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By Ravindra Sewak

United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goal 6.1 puts safe drinking water atop the global water agenda. However, what does “safe” and “sustainable” mean, and how do we deliver it, prove it? India, 163 million people, face a daily struggle to access clean water close to home, and 70% of surface water is contaminated. India ranks 120th out of 122 nations in water quality, according to a NITI Aayog report leaving people no choice but to drink unclean water. India is a water-stressed country. And the average per capita water availability is projected to reduce further to 1341 m3 by 2025 and 1140 m3 by 2050. Providing adequate water and safe drinking water to the 1.35 Billion people in urban and rural India is a huge challenge. Though there is a major thrust by the Jal Jeevan Mission in rural and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the 100 Smart Cities program in urban India, sustainable, safe drinking water access and availability remain elusive. The situation is significantly exacerbated currently due to global pandemic COVID-19, increasing urbanization, and climate change leading to floods, droughts, and cyclones. Every day, more than 800 children under the age of five years die from Diarrhoea – the lack of water, poor sanitation, and hygiene cause 400,000 deaths in India annually. The health costs estimates are INR 470-610 billion per year owing to the quality of water.

While nearly 70% of the water in the country is contaminated due to pollutants, toxic metals, and inappropriate water treatment solutions as per CIWMI. The Central Pollution Control Board admits that the major cities treat only about a third of their sewage. Even the quality of surface water has deteriorated due to agriculture and livestock waste runoffs while the groundwater has worsened due to excessive extraction. Whereas in urban areas, 96% of people have access to an improved water source, in the rural areas, which account for 72% of India’s population, only 84% of people have access to safe water.

Recently, Safe Water Network recently participated in the Stockholm World Water Week session, “Safe” Drinking Water: Too Much to Ask? supported by Honeywell-India. The session highlighted the current regulatory regime in India and the relevance of the SWEs in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 for safe drinking water access for all. Since it is difficult to treat the entire water supply to meet the IS 10500: 2012, the current standards of drinking water, for 1.35 billion people, it is far easier to treat only the water for drinking and cooking through a CWTP or an SWE. The Bureau of Indian Standards is currently working to mandate the current drinking water standards for municipalities as well. This standard might force higher accountability for the quality in the public supply system.

Currently, Safe Water Network expands opportunities for the district’s women self-help groups with other SWE implementers under the project SEWAH Sustainable Enterprises for Women and Health supported by USAID and SWE Alliance. The SWEs provide the drinking water round the clock, meeting the national standards at a very affordable Rs 5 for 20 Liters of water and help reduce plastic waste. Currently, there are over 50,000 SWEs in the country, mainly set up by the state government, cities, railways, philanthropic organizations, or the social entrepreneurs, The total potential is 2,20,000 SWEs in the country to serve safe, affordable water to the underserved. It is all the more critical for those who cannot afford to invest in a Point of Use (POU) filter at their homes.

Besides, the water dispensed by the Water Vending Machines now falls under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). FSSAI may therefore also regulate the water quality supplied by the Municipalities in the future.

There are two more regulations in the offing for efficient water management in the country. The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) is likely to introduce new regulations to mandate lower water wastage in the Membrane Based Purification Systems to reduce environmental impact. This regulation will cover both the domestic as well as the commercial membrane-based treatment systems. The domestic or Point of Use (POU) Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems typically have high water wastage of 3 to 4 liters of water versus 1 liter or treated water produced. This regulation aims to control the wastage, especially that of municipal water which is low on dissolved solids and need not necessarily require an RO.

The Bureau of Indian Standards is currently drafting a detailed standard for the Community Water Treatment Plants (or SWEs, or Water ATMs or Water Vending Machines) to standardize elements of the treatment system as well as quality compliance.

The SWE sector is therefore bracing itself to meet these challenges collectively under the SWE Alliance. This organization works to facilitate the sector’s scale-up, build its eco-system, and enable them to deliver safe drinking water sustainably to their consumers.

The SWE sector is therefore bracing itself to meet these challenges collectively under the SWE Alliance, an organization that works to facilitate the sector’s scale-up and building its eco-system, to enable them to deliver safe drinking water uninterruptedly to their consumers.

About the Author
Ravindra Sewak is India Country Director for Safe Water Network. He is the Co-founder of Safe Water Network in India since 2009. He has facilitated 330 iJal Water Stations (or Small Water Enterprises) in India, providing affordable safe water access to over 1.2 million people. He has hands-on expertise of over 30 years in water and waste-water operations, bulk-water processing, green energy, and point-of-use purification systems for the PepsiCo vending machines, as their Sustainability Director, India. He has pioneered in cutting down over 50% of specific water consumption saving ~2.6 bn liters annually across 34 plants nationwide. Ravi also is on the standards forming committee for water and beverage of BIS FAD 14; a Member of the National Water Committees of the FICCI, CII, and PHD Chamber of Commerce. He is a former mentor at the Legatum Center at MIT and Santa Clara University. He has graduated in B.E., and has an MBA degree (IIM, Ahmedabad).

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