According to the World Resources Institute, India is the thirteenth most water-stressed country in the world. It places a heavy reliance on groundwater, which is widely used in the agricultural sector but fails to future-proof the country in the case of drought or increased water demand. The situation in the city of Chennai last year was one recent example.
Seven per cent of Indians – approximately 91 million people – lack basic infrastructure to supply clean water in their local community. These people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and other illnesses, as they cannot easily access basic sanitation and hygiene services. It is essential that India steps up to provide clean water to these communities in this time of crisis.
According to a report from WaterAid, India has been able to provide a basic water supply to close to 93 per cent of its population of 1.3 billion. Due to a lack of proper infrastructure, exacerbated by widespread socio-economic inequalities, the remaining seven per cent lack this basic necessity. Many of those that do have access are potentially exposed to unhealthy levels of iron in the water, due to the corrosion of hand pumps.
India’s water crisis gained international notoriety in 2019 when Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, experienced extreme drought after a delay in the critical monsoon season. Chennai has long been in a state of water shortage, due to the lack of sufficient water infrastructure and poor maintenance of the existing infrastructure. Residents without access to local water supply infrastructure may rely on trucks to deliver water to their neighbourhoods; this water is often drawn from rural communities at the expense of the villagers. These deliveries can also be infrequent, some areas only receive water every three to four weeks; such deliveries are not a sustainable solution to the evolving health and water crises.
The effect that limited access to water and sanitation has on Indian society is immense; three of the top seven causes of disease and death are directly linked to poor sanitation and hygiene practices. As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization emphasises the importance of thorough and frequent hand-washing, to minimise the chance of getting sick. Good hygiene, using soap and water, is the ‘first line of defence’ against COVID-19, according to Tim Wainright, the Chief Executive of WaterAid.
People who lack access to water and proper sanitation are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and other illnesses. The current pandemic makes action on the water crisis even more urgent. Dr T. Jacob John, the former head of the Indian Council for Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology, warns that the effects of the virus in India could grow to be worse than in Italy or Iran. India must immediately implement further measures to ensure access to clean water for all communities, as an urgent matter of public health.
On 24 March, all of India’s 1.3 billion people were ordered to remain at home for the next three weeks. The decision is the biggest and most severe action undertaken anywhere in the world. While this will reduce the strain on health services and flatten the infection curve, it puts the country’s informal workers, who account for more than 80 per cent of the workforce, at great risk economically. These workers are often denied both job security and medical benefits; Mumbai alone has more than eight million migrants from elsewhere in the country, who could be deprived of pay for weeks.
The lockdown also risks further slowing down an economy that is already growing at its slowest rate in 11 years. Realising the economic value of clean water and sanitation, will provide an additional catalyst for greater investment in those sectors. A reliance on finite groundwater reserves is not a long-term solution to water security in India; more widespread rainwater harvesting, however, would help to ensure the capture and storage of more rain to help reduce this pressure. Unless measures are put in place to supply clean water and hygiene services to deprived Indians, then the risk of COVID-19 spreading widely remains high.