IMAGE: Charity Water

The Empty Drinking Glass:
India’s Clean Water Crisis

By Nina Singh

When I first set out to write this piece I had an entirely different outline. I intended to document my discovery of a real issue that threatens my family and the people of my mother country, India. But then Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated parts of the US and Caribbean. In the wake of their devastation I felt compelled to address these tragedies because they shared similarities between the developing country I had originally planned to write about.

In Houston, flood waters washed up toxins pouring from sewage systems, refineries and Superfund sites. In parts of the city the well water is still so polluted that citizens are being advised to decontaminate and test their water before consumption. While the Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the testing and management of the pollution, not a whole lot can be done until the water recedes. So, for the portion of Houstonians without access to the main water supply, clean drinking water will be a relative scarcity, not unlike a third world country.  The only difference is that with a great deal of time, effort and money, Houston will eventually recover.  However, in an emerging market like India, the ability to provide clean water to 92 million people seems like a distant possibility.

Now, while the comparison may not be a fair one, the shared experiences between these two different cultures, I hope, is enough to bring attention to and evoke empathy towards a country that is often misunderstood, even by me.

As a first-generation Indian-American my knowledge of the state of India’s water crisis was limited. In my lifetime, I’ve made six trips to India and never once questioned why I could only drink boiled water. I assumed the tap water wasn’t held to the same standards of “clean” as the US. But it wasn’t until a year ago, after watching a troubling VICE episode on India’s Water Crisis, that I was awakened to how bad the problem really is. This led me down my own investigative path to educate myself on this crisis and whether anything was being done to address these issues.

When I was ten years old my dad, sister, and I traveled to India to visit our family. We took the shatabdi (train) from New Delhi to Chandigarh, where our family home is. I remember sitting next to the window and staring out in disbelief of the filth and the number of men crouched alongside the tracks doing their ‘business’. Within a few moments the shade was pulled down and my dad instructed me to leave it down because “there was nothing I needed to see”.

At that age, what I saw was extremely weird and gross (in my kid-ish lexicon), but now I understand that half of India’s 1.3 BN population is without toilets in their home and have nowhere else to go to the bathroom. Efforts were made to construct public bathrooms, but the adoption rate was low – especially in rural areas where the practice of open defecation has been more widely accepted.  And in the few instances when the toilets were put to use, they often lacked a connection to a working sewage facility. Unlike the western world, throughout most of rural India, sewage flows freely into bodies of water and most of it goes untreated. And despite its condition, this contaminated water is still used for bathing, drinking, and agriculture, one of the reasons 1MM children are dying each year. A recent study showed that this continuous pollution has resulted in an increased presence of antibiotic resistance genes (ARG). More concerning is the fact that these ARGs exhibit resistance to the strongest, seemingly “last resort” antibiotics. So, with fewer effective antibiotics, treatment of water borne infections will become even more challenging.


IMAGE: Charity Water

The shortage doesn’t just end with clean water. It is water in general. As in many parts of the world, drought has threatened the productivity and livelihood of the agriculture industry in India. Combined with a rapidly growing population, the dependency on groundwater extraction has increased. As wells and dams are increasingly depleted each year, parts of India run the risk of severe declines in agricultural output, a problem they cannot afford. A recent article in Reuters cited that in the 1980s agriculture accounted for more than two-thirds of family income, while today it barely brings in one third. With less money to be earned, farmers are now being forced to earn their living through other, less desirable means.

What scares me most is that I have only peeled back the top layers on these issues and still the progress I’d expect to see in a country so indelibly linked to my own heritage is not being made. I’ve known of India’s corruption and my research validated the notion that some Indian politicians are good at talking about problems and putting solutions on paper, but seem to stumble at execution. Over a year ago, a $100+ billion water diversion plan was unveiled. The plan set out to link 30 rivers throughout the country and focused on rerouting floodwaters to drought-prone regions. However, as of today, nothing has materialized. And despite the fact that there was heavy criticism of the effectiveness of this plan, there appears to be no alternatives set out by the Indian government to tackle the growing water shortage.

One promising project that has backing from Bill Gates and Google, began in 2014 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With a goal of ending open defecation by 2019, the Clean India campaign will make toilets more accessible by installing 75 million across the country. This campaign is unlike any other because it discourages the act of open defecation through education and conversation. By merely explaining the risks of unsanitary water many more Indians have joined the cause. Leaders are rising within villages and communities to ensure an end to these practices. Influential Indians and even Bollywood stars have joined the dialogue speaking out against the act of open defecation. Together, these efforts are not only bringing the topic of open defecation to the forefront, but are changing the behaviors of Indians across the country.  And their success is apparent as more and more villages are now open defecation free.

In the US we are accustomed to mobilization. And these most recent hurricanes are proof of our ability to draw on the resources needed to make a “fast” recovery.  In writing this I’ve come to realize that I cannot demand the same from India. Just as the problems are complex, the political system is even more so and the infrastructure is not always in place for immediate solutions. But with more innovative thinkers joining the conversation I am more optimistic about the future of my mother country.

If you are interested in joining the cause you can support organizations like water.org, waterforpeople.org and charitywater.org.

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