Gearing to overcome water quality woes

India has the most people in the world without access to safe drinking water (133.9 million). Many studies indicate that poor and marginalized populations are the worst affected from waterborne diseases resulting from the consumption of contaminated water. The issue warrants urgent attention as each year over 140,000 children under age five die from diarrheal diseases alone.

The government has come up with the Jal Jeevan Mission that aims to provide functional household tap connections to every rural household by 2024. It plans to provide potable water in adequate quantity i.e. 55 litre per capita per day (lpcd) of prescribed quality i.e. BIS standard of IS:10500 on a regular basis. So, the quality of water to be supplied will need special attention due to the risk of secondary infections in the distribution systems as also due to source contamination.

Household water treatment and storage (HWTS) technologies hold huge potential to overcome these safety issues. The World Health Organization considers HWTS to be a viable option for providing safe water to vulnerable households. Thus, there is a need for knowledge and experience sharing, networking and advocacy to promote the scaling up of this initiative in India.

Although many agencies, including major donors, governments, and international aid agencies, are working in the water sector, the focus has largely remained on water supply systems and less on water quality issues.

Community-based water treatment solutions have failed to work given the lack of motivation, resources, and technical skills to maintain these structures and also the lack of availability of local resources and materials needed for continued operation. On the other hand, HWTS solutions are best suited for villages, and together with training and capacity building for ownership and maintenance, they are a low-cost and sustainable option.

The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) and S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation), in a knowledge partnership with the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) Canada, organized a two-day workshop on HWTS for WASH professionals and organizations working in this area on February 27–28, 2020.

The workshop provided a platform to technology developers, technology providers, and practitioners to share experiences, demonstrate technologies, learn from each other, and discuss strategies for scaling up, including for advocacy. Forty-six participants from NGOs, universities/ IITs, and government research institutes from eleven states of India and from abroad (USA, Canada, and Switzerland) participated in the workshop.

In the workshop, eighteen technologies were demonstrated in the exhibition, and seventeen presentations were made covering biosand filters (stainless steel and cement concrete model), ceramic pot filters, membrane filters, and technologies to detect and remove biological, fluoride, iron, arsenic, and chromium contamination from water.

Strategies adopted to scale up a HWTS technology

  • The need for a nodal agency to test water quality at various levels was highlighted. The biggest obstacle in devising HWTS solutions is the lack of credible data on water quality, which is further magnified due to the lack of layers at which such data is available. To scale up any HWTS technology, such data is ever more necessary. A solution to this can be real time data monitoring of water quality at various levels.

The country needs to build an ecosystem of micro entrepreneurship to promote innovations and their sustainability. Contract manufacturing can be an important strategy where innovators are singled out from marketers and the scalability is taken up by a third-party agency.

  • For the purpose of scaling up, the entire value chain needs to be strengthened. On the lines of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) consortium, a HWTS consortium should be created such that CSR strategy of companies can be oriented to the cause of HWTS.
  • On the demand side, awareness needs to be generated especially at the point of use. Rural populations largely are driven by the appearance of water to consider it fit for drinking. This needs to be altered to bring in the concept of clean drinking water in terms of its suitability for drinking.

On the supply side, a policy shift needs to be created. For the purpose of any HWTS scale up, it is essential that the drinking water policy recognizes the importance of HWTS. The water treatment policy can have an inbuilt microfinance mechanism to promote its adoption by masses. Furthermore, sensitization drives similar to that in Swacch Bharat Mission need to be built around safe drinking water use.

Challenges encountered in scaling up a HWTS technology

  • On the demand side, the biggest challenge encountered is that people are largely unaware of their basic right to access clean drinking water. Despite being a part of the sustainable development agenda globally, the concept continues to be divorced from the masses, especially from the rural poor in India. The paradox is further magnified by population groups who, despite being aware of the concept of accessing clean drinking water, are unable to do so because of being ignorant of the solutions in place.
  • Behavioral issues, especially among targeted beneficiary groups also need to be tackled. People are reluctant to adopt solutions. They are averse to change, which prevents the effective adoption of a HWTS solution.

On the supply side, it is necessary to have a political interest in the gamut of issues surrounding the concept of HWTS. Due to a lack of validated data on water quality, the government is unable to make available contextualized solutions despite having the wherewithal to do so. This is further magnified by a lack of accountability at various tiers of administrative machinery that prevents effective implementation of existing protocols.

  • Structure of PHED poses a challenge and a lot of on-ground issues are not taken care of. The workload on the Jr. Engineer is high. A suggestion was to create a cadre of paraworkers over a cluster of panchayats for the implementation of the work of PHED on the ground.
  • The idea of water extension should be thought through, on the lines of agriculture extension.

Getting HWTS on the policy agenda

  • HWTS need to be shifted out of the taxation slab and goods and services tax (GST) should be applicable on such solutions.

Several households may be interested in acquiring a HWTS, but do not have the money in hand to purchase it off the counter. Acknowledging that access to safe drinking water is a basic right, the government can look at adding HWTS under the Direct Benefits Transfer.

  • Jal Jeevan Mission needs to recognize that water access must be seen from the household standpoint, as quality needs to be ensured at the point of use.
  • All organizations/individuals/innovators working on HWTS and its cause should have common talking points to bring about a policy change. Key stakeholders for every policy dimension should be identified and followed up with. For instance, for the purpose of taxation, CII-FICCI can be roped in; for policy shift in HWTS, the NITI Aayog should be roped in.
  • Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) must take up work on rural technology adaptability, innovation and implementation related to HWTS.
  • In the rural settings, it is necessary that Village Water and Sanitation Committees (VWSCs) are depoliticized and restructured such that they can work as active agents of change. Two members of such a committee can be permanent members who are given intensive training over years and can ensure functioning of the committee in the village.
  • India-focused massive open online courses (MOOC) on water quality can be developed. There are MOOC courses around drinking water, but none on water quality and how it can be improved at point of use.

All members strongly supported establishing a HWTS network involving organizations working or interested in HWTS topics for India to collectively prepare and present policy briefs and learn from each other. 

The full report can be downloaded below