Clean water, a crucial weapon to combat COVID -19

The recent COVID -19 pandemic highlights the important role that access to clean water can play in dealing with such diseases in the future.
Is our tap water really safe? (Image Source: IWP Flickr Photos)  Is our tap water really safe? (Image Source: IWP Flickr Photos)

This month has been seeing a different kind of a scare world over, that of the deadly corona virus pandemic that has been spreading rapidly, infecting people and leading to a rising number of deaths in numerous countries. India too is in the line of fire with the total number of active COVID-2019 cases reaching 223 as on 20th March 2020.

The growing threat of the corona virus

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses from the mild common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a new strain of the virus that had not been previously identified in humans.

The common signs of infection in a person affected by the corona virus include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can also lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

The unique aspects of the disease have been the very rapid pace at which the disease has manifested itself in countries like China and Italy highlighting the importance of social, environmental and behavioural factors in controlling the disease.

Handwashing to prevent COVID -19

The main mode of spread of the coronavirus infection has been through droplet infection that includes infection transmitted from one individual to another by droplets of moisture expelled from the upper respiratory tract through sneezing or coughing, through saliva or discharge from the nose. This mode of transmission has highlighted the importance of sanitation and hygiene measures in controlling the disease. Other than social distancing, frequent handwashing with clean water has been identified as one of the most important preventive measures to tackle the disease besides other practices like washing food and meat products with water and avoiding touching the face and nose.

While handwashing with soap and clean water, done in a proper way, has been found to be a critical factor in the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the availability of clean water is a crucial factor in tackling the spread of the disease. However, millions of people globally have no access to clean water, with only 3 out of 5 people worldwide having basic handwashing facilities. For example, as per UNICEF figures,

  • Forty percent of the world’s population does not have handwashing facilities at home, three quarters of which come from least developed countries.
  • Over one third of schools worldwide and half of schools in the least developed countries have no place for children to wash their hands
  • Sixteen percent of healthcare facilities have no functional toilets or handwashing facilities

Urban populations can face a higher risk of respiratory infections due to crowding in markets, public transport systems or places of worship. As a result, handwashing becomes even more important.

  • In Central and South Asia, 22 per cent of people in urban areas lack access to handwashing. Nearly 50 percent of people in urban areas of Bangladesh and 20 per cent of urban Indians, lack basic handwashing facilities at home.

What is the situation in India

While efforts are ongoing to tackle and deal with the virus in India, the pandemic raises a number of questions regarding our preparedness to tackle situations such as these in the future.

While handwashing has been an identified as one of the important means to prevent the disease, issues related to  the availability of water, current access of urban and rural India to piped water and the quality of available water resources present a number of challenges.

Access to clean water

The recent NSSO survey shows that only one in every five or 21.4 per cent households in India have access to piped water connections. In urban India, only 41 percent of households have piped drinking water connections. In rural areas, the recent NRDWP data shows that just 18 per cent households receive potable water directly at homes.

Around 58.3 per cent of households still rely on hand pumps, tube wells, public taps, piped water from neighbour, protected or unprotected wells, and private or public taps for their water. Hand pumps account for 42.9 percent usage in rural areas and continue to be the most reliable source of drinking water. Evidence shows that as high as 48.6 percent rural households and 28 percent urban households are without access to an improved source of drinking water throughout the year. Further, 11.3 percent households do not get sufficient drinking water from their primary sources throughout the year.

Access to piped water does not guarantee supply of water

Access does not however guarantee continuous supply of water. For example, even houses having piped water supply have been known to suffer from the dry tap syndrome where taps run dry during summer seasons as the principle sources supplying water have dried up.

This is because, the water resources in the country are already under pressure. The recent Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report by the Niti Aayog warns that India’s water demand will be twice the available water supply by 2030 leading to severe water scarcity and six per cent loss in the country's GDP. Summers are getting drier in India with decreasing rainfall and the incidence of droughts has increased. Twenty one major cities (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and others) in the country are racing to reach zero groundwater levels by 2020, affecting access for 100 million people.

Groundwater overdependence and extraction has reached frightening levels in India which is the world’s largest user of groundwater, withdrawing about 250 cubic kilometres per year, which is almost twice that of the US. As per the 2017 assessment by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the Annual Extractable Groundwater Resource is 393 BCM in India. The Annual Groundwater Extraction for all uses is 249 BCM, out of which 221 BCM (89 percent) is for irrigation use and 25 BCM (10 percent) is for domestic uses.

As per the 2017 assessment, out of the total 6881 assessment units (block/ taluks/ mandals/ watersheds/ Firkas) in the country, 1186 units in 17 states/UTs have been categorised as ‘over-exploited’ where the annual groundwater extraction is more than annual extractable groundwater resource. About 85 per cent of rural drinking water schemes in about 17.14 lakh habitations in the country are based on groundwater as source and nearly 7,426 licences have been given to packaged drinking water plants in the water-stressed states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh that draw about .6.5-15 lakh litres of groundwater per day against the permissible limit of 2.4 lakh litres. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka show the worse levels of groundwater decline in the country.

Quality of available water is deteriorating

Contamination of groundwater is emerging as a serious problem in rural as well as urban areas. Besides salinity, high concentrations of fluoride, iron, arsenic and nitrates in groundwater have been found to be a major problem in India threatening the health of millions who depend on groundwater for their daily water needs.

The state of surface water resources in the country too is absymal. It's estimated that around 80 percent of surface water in India is polluted and unfit for consumption. Every day, almost 40 million litres of wastewater enters rivers and water bodies without being adequately treated. Water borne diseases continue to be rampant with about 37.7 million Indians being affected annually by waterborne diseases, with 1.5 million children dying of diarrhoea and 73 million working days being lost leading to an economic burden of $600 million a year.The country continues to lag behind in access to sanitation facilities that further increases the risk of contamination of water sources..

Available water is not managed properly

India continues to use its water inefficiently. For example, India captures only eight percent of the annual rainfall that occurs in the country. Piped water schemes in India are plagued by lack of proper maintenance of existing infrastructure causing losses to the range of 40 percent in urban areas. Treatment and reuse of greywater is almost non-existent. India can do much better and learn from countries like Israel that treat 100 percent of their used water and recycle 94 percent of it to meet the irrigation needs of the country.

Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), a move forward

The recent initiatives of the government such as the JJM are laudable as it recognises this urgent need to provide access to clean water to improve health outcomes in India.

However, experts argue that instead of only focusing on creating infrastructure, it needs to do things differently by shifting focus on first mile communities and encouraging community participation, enhancing capacity building while paying more attention to broader issue like operational and maintenance of the existing infrastructure .

The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought the important role that personal hygiene practices such as handwashing and access to water play in preventing diseases, to the forefront. While the country comes together to fight this deadly infection, it should be a lesson for all of us that no number of medicines can achieve what clean water, environment and responsible citizen action can do to deal with such challenges in the future.

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