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Drinking Water for Rural India

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Published: 8th Aug, 2019

Drinking Water for Rural India


Water is an important public good. There are many uses of water and for domestic purpose, it is used to drink, wash, cook, and water plants and many other things. Major civilizations of the world evolved around rivers which show the relevance of water in human life during ancient times. But currently, due to its reduced availability or manmade-environmental distortions or both, drinking water is increasingly becoming scarce.

One of the most serious issues faced by the world is Global water situation, which has received increased public attention during the past decade. India, one of the largest countries in the world is also facing this similar condition of water scarcity. It is facing multiple numbers of problems related to Public Health due to water contamination. Even in rural areas, water quality issues and availability of safe drinking water have always been a concerned issue and it is deteriorating even day by day.

To ensure safe drinking water, many steps have been taken by government and NGOs in the sector of Technology and Infrastructure especially in Rajasthan where Traditional System has been revived. But still there are many challenges and however, it is important that more actions needs to be taken. 

What is Safe Water?

Safe Water which is free from bacteriological contamination, chemical contaminations, physical characteristics such as colour, smell and acceptable taste. Water can get contaminated due to various reasons like man-made and natural.

Problems related to water availability in rural areas

  • The decline in groundwater levels, contamination of water sources and increased consumption are some big problems related to water resources.
  • Uncontrolled construction activities in rural areas and encroachment of the erstwhile water bodies.
  • Siltation of rural water bodies and reduction of water bodies.
  • Increasing Population
  • Insufficient community development
  • Lack of long term sustainability plan
  • Over-reliance on depleting groundwater resources
  • Lack of focus on operation and maintenance of created infrastructure
  • Water resources are not evenly distributed
  • Climate change poses fresh challenges as more extreme rates of rainfall and evapotranspiration intensify the impacts of floods and drought.

Problems related to Public Health

  • Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as Cholera, Diarrhea, Dysentery, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, Typhoid, and Polio.
  • There are water-borne, water-related and water-washed diseases also. Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks.
  • The water borne diseases are considered public health problem due to a number of reasons, which includes (a) their potential to cause large outbreaks (b) high disease burden; (c) for being major causes of admissions and outpatient visits to the hospitals and health facilities mainly amongst young children; (d) for many water borne diseases, no specific treatment is available and prevention is the best approach and (e) these diseases spread rapidly and may cause panic in the community.
  • It has been found that more than 700 children under five years of age die every day from diarrhea due to unsafe water and poor sanitation.
  • UNICEF estimates that the water-related diseases lead to almost 4 million child deaths each year globally. Millions of people around the world suffer from water and sanitation-related disease, mostly in developing countries.
  • Safe drinking water would reduce hospitalization and child deaths due to diarrheal diseases, would improve school attendance and education outcome, improve worker performance and contribute to the economic growth of a country.
  • This would help India in achieving key development goals at the national and state level. India needs all of these and a healthier population and the road is through improved availability of drinking water and better sanitation.

Availability of Water Adversely Affects Health Service Delivery

  • Availability of water also affects the effective functioning of healthcare facilities where both patients and staff are placed at additional risk of infection and disease when water, sanitation, and hygiene services are lacking.
  • The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) report, 'WASH in Health Care Facilities', is a comprehensive global assessment of Water, Saltation and Hygiene (WASH) in health care facilities.
  • In 2015, WHO & UNICEF jointly developed WASH FIT (Water and Sanitation for Health Facility Improvement Tool), which aims to guide small, primary health care facilities in low and middle-income settings through a continuous cycle of improvement through assessments, prioritization of risk, and definition of specific, targeted actions.
  • When water comes from improved and more accessible sources, people spend less time and effort in physically collecting it. Better water sources also mean less expenditure on health.
  • The sufficient availability of water for sanitation services can facilitate hand hygiene, a proven and cost-effective intervention.

Water Quality Issues in rural areas

  • Water quality has emerged as a major issue in the rural drinking water supply. The Government has launched the National Rural Drinking water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Programme, which institutionalized the community participation of district and state level laboratories for the monitoring of drinking water sources at the grassroot level through Gram Panchayats.
  • The World bank and UNICEF sponsored study shows that not only drinking water in rural India is insufficient but it has a high degree of imbalance and is very diverse across the country.
  • Studies indicate that the ever-growing dependence on groundwater and its unsustainable over-extraction are lowering the ground water table and adversely impacting the quality of rural drinking water supply.
  • The quality of water is deteriorating due to the following major factors:
  • Rapid depletion of ground water level due to over extraction by Agriculture and Industry Sectors
  • Uncontrolled construction activities in rural areas and encroachment of the erstwhile water bodies.
  • Siltation of rural water bodies and reduction of water bodies.
  • Water pollution due to incessant and increased use of pesticides, fertilizers and effluents coming from industry.

Institutional Framework

  • Provisions and access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation are vital to improving the overall health of the country’s billion plus population.

National Provisions

  • In Indian Constitution, there are provisions related to clean drinking water like Article 47, which confers the duty of providing clean drinking water and improving public health standards to the State.
  • Under the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, Gram Panchayats have been assigned planning and managing rural water supply and sanitation systems.

