Dirty Water: The Socio-Economic Battle to Better India's Drinking Water


Despite India’s current rate of economic growth, around 100 million people live in areas that lack access to clean water. Demands for drinking water are expected to increase due to India’s escalating population and global climate change predictions, which are expected to cause alterations in water availability, weather patterns, and glacial melt-rates in the Himalayas. The region’s rich cultural identities and economic inequalities, however, can cause many complications when implementing treatment technologies, especially over large geographical areas. For treatment methods to be successful, it is important to recognize the cultural requirements of communities in need of clean water, as well as the socio-economic limitations. This understanding can also influence regional and national water policy, improving water quality and human health across the nation.

Roughly 40 to 50 million years ago, the landmass that is now India swung northwards into Eurasia, forming the Indian Subcontinent; the buckled collision zone formed the Himalayas – the backbone of Tibet. Stretching from Pakistan to Myanmar, the Himalayas prevent moist air from reaching Asia's heartland, desiccating China’s Xinjiang province and invigorating India’s verdant vegetation. The Himalayas also act as a barrier for life, including humans and their societies. The first Indians are thought to have settled in Pakistan's Indus Valley over 6,000 years ago, before spreading across the Subcontinent. Relatively – although not entirely – isolated, India developed and propagated languages, religions and social traditions that define the region. Jutting into the Indian Ocean, India also obtained influences from abroad, including Islam and Christianity from maritime traders, furthering the ethnic diversity. Such a proliferation of cultures and social customs, combined with a comparatively isolated geography has influenced India through the ages, and affects modern water availability and treatment.

Contemporary India displays a dynamic and on occasion contrasting blend of cultures, languages and religions, with strict family traditions and a social-stratification system of castes. Such diversity provides difficulties when implementing water treatment technologies and devising water management schemes and policies, especially considering the widening divisions between rich, urban Indians and their poorer, rural counterparts, accelerated by India's burgeoning economy. In addition, government corruption, aquatic mismanagement, water pollution, environmental degradation, and unsustainable water usage, particularly from the agricultural sector, are having major repercussions for regions that lack access to clean drinking water. 

Roughly 88% of India’s available freshwater is used for agriculture. Agriculture contributes around 16% of India’s GDP and employs roughly half the countries workforce. However, the insufficient treatment of human waste and the use of pesticides have polluted many rural water supplies. Rural regions in India are often low-income areas with low standards of education, which can restrict the use and maintenance of sophisticated water treatment technologies. Although India is predominantly tropical, the southern region of the Deccan Plateau is currently experiencing water stress due to agricultural, industrial and domestic processes, which demand over 75% of all available river water, particularly in the Krishna River basin (in comparison, less than a quarter of available river water is withdrawn from the Amazon basin). Conversely, Rajasthan in the northwest of the country is mostly arid and suffering from problems with groundwater supplies.

Historically, India had a strong caste system, which is prevalent today. The lowest caste, known as the dalit or untouchables are deprived and traditionally ostracised by the higher castes. Typical dalit occupations include waste removal, labouring, cleaning or sewer-working. These activities are traditionally associated with grime, filth and disease, which could be contagious, hence the segregation. In Hinduism, for instance, the handling of human waste is carried out by the dalit, while higher castes often refuse to confront the fate of their waste and the importance of adequate waste treatment. The World Health Organisation published a study in 1992, which states only 209 of India's 3,119 urban areas have incomplete sewage treatment facilities. A subsequent report from 1995 indicated 114 Indian cities were discharging untreated sewage and partly cremated bodies into the Ganges River, which is sacred in Hinduism and a major source of drinking and bathing water.

Water contamination and treatment is a key issue concerning Indian freshwater quality. In rural areas, simple and inexpensive treatment technologies with low-operating and maintenance costs can be implemented, such as water boiling to remove pathogens. Several existing technologies can also be modified to conform to the economic hardships faced by Indians, including solar-powered membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, UV radiation and charcoal filtration, which could be utilised at the community-level. Even so, efforts must be made to ensure community members maintain treatment procedures to prolong sustainability. Economic constraints and cultural divergences, however, often prevent the attainment of these treatment approaches over larger geographical regions. Thus, for clean water techniques to work proficiently, the socio-economic needs and limitations that influence the implementation of sustainable methods must be further understood.  

Not only will such understanding improve the quality of regional drinking water. Cultural and socio-economic awareness will progress Indian sustainable development and help alleviate poverty in one of the most populated and culturally diverse regions of our planet.