Providing safe drinking water, in difficult times!

How does Piramal Sarvajal plan to deal with the water crisis in the country?
Safe drinking water, in difficult times (Image Source: PIramal Sarvajal) Safe drinking water, in difficult times (Image Source: PIramal Sarvajal)

Piramal Sarvajal, seeded by the Piramal Foundation in 2008, is a mission driven social enterprise which designs and deploys innovative solutions for creating affordable access to safe drinking water in underserved areas. Sarvajal aims at developing technologies and business practices in the safe drinking water sector that are designed to make a purely market-based model sustainable in both rural and urban deployment conditions.

Mr Anuj Sharma, The CEO of Piramal Sarvajal, speaks to the India Water Portal on the work of the foundation in addressing the safe drinking water needs of the country in urban and rural areas and the importance of their work in the context of the Covid 19 epidemic.

What do you think are the pressing water problems in India?

If I were to sum it up in a sentence, effective management of water is the most pressing problem. And when I say “water” – I’m talking about it in a holistic manner – encompassing all supply and demand levers (farmers think about it from irrigation perspective, industrialists from business utility perspective and citizens for domestic purposes including drinking). When you look at some of the often-quoted statistics about Day Zero and impending crisis you tend to blame it all on climate change (something intangible and difficult to hold accountable), but that’s just shifting the blame on nature. Most pressing problem is that of perspective to see water as a whole.

Water Availability: In theory, India receives enough rainfall. It’s up to us to create storage structures to effectively harness this gift of nature (not only through gigantic dams, but also through small scale community level structures)

Agriculture: It’d be unfair to talk about water problems and not about agriculture. Excessive dependence on groundwater for irrigation that is not water efficient, crop selection and related dis-incentives, power subsidies (not to blame the farmers but the systemic forces), all contribute to our current situation

Industry: You must’ve read about the changes in Ganga/ Yamuna during the national lockdown. Just imagine the extent of water pollution being caused by industries in the vicinity

You and I: And well, the buck stops at us! While it’s one thing to talk about behavior change in rural areas, it is equally important for us to take small steps in conserving water (reject water from domestic purification unit, long showers, maintaining lush green gardens at home, etc.)

These are just a couple of intricate dimensions of the complex problem. I wanted to underline here that local problems will require local solutions.

Could you please tell us about Piramal Sarvajal and the work that you do? How does it aim to contribute in solving the water problems in the country?

Piramal Sarvajal, seeded by the Piramal Foundation in 2008, is a mission driven social enterprise which designs and deploys innovative solutions for creating affordable access to safe drinking water in underserved areas. Sarvajal is at the forefront of developing technologies and business practices in the safe drinking water sector that are designed to ensure sustainable solutions in both rural and urban deployment conditions.

Providing safe drinking water near the house (Image Source: Piramal Sarvajal Foundation)

Till this day, we are present in 20 states and have touch points of about 1712. We have adopted more than 680 villages across India and have created 1764 livelihoods. Due to our initiatives, we serve 65,7314 beneficiaries each day which include both urban and rural touchpoints. In addition to this, Piramal Sarvajal has designed and deployed solutions specifically for schools – one being a single point-of-source treatment and distribution model and another a purification and distribution model through a network of water ATMs for safe water delivery in schools. We now serve more than 190 schools across India.

Piramal Sarvajal believes that though water scarcity is a global issue, it is multidimensional and therefore the solutions have to be locally suited. Additionally, the voluminous nature of water coupled with its vulnerability to contamination also demands a localised and efficient purification-cum-distribution system. While many well-intentioned NGOs have tried to implement charity-based water delivery solutions, these ventures have not proven financially sustainable over time. The need of the hour is to apply social business thinking to solve public service delivery problems.

In recent years, decentralised solutions for community level drinking water installations have achieved significant success in creating safe water access even in remote rural areas. Serving large enough numbers at affordable prices leads to financial sustainability while creating a local entrepreneurial ecosystem. A sustainable pay-per use model aims to democratise drinking water access and achieve operational break even by selling drinking water to the community at affordable prices. Piramal Sarvajal has designed such models that operate at community levels to provide decentralised drinking water solutions to underserved communities.

What are your views on the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) and the current situation of piped water supplied in rural areas in India?

Even before we speak about JJM, its important to acknowledge GoI for bringing Ministry of Water Resources and Drinking Water & Sanitation Together as Ministry of Jal Shakti, a critical step for looking at this complex problem holistically. More importantly, JJM builds upon the lessons learnt from previous schemes to address the policy-practice dissonance like:

  • Focus on water conservation and greywater management to ensure source sustainability
  • Placing community at the center of scheme design (in alignment with 73rd constitutional amendment)
  • Deployment of NGOs (non-profit organisations) and CBOs (Community-Based Organisations) as Implementing Support Agencies to strengthen the community managed approach
  • Emphasis on behavioral change tools (taking a leaf out of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)’s playbook)
  • Emphasis on service delivery and recommended use of IoT enabled technologies for monitoring
  • Deployment of skilled human resources at the first-mile for repair services through entrepreneurship is an interesting addition

The government has also picked up a choice of design wherein a large number of villages, i.e. almost 60 to 70 percent of the uncovered villages, the schemes are going to be decentralised to single village schemes, which basically says that the source of water in the village itself will be leveraged. If you look at the data that already exists, it does not talk about household tap connectivity, but about house range within a kilometer with some sort of improved water source. Now in many states this number is pretty upwards 80 to 90 percent, some states even have this number upto 95 to 98 percent. But the moment you come to household tap connectivity you suddenly realise that it is down to 40 percent on an average level. We have states which are struggling at around 10 percent for the household tap water connectivity.  Thus while it is already available in every village, how do we leverage that source and make household tap water connectivity happen is the challenge that the Government has taken up. So while it’s a very laudable vison, its going to be very, very ambitious in four years.

