India has the largest rural population – 63.4 million, living without access to clean water than any other country, according to Wild Water, State of the World’s Water 2017, a report by WaterAid.
“With 27 out of 35 states and union territories in India being disaster-prone, the poorest and the most marginalised will bear the brunt of extreme weather events and climate change and will find it the hardest to adapt,” said V K Madhavan, chief executive, Water Aid India.
While India did achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the current state of development is still not enough to call it a success. Sustainable Development Goals 2030, put forth by the UN, prescribe a set of socio-economic development targets to be achieved by 2030. Of which, Goal 6 acknowledges the most important aspect of human development – Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.
Sustainable Development Goal # 6
This goal states,
“To Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”
- By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.
- By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.
- By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.
Water, Sanitation And Hygiene (WASH) Challenges In India
Lack of Clean Drinking Water
Water availability per capita has been declining in India due to the increase in population. Add to that the adverse effects of climate change, most of our perennial rivers have now turned seasonal. River Ganga and the Narmada don’t reach the seas for four months in a year. This has resulted in the paucity of good quality water and contamination of available water.
“With the per capita availability of water continuing to decline, the nation hurtles towards water scarcity. Climate change, which might bring in its wake increased temporal and spatial variation in availability of water, is likely to exacerbate the water situation.”, Madhavan said.
Every year, millions of people, mostly children die due to water-borne diseases. While those who survive, are infected with defects that stunt their growth leading to lifelong suffering. Lack of basic sanitation facilities leads to open defecation, contaminating the water bodies, polluting potable water and rendering it unfit for consumption.
Absence of Basic Sanitation
Because of limited access to functioning, safe toilets, 40% of the population defecates in the open. This contaminates water and leads India into having the world’s highest number of diarrhoea-related deaths in children under five.
The absence of toilets is also a topic of major concern with respect to the health and safety of girls and women in India. Due to lack of toilets in their homes, girls have to go out in the open fields to defecate and during their menstruation. This has lead to a domino effect of health hazards and social evils for girls and women.
Improper Disposal and Treatment of Waste
India generates close to 60 million tonnes of garbage every day, and of these, around 45 to 50 million tonnes are untreated. The metros themselves generate 10 million tonnes of waste daily.
While we are maximum producers of this waste, improper disposal, incineration, and dumping in open fields contaminate the soil. This, in turn, affects the groundwater table, thereby affecting the crops that we consume.
The Swacch Bharat Mission
The Modi Government’s most prestigious project towards a cleaner India, The Swacch Bharat Mission has been hailed by the country. Committed to an open defecation free country by 2019, Swacch Bharat’s primary goal is to promote construction of toilets. Countless micro-initiatives and regulations at the ground level have helped us improve the state of sanitation and hygiene.
Celebrity-backed initiatives, rules at offices, schools and public places, and a Swacch Bharat cess have improved the situation to a great extent.
Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Union ministry of drinking water and sanitation said,
“When SBM was launched there were 550 million people practising open defecation (OD). That number, by our reckoning, is down to 300 million. So 250 million no longer practice OD. That is a population almost equivalent to Indonesia. Over 2.5 lakh villages and 204 districts have become open defecation free (ODF). We have two years to achieve the prime minister’s October 2, 2019, target. There is an accelerated momentum in the past 15 months. Earlier focus was on toilet construction but SBM is about behavioural change and usage of toilets.”
Social Innovators Can Address Problems Of WASH
- Involvement of entrepreneurs in organizing access to toilets
While the Swaccha Bharat Mission funds and monitors construction of a large number of toilets throughout the country, we need social enterprises that contribute to this effort by innovating various operating models which create incentives for behaviourial change. They can offer good quality toilet services to disadvantaged communities, in lieu of a small fee, and address social factors that can promote toilet usage. Case in point, Samagra by Swapnil Chaturvedi in Pune.
Samagra partners with municipal agencies and redesigns community toilet infrastructure to create a community center and a one-stop shop for slum residents. With their special LooRewards program, Samagra rewards slum residents for hygienic behaviour like washing hands and prompt payment upon using toilets. Their work towards changing attitudes in sanitation and hygiene is a great example of social impact.
On the other hand, Social Startups like Shramik Sanitation Systems provides portable, mobile container restrooms in increasing levels of comfort on sale and rental basis thus transforming toilet into a well-designed, usable product.
- Innovation to improve access to clean water
Lack of access to clean drinking water most often have both technical and political reasons. While political factors may need liasioning with the govt machinery, social innovators are adept at identifying the bottlenecks in the regional water supply system and creating products and services to address specific gaps.
In India, ironically, most rural pockets have mobile phones, but they still grapple with access to clean drinking water. NextDrop is using this imbalance to ensure that residents get drinking water more frequently.
NextDrop began operations in 2010, in Hubli-Dharwad, twin cities in the southern state of Karnataka. The nearly 1 million people of Hubli get water only every three to five days, for about four hours a day, a situation not unusual in water-starved India. They do this by establishing a communication between the engineer, valveman and the residents via a ‘water smart grid lite’ system that is facilitated by SMS.
Along with access to potable water, polluted and impure water is a cause of concern too.
Sarvajal, has created the “Water ATM”, a stand-alone water dispenser that uses off-grid solar energy to power a reverse osmosis system and provides treated water 24 hours a day at a low-cost. Users simply swipe a pre-paid card at a price Sarvajal claims is cheaper than other alternatives.
3. Creation of waste management ecosystem
While building toilet infrastructure and changing behaviour towards health and sanitation address a part of the problem in WASH, scientific methods for the collection, management and treatment of solid waste and water are crucial for mitigating environmental impact. We need innovators to collaborate with other players to create an ecosystem for this.
New Delhi based, Absolute Water, specialises in water recovery management, helping users recycle sewage water in an affordable and sustainable way. The company’s “TOILET to TAP” project is a first step towards achieving this goal.
In partnership with Delhi Jal Board, Absolute Water has set up sewage treatment plants that use vermifiltration to convert sewage water into water suitable for drinking and non-potable applications. This plant has a recovery rate of 85% and can be operated by semi-skilled labour.
Aligning WASH Innovations With Sustainable Development Goals
It is a conventional view that bringing about change in water access and sanitation is the sole domain of the government. However without grassroots social innovation, massive govt schemes may be ineffectual. If India has to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals related to Clean Water and Sanitation, WASH innovators and entrepreneurs are crucial. They need support from various govt agencies to scale their solutions. Innovators, in turn, need to align their impact metrics with India’s sustainable development goals. This needs conscious attention from both the govt and the innovators.
Government is rolling out schemes and initiatives to spread the message of ‘swacchta’ but the role of social innovators in WASH is very crucial. Social enterprises with a strong local presence and knowledge of local communities can help develop context-based solutions that address the specific sanitation needs of a community or region as well as create scalable technology solutions to manage the problem of waste at a larger level.