What is clean India

Access to drinking water? A luxury in India

In search of a better life, they came to the capital from West Bengal: the people who now live on the edge of the Bhalswa dump in Delhi. Their improvised brick houses press against the towering mountains of rubbish.

Every day they climb the mountain of rubbish, as the 30 meter high garbage dump is called, to collect rubbish that they can sell on. Most families earn between 100 rupees (1.28 euros) and 400 rupees (5.11 euros) a day.

Life is hard and with some of the little money they earn they have to buy bottled water.

"Water is a big problem. There are no roads or drains. Water runs into the houses," says Latipha Bibi, one of the garbage collectors.

More on the subject: UNESCO complains about global water shortages

Bottled water is an expensive option for poor Indians, but often they have little choice but to buy it

Around 30 families get their water here from the same water connection. It supplies water for two to three hours a day, but the garbage collectors believe that pollutants from the landfill get into the pipes and that they have to let the water run for a long time before they are flushed out. In the end, they only have about 30 minutes of clean water a day.

"The water that comes out is yellow and black," says Anil Chaurasia, from the local NGO Chhath Puja Dharmik Samaj Kalyan Samiti, which works to ensure that the state builds an infrastructure for the people here. "Ammonia and methane gases are released on the garbage dump, some of which even catch fire. Then it burns day and night. That is why the groundwater is completely poisoned."

India's water problems

Water pollution is a problem in most parts of India. Too much arsenic, fluoride and heavy metals pollute the groundwater. And that in a country that, according to the World Bank, uses this groundwater for 80 percent of its domestic water supply.

And climate change only makes things worse. Unpredictable weather conditions and droughts mean that groundwater, which is used for agriculture and domestic use, is dwindling in many places. At the same time, salt water is increasingly penetrating freshwater lakes and rivers due to the rise in sea levels, making important freshwater sources inedible.

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About 1,700 kilometers from the Bhalswa dump, in the village of Mangamaripeta on the Bay of Bengal, that's exactly what is happening. The Indian Ocean is rising and the seawater is increasingly penetrating the groundwater.

"The groundwater near the beach is only salt water," says Ratna Garikina, one of the residents. "Every month we have problems with the water for about 10 days. That is why we have to make do with stored water."

Like the garbage collectors in Bhalswa, people here often have to use bottled water for drinking and cooking. That costs a family up to 30 rupees a day and is more than some can afford. And so they are forced to drink the city water that they say is polluted.

Latipha Bibi (pictured) earns her living looking for recyclables in the rubbish dump next to where she lives, which she can sell on, but the dump pollutes her groundwater

Nowhere in India do people trust the water that comes out of the pipes. The market research institute Euromonitor has calculated that the market for bottled water grew by 184 percent from 2012 to 2017.

The Indian government has promised to ensure that every family in India has access to potable water by 2022, but many doubt that the promise can be kept. But now start-ups and social enterprises are offering cheap alternatives to bottled water.

Water from the machine

In the past ten years, thousands of water dispensers have been installed across the country, where people can tap drinking water for little money and fill it into their own containers. Some companies use tank trucks to refill the machines, while others, such as the start-up Swajal, pump water out of the ground or rivers and clean it.

"I come from a small village in Uttar Pradesh and water is a problem there," says Vibha Tripathi, director of Swajal. Tripathi began to worry about India's water after her 2-year-old cousin died of diarrhea. In India, diarrhea is the third leading cause of child death.

Since Swajal was founded in 2014, Tripathi and her team have installed around 400 water vending machines across the country. The company takes more money for the water in the cities in order to be able to offer it cheaper in the villages, as the people there earn less. In cities, a liter costs about one rupee, in the country Swajal takes about half as much.

Tripathi says the government cannot reach the hundreds of millions of people who do not have reliable access to clean water. In Bhalswa, for example, the only water connection only provides clean water for 30 minutes because the pipes are not maintained. And the connection was only built after parishioners had demanded it for months.

Infrastructure will come, Tripathi believes, but in the meantime, companies like hers could bring clean water to communities that otherwise wouldn't.

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Clean water is still inaccessible

The government estimates the water and wastewater treatment market in India at $ 420 million and it is growing rapidly. Even so, it can take many years for a company to recoup the cost of a water dispenser.

Water machines and other solutions like cheap water filters are cheaper in the long run than buying bottled water. Nevertheless, the people who get their drinking water from the machine pay more for the essential good than they would have to if the public supply were clean and safe.

Some Indians only use tap water for washing and even boil it beforehand

Even where start-ups fill the void, they by no means reach everyone who lives below the poverty line in India. By the end of this year, Swajal plans to install 1,000 water machines across the country, but Bhalswa is not planned to do so.

The only option for the people there remains to continue working for improvements. And even if people have heard of water vending machines, they would prefer the state to act.

"We went to our government representative 15 or 20 times to ask for a water connection with clean water," says Saira Banu, who lives in Bhalswa. Banu says she boils water to wash with. But it is not suitable for drinking even after boiling and she is forced to buy drinking water.

More on the subject: World water scarcity: why wastewater could be a solution

NGO worker Chaurasia says the government has promised to build a sewage treatment plant for the people living near Bhalswa after 2019. But given the upcoming elections this year, it is unclear whether the current government will still be in office to carry out the project. The residents of Bhalswa continue to look to an uncertain future.

"Current local government officials say it will happen slowly, but we don't know when it will happen or how," says Banu.

* DW has repeatedly asked the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, the Central Ground Water Board and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for comments, unfortunately without success.

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    Author: Lisa Hänel