Washing hands is a luxury for over 80% rural Indian households that don’t get tap water

Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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Health authorities in India have repeatedly emphasised regular handwashing with soap and water as a precautionary measure against Covid-19. But here’s the catch: only 18% of rural households in the country have a water pipe at home, leaving them vulnerable to a host of diseases. 

The coronavirus pandemic offers a perfect backdrop to examine India’s ongoing plans to improve this dire situation.

Making a splash

In her annual budget, presented in February this year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a splash by significantly increasing allocations to the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), which was launched a year earlier.

Under the Rs3.6 lakh crore ($50 billion) JJM, the government aims to provide a “functional household tap connection” to every household by 2024. The central government will cover 58% of these costs.

JJM aims to better previous rural water schemes, such as the National Rural Drinking Water Mission and Swajaldhara, in two key ways.

One, water will be delivered through household taps, instead of communal standpipes. Secondly, the volume of water delivered will be substantially higher at 55 litres per capita per day (lpcd), instead of the shared standpipe-norm of 40 lpcd. 

For context, a seven-minute shower uses about 55 litres of water, while a toilet flush uses 5-10 litres.  

Hence, 55 lpcd meets most drinking, cooking, and hygiene needs of a person and is enough to keep people healthy. 

Unfortunately, there’s a critical flaw in the physics of the plan, which could bring about the mission’s failure.

Chinks in the plan

Evidence shows that once people have piped water, they often want much more than 55 lpcd, more so if the tap is inside their homes.  

Here’s the problem: pipe networks become unstable as soon as the demand for water exceeds what the system was built to provide. Either people’s consumption or unexpected leaks can push the system beyond its intended limits.

Imagine a pipe network providing water to only two people. JJM proposes to build a network for these two people capable of delivering 110 litres a day (2×55 lpcd). But what if one person withdraws 65 litres, by waking up earlier than his neighbour, or by using a motorised pump? 

What ensues is instability. Each of the two users will race to withdraw water as fast as possible, shortening the duration of delivery and rendering consistent supply an impossibility.  

The same is true if leakage exceeds expectations. People will be left thirsty and competing with each other. 

Water supply through communal standpipes avoids this problem because social forces regulate the division of water. 

The only way that water can be equitably delivered in a pipe network is if the network supplies everyone with as much water as they want. JJM envisions supplying far less than that. 

In fact, where communities desire to build networks to provide more than 55 lpcd, the additional costs are not eligible for JJM funding. Thus, as currently proposed, JJM will build pipe networks destined to inequitably divide an insufficient volume of water.  

Hazy metrics

JJM is also hazy about the metrics. The plan promises to supply 55 lpcd of quality water on a “regular basis,” which is defined as “every day or as decided by the Gram Panchayat (village council)” and “continuous supply in the long-term.”  

What does “every day” mean in practice? For example, in Delhi, 1.3% of neighbourhoods are scheduled to receive water 24×7, while 24% of Delhi is scheduled to receive water every other day or worse.

Even for Delhi neighborhoods scheduled to receive a daily supply, 9% of them are scheduled to receive less than 45 minutes of supply per day. Unless regularity is defined and measured, data on JJM will obscure the inequity of the newly-built networks.

Data to the rescue

Rather than rushing to build and upgrade infrastructure, the first step is to understand how much water consumers will want once they gain access to functional household tap connections. 

While JJM’s priority in the first year has been to upgrade existing water pipe networks, these networks are not representative of communities with no history of piped access. Several new pilot pipe networks should be constructed in order to carefully measure how demand for water changes with piped access. Data from these pilot networks should then inform a scaling-up phase. 

Secondly, accurately and realistically accounting for leaks is critical to JJM’s success. JJM’s budgeting process at the community level insists that pipe systems be designed only for 55 lpcd plus 15% “unaccounted-for” water (ie leaks and unbilled usage). 

Maintaining less than 15% unaccounted- for water is no easy task, especially when cities in India have an average of 32% unaccounted- for water. 

The JJM’s operational guidelines hope that “artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, block-chain technology, machine learning, and nano-technology, can ensure safe water availability and functionality of water supply system and tap connections.” These technologies, though, do nothing to address the fundamental problem—pipe networks do not divide water evenly when water is scarce. 

In order to succeed, JJM should either allocate more water to ensure household tap connections are functional or should move away from the vision of household taps. 

The funding allocation for improving access to clean water is to be lauded. Household tap connections that are functional will help India to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of safely managed piped water for all. 

So long as JJM is built around rushed timelines and providing a minimum volume of piped water, physics will ensure its failure and its promise of “Har Ghar Jal” (water to every house) will go unrealised. 

The country’s rural poor will have to wait that much longer to realise their right to clean water. In the interim,  they remain more vulnerable to diseases like Covid-19.  

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