For thousands of communities across India, the process of getting drinking water is now the same as the process of getting cash: they head to an ATM.
With 82 crore people who still do not have access to piped water and 70% of water in the country contaminated by pollutants, the government is increasingly starting to accept small water enterprises — such as water ATMs and community purification plants — as an alternative solution to the safe drinking water challenge.
A new report by Safe Water Network (SWN) says the government needs to spend ₹44,000 crore on 2.2 lakh small water enterprises to provide safe drinking water to about 37 crore people, mostly in urban slums where piped water infrastructure is difficult to build, and in rural areas with contaminated water sources. While such enterprises cost only a fraction of piped water infrastructure, policy changes and at least a doubling of tariffs are needed to help them bridge the safe water gap, says the report released this week.
A recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) pointed out that only 18% of the rural population has access to potable piped water, failing to meet the 2017 target of 50%.
India is ranked at 120 out of 122 countries on the Water Quality Index, said Niti Aayog, adding that 70% of the country’s water supply is contaminated.
“For those who can afford it, you buy a household RO (reverse osmosis system) to purify your water for drinking. But for many people, that is not possible. The community purification plants treat water locally. The water ATM is a dispensation system, which can be automatic with a coin or smart card, or manual,” explained Poonam Sewak, vice presidentat the SWN. “Essentially, it’s a community RO.”
Community water purification plants have grown from less than 12,000 in 2014 to almost 50,000 in 2018, according to the SWN, as they have been incorporated into government planning. To reach the government’s Har Ghar Jal target of 100% piped water by 2030, almost ₹5 lakh crore of infrastructure investment will be required, says government data. SWN estimates that if the government is willing to spend less than 10% of that amount on small water enterprises, it could provide safe drinking water at a fraction of the cost.