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Wash your hands, sure, but where's the water?

Harsha Jade Puttaswamy

7 APRIL 2020 

The ​consternation ​is there to see ​when celebrities ​like Amitabh ​Bachchan appear ​on television ​screens and ​appeal to ​citizens to ​wash hands with ​soap for at ​least 20 ​seconds to ​avoid Covid-19 ​infections. On ​1 April 2020, a ​week into the ​country- wide ​lockdown, India ​recorded a ​staggering one-​day increase of ​400 cases of ​Covid-19. Two ​weeks into the ​outbreak of ​Covid-19 in ​India, the ​appeal to wash ​hands with ​water and soap ​for 20 seconds ​appears ​pervasive in ​every form of ​media. ​

Social media ​is abuzz with ​celebrities and ​politicians ​delivering ​similar ​tutorials for ​washing hands. ​Further, places ​where ​incidences of ​Covid-19 occur ​need to be ​sanitized again ​and again and ​that needs ​large ​quantities of ​additional ​water. ​Hospitals ​require ​adequate ​quantity and ​quality of ​water; public ​places such as ​bus stands, ​railway ​stations, metro-​stations etc., ​need regular ​sanitation and ​require more ​water than ​usual to thwart ​Covid-19. ​

The intention ​of these ​appeals for ​cleanliness are ​not in doubt. ​But the doubt ​is whether all ​our households ​possess enough ​water to wash ​hands for 20 ​seconds ​frequently or ​sanitize homes ​and public ​places to ​thwart Covid-19?​ Celebrities ​have no answer. ​Two years ago, ​NITI Aayog ​projected an ​alarming ​scenario of the ​water crisis in ​India saying ​the country was ​suffering the ​worst water ​crisis in ​history with 60 ​crore or about ​45 per cent of ​the population ​being ​vulnerable to ​high to severe ​water crisis. ​

 

Twenty-one ​cities could ​run out of ​groundwater by ​2020, it was ​projected. Yet ​in March and ​April 2020, ​everyone is ​issuing appeals ​to wash hands ​for 20 seconds ​several times a ​day. What we ​have not ​understood so ​far is how do ​60 crore ​Indians, two ​years after the ​NITI Aayog ​report, find ​enough water to ​keep away the ​highly ​contagious ​Covid-19? ​

Probably, ​most of us have ​forgotten due ​to the ongoing ​hysteria that ​there even ​exists a ​massive water ​crisis in India ​cutting across ​states, ​demography, ​regions, ​religions and ​caste. A rough ​estimate shows ​that one to two ​litres of clean ​water will be ​required for ​every hand wash ​per person for ​20 seconds. At ​that rate, for ​several hand ​washes in a day,​ a household of ​five individuals ​would require ​at least 50-70 ​litres of ​additional ​water. ​

For the ​National ​Capital Region ​of Delhi with ​an adult ​population of ​nearly 20 ​million, the ​additional ​quantity of ​clean water ​required would ​be about 35-40 ​million litres ​per day (mld) ​for overcoming ​Covid- 19 ​infections ​alone. For a ​chronic water-​stressed city ​like Chennai ​the additional ​quantity of ​water required ​is 20 mld (​assuming a ​population of ​10 million). ​When you add ​the water ​required for ​cleaning homes ​and public ​places, the ​additional ​quantity of ​water required ​is enormous, i.​e. more than ​that estimated ​for washing ​hands alone. ​

Thanks to the ​bountiful ​monsoons last ​year, most of ​the water ​bodies across ​India now ​possess some ​water; else, ​the scenario of ​Covid-19 in ​India would ​have been ​catastrophic. ​Still most ​water bodies ​are polluted ​and unfit for ​washing hands. ​Such water from ​polluted ​sources is ​useless in the ​fight against ​coronavirus. ​Large areas ​within India ​– ​covering parts ​of Rajasthan, ​Karnataka, ​Tamil Nadu, ​Andhra Pradesh, ​Telangana, ​Maharashtra, ​Gujarat, etc., ​– are ​located in arid ​and semi-arid ​regions. ​

