Liter By Liter, Indians Get Cleaner Water

International Herald Tribune
March 22, 2012

In the developing world, providing safe drinking water remains a major infrastructure and public health challenge.

In 1990 about 34 percent of Indians lacked safe drinking water; by 2008 that figure had fallen to 17 percent, according to a 2011 report from the Indian statistics ministry. Yet tens of millions of people, out of India’s population of 1.2 billion, still lack access to clean water.


NEW DELHI — As evening falls in Chuddani, a village of about 500 homes, people arrive by bicycle, motorbike, tractor and on foot with jugs that they fill with water from faucets outside a neat blue shed. Inside the building is a filtration plant that cleans the local groundwater of chemicals, toxins and bacteria. Above the faucets, a sign hand-written in Hindi says: “Water is life.”

Anand Sehwag, 27, a brick seller, lives in Chuddani, 45 kilometers, or 28 miles, from Delhi, with his family of seven. Before the clean-water plant was built, in 2009, Mr. Sehwag and his relatives drank water from village hand pumps. They knew it was dirty, but they drank it anyway. They often suffered stomach pains, coughs and aches, he said.

Groundwater in Chuddani is full of impurities: its total dissolved solids content of 1,850 milligrams per liter is far above the World Health Organization’s acceptable level of 500. The filtered water from the clean water plant has a level of 65.

In the developing world, providing safe drinking water remains a major infrastructure and public health challenge.

In 1990 about 34 percent of Indians lacked safe drinking water; by 2008 that figure had fallen to 17 percent, according to a 2011 report from the Indian statistics ministry. Yet tens of millions of people, out of India’s population of 1.2 billion, still lack access to clean water.

According to the same report, 76 percent of India’s population had no access to hygienic toilets in 1990. By 2008, the figure had fallen, but was still 58 percent: and because sewage and waste disposal systems are often crude or non-existent in India, water, whether from wells or surface sources, is easily contaminated with toxins, including arsenic.

Access to clean water is an urgent global health issue. Dirty water can cause typhoid, hepatitis and cholera, in addition to diarrhea, which kills about 1.5 million children worldwide each year — more than AIDS, measles and malaria combined — according to Unicef.

Community water plants like the one in Chuddani, built and run with the help of the Naandi Foundation, are one way to put a dent in the enormous problem. Since 2005, Naandi, based in the southern city of Hyderabad, has opened 428 similar plants in five states: Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Haryana. Naandi water plants serve about 1.5 million people across India.

Each filtration center costs one million rupees, or about $20,000, to build, said Gayitri Handanahal, a national supervisor for Naandi who is based in Bangalore. State governments and corporate donors finance the equipment and construction.

Naandi works on water projects with Danone Communities, a unit of the French dairy company Danone that has provided investment and expertise. Another partner is Tata Projects, which supplies reverse-osmosis and ultraviolet water filtration equipment — giant tubes fitted with filters to trap tiny particles and UV light to kill bacteria.

The filtration systems are similar to ones fitted in many middle-class Indian homes but larger, able to clean as much as 2,000 liters, or 525 gallons, of water an hour.

Panchayats, or village governments, provide land for the water center, as well as electricity and access to water supplies, like wells. The states and donors pay for the filter technology, construction of the shed and equipment like water pumps and 5,000-liter storage tanks.

Villagers are expected to do their part, too. Naandi relies on local residents — who might earn just a few dollars a day — to pay 60 to 150 rupees, or $1.20 to $3, a month, depending in part on their income, for 20 liters of clean water every day.

The fee pays for Naandi’s regular maintenance of the plant and the salary of a full-time operator from the village.

Mobilizing government agencies and corporate sponsors is feasible, Ms. Handanahal said during an interview in New Delhi last month. The bigger challenge is changing behavior — persuading the villagers to drink, and pay for, clean water. Some are reluctant to pay when they can drink free from hand pumps, wells or taps.

“It is hard to change habits,” she added, noting that behavior patterns did not seem to be based on region, caste or religion; one village might be enthusiastic about clean drinking water while another is reluctant. “Each village is a different story,” she said.

Ms. Handanahal said villagers might believe that because their forebears drank the well water, they can too. They often do not realize, she said, that pollution, pesticides and environmental degradation have contaminated the groundwater over the years. They are also unaccustomed to boiling water, to add a measure of security, partly because the fuel or wood needed to heat it is precious among the poor.

“We only boil water when someone is ill,” Mr. Sehwag said.

In India, there are many approaches to supplying clean water to the poor, including household filters and community centers like Naandi’s water plants. But availability is one thing: suitability, acceptance, affordability and willingness to pay are others. Experts say that reliability, convenience and awareness are critical factors in changing people’s behavior.

“There really is no ‘one size fits all’,” said Urvashi Prasad, a program officer in Delhi for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which works on clean water in India, among other projects.

If there is heavy metal contamination of water, reverse osmosis technology might be most effective, Ms. Prasad said recently by e-mail. If bacteria are the main problem, a smaller, household water filter might suffice. It is important to assess local water conditions for both health reasons and business viability “so you don’t end up employing a technology that is more expensive and not necessarily needed,” she said.

Cumbersome daily cash payments could also discourage users. To get around that, Naandi charges a flat monthly fee. Users receive cards that are punched each time 20 liters is collected.

Before building a treatment center, Naandi checks to see whether minimum requirements are met, including adequate access to electricity and water and a potential user base of at least 500 households. Naandi staff members give villagers questionnaires about their habits for collecting water, their overall health and education and their willingness to pay for clean drinking water.

There are other challenges beyond behavior modification: Power cuts are frequent, so plants cannot be relied on to operate continuously. There needs to be enough storage capacity for treated water to meet demand for two days.

A key test of viability comes after five years, when Naandi, following a “build, operate and transfer” model, hands plant management over to the village government. So far it has handed over about 10 plants, and all are still working well, Ms. Handanahal said.

A challenge facing all would-be suppliers of clean water is that India’s groundwater sources are becoming depleted because of changing rainfall, lack of systems to recharge aquifers and rising demand from agriculture, industry and growing populations. Ned Breslin, chief executive of Water For People, an organization based in Denver, said concern about groundwater extraction had turned the attention of governments and others to treatment of surface water like rivers and ponds.

Technologies for surface water treatment abound. “The challenge is not technological but financial and managerial,” Mr. Breslin said by e-mail recently. “Can water supplies be managed in a way that meets lots of demands at affordable prices?”

After Naandi wins support from village and local governments, it takes about a month to build a center and install equipment. But it can take more time for business to take off.

When the Chuddani water plant started, only 50 households signed up. Over several months, however, more joined. Now, about 250 families in the village use Naandi water. To cover maintenance and operating costs, a center charging a monthly fee of 60 rupees needs to sign up about 200 households.

Ms. Prasad, of the Dell family foundation, said that training villagers to spread the word about clean drinking water was more effective than having an outsider from a company or a private organization do so.

Rewari Khera, a village four kilometers from Chuddani, is a case in point. Surender Singh, a 45-year-old former electrician, used to organize autorickshaws to carry clean water from Chuddani to his village. Today he runs a water plant in his own village, which pays him a monthly salary of 2,500 rupees — more than he earned in his old job.

Outside his water center last month, where a water buffalo lounged in the shade near discs of dung stacked in a neat pile, Mr. Singh touched a pendant of his guru hanging from his neck. “It’s good work and I’m doing some charity,” he said proudly. “I’m providing safe water to the village.”



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