COVID-19: Localise efforts to tackle water shortage

This article is written by Rohan Seth and Rashi Sharma, was first published in Deccan Herald.

There have been plenty of debates and discussions around what is being done to manage the threat of coronavirus. A lot of that attention has been focused on using technology to deal with the problem. Apple and Google announced that they will be working on developing software to enable contact tracing in phones. In a similar vein, the Indian government has rolled out its own contact tracing application in Aarogya Setu. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while extending the nationwide lockdown, urged the public to download the app.

While most of the discourse has been focused on how technology fits into the picture, we have ended up missing more fundamental means of coping with the problem. Ubiquitous elements, particularly water, have been overlooked and taken for granted.

Water is going to be an essential part of any country’s strategy when dealing with COVID-19. If you are reading this, there is a significant chance you have been told about the importance of washing hands or have watched a video of how to do so properly. Healthcare professionals, essential workers, and law enforcement have and will be subject to a higher risk of exposure to the virus. As our most important line of defence against the pandemic, they will need to sanitise themselves regularly. This involves washing their clothes and taking regular showers.

Unfortunately for India, in recent years, the country has been dealing with acute water shortages. While major Indian cities have increased in size and their water consumption, villages lack water for basic sanitation, bearing witness to lowering levels of groundwater. Keeping in mind the lack of access to clean water for nearly 163 million people in 2018,  the Union Government created the Ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019 to integrate water resource management efforts.

Under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, the Ministry plans to ensure the availability of running tap water for domestic purposes in all households across the country. While the mission of the Ministry of Jal Shakti has been off to a promising start, there is only so much it has been able to accomplish in a year. Due to lack of both administrative will and centre-state politics, much of the water projects could not be successfully completed before the outbreak of the virus.

COVID-19 and the water crisis

A summer induced water crisis is not a new phenomenon for India. The depleted water levels and the already exploited government managed resources have made India rank 13 of the 17 water-stressed countries. Access to freshwater is now important and urgent. Without water to sanitise, villages once exposed to COVID-19, will find it harder to recover and to contain the virus.

In the recent past, an inexorable rise in the population residing in clustered areas makes self-isolation a privilege that not many can afford. Given the historically limited state capacity, necessary demands for social distancing, and a time-sensitive situation, it is going to be a lot harder to ensure clean tap water reaches water-scarce areas. The lack of adequate supply, particularly during a lockdown, will prevent households from ensuring domestic sanitisation and lead to an increase in open defecation during this period. This socio-economic standing of the larger Indian community is a ticking time bomb which may be scheduled to explode at Stage 3 of social transmission of the virus.

Importance of finding local solutions

This brings us to what should be done to mitigate the crisis. There have been some attempts to allocate scarce resources amongst states across the world. Most notably, the Federal Government in the US created competition among states, creating a bidding war for medical equipment. As a result, it created an environment where medical equipment was not distributed based on need but on the purchasing power of states. Of course, a bidding war for medical equipment leaves open the risk for poor areas impacted by the disease not getting enough medical supplies to manage the spread.

Learning from the US, and instead of turning to a market to mitigate an impending water crisis, it might make sense to take a different approach. The stakes now have abruptly been raised. What the spread of the pandemic has done is to leave the inadequacies in Indian infrastructure exposed. They needed to be fixed yesterday, and they need to be fixed now.

Communities must mobilise their efforts to find solutions to the water crisis locally. The Union government cannot be expected to build adequate infrastructure overnight if doing so has not been possible in over 70 years. Given the social distancing requirements, time and capital constraints, these inadequacies cannot be fixed using a top-down approach.

Instead, changes need to be made at the grassroot level so that the water available is optimised for usage. Along with local efforts, nudges towards desired behavioural changes for water optimisation might be the most viable option. Water optimisation thus, involves promoting the usage of greywater for irrigation, and when possible, collecting rainwater in previously built infrastructures. Along with revisiting traditional methods of preserving water, reusing already existing structures like dried-up ponds, reservoirs, tube-wells etc. can also be a low-cost source of clean water.

At this point May 3, 2020 is a line in the sand. The pandemic will not end on May 4, neither will the need for water across India. Local efforts may not be enough to meet the surged demands, but steps taken today should contribute to a better scenario tomorrow.

(Rohan Seth is a technology policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution and Rashi Sharma is a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation)