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War for water -- and one victory

A report highlights how far rural water and sanitation has still to go, while the success story of the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad shows the way forward for urban India

Water shortages across the country are a reality, rendered more acute during the summer months and when the monsoon is delayed or weak. Attempts to improve the water and sanitation situation have had mixed results.   

For example, a survey to ascertain the status of household water and sanitation in rural Karnataka from a citizen’s perspective has found that while access to water has improved, quality of water is still poor and most people do not have toilets. On the other hand, a water supply improvement project in the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad has improved water supply from a few hours every four days in 2004, to almost continuous supply today.

‘Ashwas-A Survey of Household Water and Sanitation’, a participatory survey conducted by Arghyam, a Bangalore-based public foundation, covered 17,200 households across 28 districts of Karnataka.  

Although overall 78% reported availability of drinking water throughout the year, a large proportion of the remainder procure water from unprotected sources during difficult periods. Of those reporting availability, a significant number depend on private open wells (especially in the western sub-region of the state) or on two separate sources. 

With 87% of households dependent on groundwater, erratic and infrequent supply, especially in the summer months, has meant that families have to resort to extra water storage. Twenty-six per cent of the population stores water for three days or more. A high proportion of families own stall-fed livestock, leading to extra demand for stored water. 

While most people (80%) in the state use water sources inside or very close to their homes, there are significant regional variations. In terms of time taken to collect water, 41% of households take between 30 and 60 minutes every day.  

Fluoride contamination above the 1.0 parts per million (ppm) government norm was found in 60% of cases, with 27 out of 28 surveyed districts registering its presence. Nitrate contamination was found in 20% of the samples. Typically, nitrate contamination is from fertiliser runoff and water contaminated with human excreta. 

Another alarming finding is the dismal status of sanitation habits as well as facilities, with 72% of people still resorting to open defecation (OD). The survey respondents said OD was a great inconvenience and listed financial constraints and lack of space as the main reasons for not building a toilet in their homes. 

In terms of health and hygiene, although menstrual hygiene is a big issue for women it has not received the attention it deserves. Ninety-four per cent of women still use cloth as protection, often under unhygienic conditions that are harmful to their health. 

Things are much better in urban areas.  

Till recently, the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad faced an acute water shortage, receiving municipal water just once in four days. In 2004, the state government launched a water improvement project with funding from the World Bank. 

The capacity of reservoirs that supplied water to the cities was increased by deepening and de-silting them and putting in new pipelines. Seventy per cent of the rusty iron pipelines were replaced with leak-proof PVC pipes, cutting wastage of water from leaking pipes by as much as 50%.  

Finally, a water meter was attached to every residence, with charges in the lowest slab being lower than the flat rate (Rs 48, as opposed to Rs 90). Making people pay for the amount of water they consume has cut water consumption, claims the state water board. From 5.9 million litres daily it is now 5.5 to 5.8 million litres.  

Revenues have gone up too. Where previously people refused to pay bills because they didn’t get any water, now they are happy to do so. 

The Hubli-Dharwad model of replacing old and leaking pipes, putting an end to theft, managing distribution by using modern technology, and billing clients for the amount of water they consume can be replicated in other cities too, say experts. 

“All it would take is a hydraulic model -- a computer simulation or satellite map of the pipeline water supply network,” says Sanjay Dahasahasra, winner of the 2008 National Urban Water Award. “Once the hydraulic model is ready, all you need to do is replace all the old leaking pipelines and install meters to record bulk supply and individual consumption.” 

The cost was Rs 8,000 per connection. In addition to getting water 24x7, citizens reaped a health benefit as they no longer had to rely on the contaminated water supplied by tankers.  

Experts all agree that better local water management is essential to ensure equitable water supply to everyone.     

Source: The Ashwas report is available at: http://ashwas.indiawaterportal.org
            Hindustan Times, July 27, 2009