvesting techniques and build check dams called khadins. Before her NGO, Aakar Charitable Trust, became active in the region, these villages were arid and dry. The check dams built by the villagers are small masonry structures buttressed by piles of earth. They are inexpensive to build and very effective, especially in hilly terrain.

In addition to this revival of ancient traditions, villagers are also using completely innovative methods, such as recycling “gray water.” Through his STEPS company, T. Raghavendra Rao has developed biological methods of treating wastewater that can be applied primarily in factories and middle-class apartment complexes. Wastewater can be reused after being purified by means of Rao’s nanooxidation technology, along with specially formulated bio-media carriers that remove bacteria. Other techniques help to remove contamination from bodies of water, using natural products and specific sound frequency generators that destroy algae and break up phytotoxins. “This non-chemical method improves water quality rapidly,” says Rao. “We also use other methods such as rapid flocculation and rapid oxidation.” Industrial effluents are treated with a combination of biological and chemical methods as well as oxidation.

In addition, there is always a strong focus on changing people’s attitude toward water. “Government agencies won’t accomplish anything if the public is not involved,” says Rao. “As long as people believe that water is free and available in unlimited amounts, nothing will change. Preserving and recycling water costs money, and the government must provide adequate funding. That’s the only way we will have a future.”

Usha Munshi,

a journalist based in Mumbai, lives in a middle-class apartment complex where running water is available around the clock