Whether it’s about the consumption of our daily eight (8) glasses of clean and safe water or using water for other human needs, the current supply infrastructure leaves much to be desired.

In 2015, India adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development along with 192 other member countries of the United Nations (UN). Goal 6.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for ‘universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all’ by 2030. As of July 2017, India ranked 116th on the SDG Index, which maps progress against each of the 17 Global Goals. A cursory check indicates that while the progress so far appears to be satisfactory, a deeper evaluation of statistics and details reveals a different story.

Today, 94.1% of India’s population has access to ‘improved water sources’, defined by the World Health Organization as sources “that are protected from outside contamination, in particular contamination of fecal matter”. Impressive as it sounds, it still leaves out 76 million people without access to safe water in India. India’s global ranking is worse than China (at 63 million) and Nigeria (58 million)[2]. As per estimates from the Ministry of Home Affairs, 85.5% households had access to “safe drinking water” in 2011, as compared to 38.2% in 1981 however here lies the interpretation conundrum i.e. what constitutes “safe drinking water”? Apparently the ‘safe drinking water’ not only includes piped water from taps but also water from hand pumps and tube-wells. While such sources do provide access to water, many such sources are contaminated, which cause water-borne diseases including diarrhea, the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India.

Progress on other fronts i.e. bringing more households under piped water supply is also slow. Government data indicates that only about 17% coverage has been achieved so far under the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) while the target was to cover 70% by end of 2017.

What can we do?

While provisioning for water is very high on everyone’s agenda, ensuring consistent water quality is relatively much lower. This is reflected by the fact that while government agencies provide for water access, purification of water is not pursued with the same rigour.

Water chemistry is determined by the source, seasonal variations and storage practices. People, on the other hand, generally rely on the appearance and smell of the water to determine potability of water and often consume untreated or partially treated water. Therefore people’s perceptions and behaviour towards water need to change so that they don’t use unscientific ways of determining water quality. Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has already proven that the government’s focus and strength lie in establishing infrastructure while demand generation, maintenance and operations require a human-centered approach, something that government programs lack. Therefore advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, social enterprises and corporates can fill the gap i.e. sustenance of such programs.

The Sustainable Development Goals offer an enabling environment for sustainability and India still has thirteen (13) years to meet the goal of providing safe drinking water for all. However, government alone will be unable to achieve this audacious goal, it is time now for civil society to come together and contribute in their own way and give this mandate the importance that it deserves.

People without access to drinking water

According to a 2016 WaterAid study

One quarter of diarrhea related deaths globally take place in India.