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Water availability on the decline: World Water Day 2020

India is home to around eighteen percent of the global population — with numbers set to increase in the coming years. Despite such a vast population, India only has access to around four percent of global freshwater resources. Meanwhile, India’s per capita water availability is on the decline, presenting the very real possibility of a water crisis in the near future.

A woman collects water in the village of Khichan in Rajasthan.

The concept of an impending water crisis is not new. In 2018 a UNESCO report warned that India will face severe shortages of water by 2050. It is possible this eventuality comes sooner, rather than later. World Water Day 2020 presents the opportunity to reflect on the challenges of accessing clean water, and the severe health effects a lack of clean water can entail.

Water demand is projected to surpass the supply in the near future. Groundwater reserves are on the decline, resulting in common usage of polluted water supplies, especially by India’s most economically deprived. Water distribution in India is heavily imbalanced upon economic lines, with the poorest having no choice but to consume often pathogen-riddled water simply to stave off the potential of dangerous levels of dehydration. Due to inadequate and unsafe water supply and unimproved sanitation, about 200,000 people, mostly children, die in India every year.

Hope, however, could be on the horizon. As of now, out of 178.7 million of rural households, only 18.3 percent have tap connection of water. The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December, has set out the aim that this figure will be increased to 100 percent by 2024. 

The task appears gargantuan. The engineering technicalities of providing safe water to India’s most remote villages is daunting in and of itself, as piping will need to be installed across vast regions. The scheme — keeping in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (6.1) — is indeed a monumental task, but one which has the capacity to save untold numbers of lives.

The scheme follows on from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan — the Union Government’s flagship sanitation scheme —  which celebrated its fifth anniversary last year. As Health Issues India reported at the time 

“The scorecard for the scheme is generally mixed. What has been acknowledged is that the number of toilets constructed in India has expanded significantly. Since October 2nd, 2014, government figures claim that 100,753,274 household toilets have been built. 699 of India’s 731 districts are open-defecation free, covering 599,963 open-defecation free villages. 35 states and union territories are open-defecation free”

The scheme has made strides in improving sanitation — a major factor in the spread of infectious disease. However, Scroll.In reported that “the fraction of latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change over these four years. Several Northern states…nearly one in four – or 23 percent [of] – people in households with latrines continue to defecate in the open.”

This underlined the notion that, while infrastructure changes were possible, behavioural change takes time. Open defecation and water-borne illnesses go hand in hand, and addressing this issue could go a long way in resolving a number of India’s water-based health issues.

Cholera, for example, is a recurrent issue across much of rural India. It is a condition that primarily manifests in rural villages that still require water to be sourced from ponds or other nearby sources such as lakes. In many cases open defecation is still practiced in these areas. Should one individual be infected with cholera, fecal matter entering the village’s water supply quickly makes this individual’s illness the problem of the whole village.

Besides disease, India is — and will increasingly have to — grapple with the issues presented by climate change. Drought is set to become a more pressing issue in the coming years, affecting water supply as well as arable land. Should India fail to accommodate for the potential of reduced water supplies, the cost on human life could be severe.

According to the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), approximately 42 percent of the total land in India faces drought. This covers states home to 500 million Indians – almost forty percent of the total population at present. Given reports that claim that water demand is already nearly exceeding supply, future droughts could overwhelm India’s infrastructure entirely. 

World Water Day reminds us that water, while taken for granted by many, is perhaps our most vital resource. Without it, we simply cannot survive. As such, ensuring that access to safe water is made a priority for all should be among the world’s highest health priorities. 

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