The paucity of an essential invisible – clean drinking water – is threatening the very existence of homo sapiens. India finds itself at the 120th rank among 122 countries in the Water Quality Index. Three-fourths of rural households find it difficult to get drinking water in India. In large tracts of remote and arid regions of India having high solar irradiance, especially the Thar Desert, Solar Thermal Desalination technology can play a crucial role in fulfilling the needs of the local communities. Strong local institutions and community participation would become the key to their success. The government must encourage private players to provide technological solutions to tackle the water crisis while ensuring that the accessibility of clean drinking water remains a basic and universal right, instead of becoming a paid service.
The Severity of the Crisis
Human life cannot be imagined without water. However, this impossible imagination could soon turn into reality in India unless concerted efforts are made at the policy levels. According to a NITI Aayog report titled “Composite Water Management Index” (CWMI), India is going through the worst water crisis in its history. Though it may seem a bit alarmist at present, the situation on the ground is quite severe in terms of water distress. India finds itself at the 120th rank among 122 countries in the Water Quality Index. Three-fourths of rural households find it difficult to get drinking water. Indian agriculture, more than half of which still relies heavily on rainfall, consumes around eighty-five percent of the national water resources. Nearly half of India’s population faces extreme water stress, and this stress is quite visible even in urban metropolitan areas. In the summer of 2019, Chennai faced ‘Day Zero’ – when all its four reservoirs went dry. The poor water management, high levels of pollution and drying up of river Yamuna, excessive population load, depleting groundwater levels, and climate-change-related effects have also brought the national capital of India closer to ‘Day Zero’. It is estimated that twenty-one major cities of India, the world’s largest extractor of groundwater, would run out of groundwater by 2030.
The unprecedented crisis has forced the government out of its cocoon. Recognizing the severity of the issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Jal Jeevan Mission” on August 15, 2019 to ensure the availability of safe drinking water to all rural households of India through tap connections by 2024. The budgetary allocation of this flagship scheme has been increased to a whopping INR 69,684 crore for 2023-24. To increase community involvement and improve groundwater management in seven priority states, the INR 6000 crore scheme “Atal Bhujal Yojana” was also launched in 2019. Alongside this, the flagship “Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)” is closely related to India’s pursuit of accessible drinking water as it aims to achieve universal sanitation coverage and accessible waste management facilities. The state governments, too, have made individual efforts to tackle the water crisis. For example, Maharashtra’s “Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan” was aimed at making the state drought-free by 2019. Similarly, the “Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal” Scheme of the Bihar Government aims at providing clean drinking water to approximately 2 crore homes in the state.
However, building water supply infrastructure to bring potable water to doorsteps has its own challenges. An IIT Bombay study of 2018 finds that poor socio-economic consideration at the time of fixing per capita water supply norms result in households looking for other water sources, which reduces their willingness to pay for such services. Secondly, ensuring accessibility doesn’t guarantee the continuous availability of clean water. Several factors, like the efficiency of panchayat water treatment facilities, training and awareness of stakeholders, play a significant role in maintaining the system in place. More importantly, the sustainability of such large-scale schemes focusing on improving water infrastructure would be in question without active community participation. An important campaign promoting the self-management of safe water sources by local communities is the UNICEF-backed “Swajal” initiative. Empowering local communities to plan, design, and implement village-based drinking water supply systems is a demand-driven approach that also instils community ownership to maintain the system, in addition to a behavioural change.
Localizing clean water harvesting and supply systems is integral to India’s efforts in tackling the water crisis. Several innovative technologies to extract potable water locally and improve wastewater treatment, suitable to Indian conditions, have been developed and implemented in different parts of the world. For example, the winter fog of north India and the high-altitude fog of the Western Ghats have huge potential of being harvested locally for benefit of the communities living in those regions. According to an estimate, around 12.5 billion litres of water can be collected through fog harvesting in India. The technology has been hugely successful in the Atacama Desert of Chile through local participation. Since 2015, the fog catchers have changed the lives of over 500 humans, especially women and children, of five drought-hit villages of Morocco, edging the Sahara Desert. Closer home, fog harvesting is already helping the villagers of Eastern Nepal get access to clean and safe drinking water. Harvesting atmospheric moisture using evaporation, condensation, and gravity has also been implemented by installing ‘Warka Water Towers’ in the isolated communities of Ethiopia that walked several miles to collect water.
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Another technology that is well-suited to Indian conditions is the solar thermal desalination (STD) of contaminated water to extract safe potable water. While rich countries like Saudi Arabia have been using reverse osmosis-based (RO) seawater desalination plants for the past several decades, the sheer amount of energy and financial resources spent on the process cannot be afforded on a large scale by India. While photovoltaic-based RO can reduce the dependence on non-renewable energy, financial resources would still remain a constraint for India. Hence, in large tracts of remote and arid regions of India having high solar irradiance, especially the Thar Desert, STD technology can play a crucial role in fulfilling the needs of the local communities.
Of late, several Indian startups have also been supporting the country in its fight against the water crisis using AI, IoT, solar and other energy-efficient technologies etc. For example, a Chennai-based startup provides end-to-end water management solutions to monitor real-time water use patterns and wastages. Another startup has installed several water ATMs to increase the accessibility of safe drinking water in public places, villages, and slums.
Matching Institutions with Technologies
While these technologies have been implemented in different parts of the world, strong local institutions and community participation have been key to their success. For example, the ‘Warka Water Towers’ of Ethiopia were implemented only after taking the villagers into confidence and transferring them the technical know-how of managing these systems. These are, essentially, localized technologies and their implementation depends on the local geographic and climatic conditions. Hence, these cannot be scaled up to a large nation. To make such localized water supply systems successful, it is important to build strong institutions which are well-trained to install, repair, maintain, and manage such technologically demanding systems. A major challenge in the ongoing schemes to improve water accessibility is the mismatch between technological advancement and institutional capabilities. A TISS Study in this regard explains the several deficiencies in the laid pipelines due to poor workmanship and institutional oversight. The Village Water Supply and Sanitation Committees (VWSCs), formed as implementation agencies under the National Jal Jeevan Mission, rarely have adequate human resources to manage the complex water infrastructure locally. Thence, for a successful implementation of these high-cost schemes and technologies, it is critical to build strong institutions with well-equipped and trained personnel.
The government must, also, encourage private players to provide technological solutions to tackle the water crisis. However, it is equally important for the government to ensure that the accessibility of clean drinking water remains a basic and universal right, instead of becoming a paid service. Government subsidies and policy initiatives encouraging startups in this domain would reinforce India’s position in the alarming crisis we, as a nation, have put ourselves into.
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About the author
Prateek Yadav, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, has worked on solar evaporation desalination and fog harvesting technologies during his M.Tech in Mechanical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India.