Public bodies involved in the rural supply of water

  • Central Water Commission (CWC): It regulates the use of water to irrigate surface water, the industry and potable water. It also mediates in disputes related to the inter-state water allocation.
  • Central Groundwater Board (CGWB): It monitors groundwater levels and rates of depletion and the production of water resource inventories and maps.
  • National Rivers Conservation Directorate (NRCD): It oversees the implementation of Action Plans to improve the quality of the rivers in India.
  • Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB): It promotes basin-wide pollution control strategies.
  • Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation: It is the nodal ministry for the overall policy, planning, funding and co-ordination of the National Rural Drinking water supply in the country.
  • Ministry of Agriculture (MoA): It deals with planning, formulation; monitoring and reviewing of various watersheds based developmental project activities.
  • Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI): It performs the collection, compilation, analysis and dissemination of the information on health conditions in the country.
  • Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS): It is responsible for the drafting of standards pertaining to drinking water quality. It has given acceptable limits to the number of minerals in drinking water.

International Provisions

  • Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030 includes Goal 6 for clean water and sanitation for ensuring their availability and sustainable management.
  • Goal 6.1 specifically says that by 2030, countries including India should ‘achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all’.
  • United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) has themed this year’s Water Day as ‘leaving no one behind’. This goes on par with the promise on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Global Development Agenda and Water and Sanitation

  • The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), 2000-15, had the target of reducing the proportion of the world's population without sustainable access to safe water (MDG7), measured by the population using improved drinking water sources.
  • In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Everyone has the right to sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.


  • Water consumption of the world is doubling every 20 years, which is more than twice the rate of increase of our population.
  • Nearly 2/3rd of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity at least for 31 days per year.
  • According to Global Reports released by the United Nations, 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water at home and 80 % of those who have to use unsafe and unprotected water sources reside in rural areas.
  • According to the World Health Organization, 84 % of Indians don’t have access to clean water and sanitation living in rural communities.
  • The intense impact of water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.
  • Water consumption of the world is doubling every 20 years.
  • In India, due to a 3-fold increase in population during 1951-2010, the per capita availability of water in the country as a whole decreased from 5,177 m3/year in 1951 to 1,588 m3/year in 2010.

Water Availability in Rural Areas

  • According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) (2011-12), 46.1 % of the rural households do not have drinking water facilities within their premises.
  • Increasing Population: India is among the world's most water-stressed countries. In 1950, India had 3,000-4,000 cubic meters of water per person. Today, this has fallen to around 1,000 cubic meters, largely due to population growth.
  • Rural India has more than 700 million people residing in about 1.42 million habitations spread over diverse ecological regions.
  • Natural Calamities: Half of India's annual precipitation falls in just 15 rain-soaked days, making floods and droughts a fact of life in the country.
  • Sources of Safe Drinking Water: According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) (2011-12), about 88.5 % households in rural India had improved source of drinking water and among these, 85.8 % had sufficient drinking water.
  • 1 % of the rural households do not have drinking water facilities within their premises. A person in rural India has to spend, on an average, 20 minutes to fetch drinking water.
  • Depletion of groundwater: Groundwater which is currently the lifeline of Rural India, as it supports more than 85% drinking water requirements in rural areas, is depleting at an unprecedented rate.

Ensuring Availability of Drinking water in Rural Areas

Role of Sources

  • To meet the high consumption, source of drinking water assumes great significance as it should be sustainable.
  • Drinking water to the rural population has been provided through piped water supply, preferably through a balanced mix of sustainable surface and ground water based resources.

Role of Community participation

  • An important component of rural infrastructure is drinking water arrangements. To meet the demands of the citizens, increased public investment is required for the creation of water infrastructure. A watersecure nation will not only provide clean and safe drinking water to its citizens but also would ensure a healthy and economically productive society.
  • The community’s involvement enhances the economic viability of operation and maintenance, better upkeep due to inherent community belongingness and also increases the life span of the system of created.
  • Historically, communities in India managed water and had their unique mechanism of fighting climate extremes.
  • Due to different topography and a-climatic conditions, various regions in India had different structures to utilize and conserve water- Broadly these practices could be classified into the following three categories:
  1. Obstructing/diverting the flow of stream/river: In this practice, the natural flow of the stream/river is obstructed and water is stored by using gully bunds/check dams/ gabion structures etc. Prominently built in hilly regions, these structures in addition to water conservation and groundwater recharge, also act as soil trap.
  2. Storage in wells/step wells/below ground level storage structure: Mainly used to meet domestic water requirements, such structures could be found in western arid regions of India. These were treated as auspicious as temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
  • Collection and use of rainwater on surface: Commonly found across India, these structures are constructed in the flow of a seasonal stream or the excess runoff is diverted into this. Some examples of such structures include nodis, kundis, talabs, jaldhar, farm ponds etc. The bottom of the surface is generally pervious but it could be made impervious using plastic sheets to prevent GW recharge.
  • In addition to the construction of these structures, the community was involved in regular maintenance work thus ensuring the longevity of water bodies.