How do you think can potable water be delivered through the FHTC as envisioned in the JJM?

To me question is around the quality standards of household and drinking water. There are various aspects to the provision challenge. There are lots of hardware and software elements that would confluence to ensure functionality (not once, but consistent) of the tap connection:

  • Quantity and Quality:
    • If neither are a problem: Single village groundwater based piped water supply schemes to be preferred
    • If quality is a problem (not quantity): Suitable pre-treatment for specific contaminants can be incorporated in the scheme design
    • If quantity and/ or quality is a problem: Preference would be given to designing multi-village/ regional schemes, which are generally surface water based (these require 2-3 years for construction for receiving requisite clearances)
  • Scheme type: JJM asks the state-level body (State Water and Sanitation Mission – SWSM) to determine type models for different contexts within the state, sort of a menu of feasible piped water supply scheme types with its costing
  • Pre-construction community participation: Involving community in selecting suitable technology option that the community would take ownership of, for Operation and Maintenence (O&M). Formation and strengthening of VWSCs is another key aspect
  • Post-construction maintenance support: A combination of IoT enabled remote monitoring, grievance redressal mechanisms and trained cadre of repair professionals
  • Quality: This is a two-step process as articulated in JJM guidelines – (i) Enabling community volunteers to use field testing kits to ascertain quality of local sources on a periodic basis and (ii) Strengthening water quality labs at district and state level.

Safe water in the time of covid epidemic (Image Source: Piramal Sarvajal Foundation)How do you think can reject water concerns raised by JJM be addressed by Sarvajal?

JJM recommends CWPP (community water purification plants) in quality affected area as a short-term measure. Reject water is a reality in some of the commercially available purification mechanisms – depending upon the quality profile of raw/ input water.

Sarvajal, since the very beginning, has been finding local solutions – and hence pragmatic - to best utilise reject water from the purification units (in partnership with our franchises) like:

  • Storing reject water for - Washing water-can delivery vehicles, shop/ house washing
  • Our New Products Division (NPD) is also experimenting with novel ways to utilise reject water through Multi-layer Aquifer Recharge System (MARS) and phyto-remediation. But then again, there’s no one solution that fits all!

The Quality of reject water is directly proportional to the Quality of Feed water. Deepening on the quality of feed water below are few steps Sarvajal has been implementing:

  • Feed water TDS < 500 PPM – Use of Ultra Filtration & Ultra Violet (UF+UV) which has recovery levels of as high as 98 to 99 percent
  • Feed water TDS > 500 PPM and <1000PPM – Depending on water profile, and taste perceptibility, it becomes a must to deploy Tech which can reduce the TDS. At these TDS ranges, the recovery is as high as 70- to 75 percent and reject water can be easily utilised as Washing water-can delivery vehicles, shop/ house washing and plantation etc
  • Feed water TDS <1000PPM – Here the issue of handling reject water gets accentuated (esp at Feed water TDS < 1500ppm) as recovery is 50 to 55 percent and the reject water generated has higher TDS and concentrations of other salts. The best suited and economical way is to dilute it by mixing with rain water and use it as ground water recharge (seasonality will come into play). 

All the National Green Tribunal's (NGT) suggestions get covered in above points – No use of RO till 500ppm, high recovery 100 percent - 70 percent and 80 percent, TDS of permeate at around 150 ppm (taste and nutrition)

What do you think is the importance of your work in the context of the current Covid-19 epidemic?

Ensuring access to safe water (Image Source: Piramal Sarvajal Foundation)

In the current situation, due to a pandemic, it has become imperative for social enterprises, to also take preventive measures to ensure social distancing. Piramal Sarvajal is ensuring that communities which depend for their drinking water requirements, dispensing (Water ATMs) machines are regularly sanitised. There’s a coordinated and committed effort being put at all levels by Piramal Sarvajal and communities to address the situation without disrupting water services to maximum possible extent in given ground situation.

Could you please share some examples of how your work is currently helping in dealing with the Covid-19 situation in the country?

  • The push buttons on all the water ATMs (where one needs to push to withdraw water) have now been disabled so that there remains no requirement physical human touch and water is dispended with contactless cards.
  • ATMs are being sanitised before and after use. Operators of the machines ensure people stand in the queue maintaining adequate distance from each other
  • Asking users to wash their hands and utensils before filling water
  • Card holders are being educated through SMS around Covid-19 and related safe water practices. Audio messages for community members have been created who are unable to read.

On the other hand, due to Covid-19outbreak, where everyone is trying to use water and there is a huge demand/consumption, Sarvajal is currently spreading awareness on usage of water while washing hands through community communications.

What are your plans for the future?

As you know, Piramal Sarvajal is a mission driven social enterprise and it is committed to leverage technology for the benefit of all in water sector. Being a technology expert in water sector, we also aim to help the government by demonstrating the use of IoT based remote monitoring technology, enabling government in monitoring the water supply schemes more effectively. Our IoT enabled remote monitoring system for rural piped water supply schemes assists transparency for good governance of the functioning of piped water supply schemes post-construction which is essential for long term sustainability.

We have demonstrated our system to state governments of Assam, Gujarat, Bihar and in the near future we are planning to pilot it in Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Our initiative has been acknowledged by Ministry of Jal Shakti and they have recommended IoT enabled monitoring of piped water schemes in Jal Jeevan Mission Guideline for Har Ghar Nal Jal Yojna.

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