These regions,​ typically ​characterised ​by low ​groundwater ​table, extreme ​temperatures, ​annual rainfall ​varying between ​100 mm and 800 ​mm, face ​persistent ​water shortage. ​And these are ​also the ​regions where ​the Covid-19 ​maelstrom has ​just begun. ​Data from the ​Department of ​Drinking Water ​and Sanitation ​shows only 18.​33 per cent ​rural ​households in ​the country ​possessed piped ​water ​connections as ​on March 2019. ​In urban ​agglomerations ​across India, ​the unaccounted ​water due to ​medieval-style ​water ​distribution ​systems amounts ​to 20-30 per ​cent. ​

Most slums ​within urban ​agglomerations ​depend on ​tankers for ​water supply. ​And for such ​households, ​alcohol-based ​sanitisers are ​unaffordable ​and inadequate. ​The subtle but ​dire water ​crisis has a ​role to play in ​the spurt of ​Covid-19 ​infections. It ​is fortunate ​that the rise ​in infections ​has been rather ​modest till ​date in India ​unlike ​countries in ​Europe, the USA ​and Iran. The ​slow progress ​in rise of ​infections ​could be due to ​countrywide ​lockdown ​declared by the ​government. ​

But ​dependence on ​lockdowns alone ​could be a ​disaster as ​lack of clean ​water could ​ignite the ​muchfeared ​community ​transmission ​which ​government ​strategists are ​fighting hard ​to avoid. ​Unless adequate ​attention is ​paid to access ​of clean water, ​community ​transmission is ​like a powder ​keg waiting to ​explode. World ​Bank estimates ​that 21 per ​cent of ​communicable ​diseases in ​India are ​linked to ​unsafe water ​and the lack of ​hygiene ​practices. ​

So, at least ​45 per cent ​Indians under a ​pernicious ​water crisis ​are at various ​levels of risk ​of not only ​from Covid- 19 ​transmission ​but also other ​communicable ​diseases. Most ​of the time, ​the lack of ​adequate, ​accessible and ​good quality ​water or the ​maladroit water ​management in ​India per se ​multiplies the ​threat of ​infectious ​diseases. So, ​even after ​several rounds ​of lockdowns of ​cities, towns ​and villages, ​the virus can ​spread within ​households and ​from household ​to household ​clandestinely. ​Either the ​water scarcity ​will be ​accentuated by ​Covid-19 or ​Covid-19 will ​be accentuated ​by the lack of ​adequate, ​accessible and ​clean water. ​

This is a ​vicious trap at ​least until the ​next monsoon ​arrives. Water ​governance is ​concatenation ​of multiple ​disciplines and ​sectors ​including ​healthcare. ​Therefore, ​years of ​neglect of ​water ​infrastructure, ​chronic ​underfunding ​and lack of ​good water ​governance has ​put the nation ​and its ​citizens in ​danger of ​spread of Covid-​19. At this ​juncture, there ​is no panacea ​except ensuring ​adequate water ​supplies and ​adequate ​funding by ​governments to ​areas under ​chronic water ​crisis on war ​footing so that ​the population ​can use water ​to disinfect ​households and ​public places ​frequently and ​arrest the ​mayhem of Covid-​19.

In the long ​term, rhetoric ​and policies ​that confound ​themselves ​should cease ​and measures to ​increase water ​availability to ​the vulnerable ​population ​should be ​undertaken. To ​achieve this, ​not just ​funding, but ​incentives and ​accountability ​should be ​enhanced to ​overcome the ​hurdles of ​diverging ​policies and ​programmes ​between ​multiple levels ​of government. ​

Any ​procrastination ​in augmenting ​clean water to ​the vulnerable ​population will ​only weaken the ​nation’s ​resilience to ​combat future ​disasters that ​are linked with ​water. ​Therefore, in ​addition to the ​appeals by ​celebrities, ​better water ​governance is ​fundamental for ​thwarting ​diseases like ​Covid-19 and ​other future ​healthcare ​challenges. ​

(The writer ​is Director, ​Central Water ​Commission, ​Government of ​India. The ​views expressed ​in this article ​are personal) ​

Wash your hands, sure, but where's the water?

Most slums within urban agglomerations depend on tankers for water supply.

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