Pandemic and the Urban Water Crisis

Divya Mehra

As the world fights the coronavirus outbreak, washing hands at regular intervals has become the most important protective measure to prevent the spread of the virus. As soon as experts confirmed that washing hands with soap thoroughly for 20 seconds will rip out the fat coating of the virus, thus making it inactive, people all around the world including celebrities started posting videos of “how to wash hands” on social media platforms to create awareness among the general public. In some of the videos, people chose to close the running tap while rubbing their hands with soap, and in others, the tap was left on and water was running for the entire duration of handwashing. 

According to a recent online article by Down To Earth, a proper hand wash requires around four litres of water if the tap is on, or two litres with the tap closed during rubbing hands with soap. This means that a family of five members would need 100 to 200 litres of water per day only to wash hands, amounting to a 20 to 25 per cent increase in water demand and wastewater generation from human settlements.

India is facing the pandemic in some of the driest months of the year when water sources such as rivers, springs, wells, etc. dry up, and water levels in perennial rivers also decrease due to the summer heat. Last year, during this time, in the Indian city of Chennai, four major reservoirs that provide water to the city dried up after experiencing a monsoon deficit. The groundwater table also depleted due to the over-extraction of water for meeting the city’s demand. A year before that, the South African city of Cape Town almost neared the ‘day zero’, a term given to the day when the city’s municipal water supply dries out and water would be rationed. São Paulo, a city in Brazil also experienced a similar situation in 2014. 

As per United Nations data on water resources, over 2 billion people live in water-scarce areas around the globe and over 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. If we just look at the situation in India, despite plentiful rainfall and river systems, it still ranks high among the most water-stressed countries in the world. According to a recent report by NITI Aayog (a policy think tank of the Government of India), 21 Indian cities are extremely water-stressed including major cities like Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, etc., and over 60 per cent of the urban households do not have piped water. As the country is urbanising rapidly, the water demands are also soaring. In most of the cities, the municipal water supply is irregular and unreliable, and distribution networks are old and poorly managed leading to a high rate of water wastage. Water is typically available for only 2-8 hours a day in most urban households and the situation is even worse in summer months when water is available for an even shorter duration, sometimes not at all.

To make matters worse, thousands of homeless people and urban poor living in slums and informal settlements lack access to piped water and are dependent on refilling tanker trucks. The services of these trucks have become more erratic in the last few weeks because of the nationwide lockdown. This certainly raises the issue of uneven distribution and access to resources and highlights that it is a near-impossible task for thousands of poor living in urban areas to wash their hands multiple times a day to fight the virus when they are struggling to access water for their basic consumption such as drinking.

While the situation is equally dire in rural areas, the water scarcity in Indian cities has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the water crisis resulting from the pressures of rapid population growth, depletion of water resources, inadequate infrastructure, lack of policy implementation, and adverse effects of climate change. There is an immediate need for prioritizing water issues and some of the ways to address them can be by developing integrated water management systems that would encourage plans for improving the quality and quantity of the resource, and by developing infrastructure and institutions which would support responsible water management. Furthermore, the authorities should strive to rejuvenate existing and lost water bodies, and traditional water storage systems, as they would assist in meeting the demands and also act as aquifers for groundwater recharge. Another important measure can be encouraging the installation and management of rainwater harvesting systems in urban areas as they hold a tremendous potential to alleviate the water woes.  Also, there is a need to generate awareness about efficient utilization and keeping a check on unnecessary wastage of precious water. 

In conclusion, and drawing from my opening paragraph, the first and most basic step to practice responsible utilization of water is to make sure that the tap is closed when rubbing your hands with soap during a hand wash. 

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