Case Study: Community Water Management through Special Purpose Vehicle

  • Drying up water sources, rapid reduction of ground water table, recurring droughts and deteriorating water management in the State, prompted Gujarat Government to create a special purpose vehicle, Water and Sanitation Management Organization (WASMO) in 2001.
  • WASMO is an autonomous entity aimed at facilitating community managed drinking water facilities in rural areas of Gujarat.
  • It focuses on bulk transfer of water from water-surplus south Gujarat to water-deficient north Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutchh through canal and pipeline systems to supplement the local sources.

Role of Traditional System

  • Rainwater harvesting is one of the most important initiatives which can help in a long way in sustaining the supply of safe drinking water in the rural areas.
  • There are many success stories in India which draw upon our ancient traditional knowledge and wisdom. One such success story is from Rajasthan where the revival of traditional rainwater harvesting structures occupies considerable importance in the policy framework.

Case Study

Revival of Traditional Rainwater Harvesting Structures In Rajasthan

  • Rajasthan is India’s largest state by area, accounting for more than 10 % of the country’s geographical area. It possesses just 1.2 % of the total surface water and only 1.7 % of the groundwater available in India.
  • It is heavily dependent on groundwater for drinking water and irrigation.

Traditional Rainwater Harvesting (TRH) Structure

  • Hundreds of years ago, the rulers of princely states in Rajasthan had created structures for
  • rainwater harvesting, now called traditional rainwater harvesting (TRH) structures.
  • The main TRH structures in Rajasthan are kundi, kui/beri, baori/ber, jhalara, nadi, toba, tanka,
  • khadin, johad and anicut.

The main reasons for the dysfunctional state of TRH structures are:

  • Availability of other sources of water (piped water, hand pumps and canal water)
  • Requirement of financial resources for their use and maintenance;
  • Requirement of time and labour to use water from these structures;
  • Lack of ownership and participation of the community, and;
  • Tendency to disregard age old and time tested lifestyle in favour of the latest technology in the name of modernization.
  • In 2016, the state government launched a comprehensive scheme to ensure effective implementation of water conservation and water harvesting related activities in rural areas.
  • Further, following the Union Government’s Model Bill for
Ground Water Management (2011) and National Water Policy (2012), the State Government has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for all public establishments and all properties in plots covering more than 500 sq m in urban areas.

Role of Technology

  • Both human activities and natural processes cause water contamination. The technology used will depend on current water quality, future requirements and economics.
  • The technology for water treatment removes contaminants that may be organic, physical or chemical in nature. Diverse water treatment technologies are available to clean and make contaminated water suitable for human consumption by removing unwanted chemicals or biological contaminants.
  • If technologies and innovations are equipped with the insight of traditional knowledge system of India, then drinking water supply in rural parts of the country can be realized.
  • Below are some of the prevalent technologies for water purification & treatment:
  • Capacitive deionization (CDI) is a technology in which a separator channel (with a porous electrode on each side) removes ions from water;
  • Ozonation technique is based on the ozone infusion into the water for chemical water treatment;
  • In Ultraviolets technology, ultraviolet light is used to kill micro-organisms of water;
  • A large majority of contaminants are removed in reverse osmosis (RO) technology through a semi-permeable membrane;
  • TERAFIL is a burnt red clay porous media used for filtration & treatment of raw water into clean drinking water. This technology has been developed by the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR);
  • OS-Community scale Arsenic Filter is an organic arsenic filter which is developed by the I IT Kharagpur;
  • Filtration methods that may include rapid/slow sand filters which remove rust, silt, dust and other particulate matter from water
  • Solar water purification systems

Innovation: Key to Resolve Drinking Water Crisis

  • Worldwide programs to improve school facilities in developing countries have been developed by agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank and WHO.
  • Water for drinking, hand washing, cleaning, preparing meals and toilet and urinal cleaning in schools is crucial to keeping children healthy.
  • In order to provide clean water in developing countries, the technology must be efficient, affordable and simple to operate and maintain. To improve this situation, innovation solutions for drinking water supply are truly required.
  • In recent years, a great deal of research has been conducted to identify novel technologies for removing arsenic, particularly low cost as well as low tech systems that could be applied in rural areas.
  • The internet has also inspired innovations in the areas of water and sanitation, which have long needed fundamental changes in terms of available information and communication technology.

Drinking Water Treatment

Following are the basic water treatment technologies/methods:

  • Slow sand filters (SSF)- It is one of the most recommended methods of water treatment for rural areas. If designed properly, it purifies the water efficiently by reducing turbidity and bacterial contamination and it does not require highly skilled labour for operation and maintenance.
  • Chlorination – Disinfection using chlorine has been a common practice in various water supply systems. Being a strong oxidant, chlorine is used to remove taste and odour, as well as biological contamination. It can be used for community water supply as well as at the individual household level.
  • Solar Disinfection (SODIS)- It utilize solar energy for water disinfection at the household level. A clean and transparent PET plastic bottle (preferably below 2 litres) is filled with water and kept in direct sunlight for 6 hours during noon on sunny days and two days if the sky is more than 50 % clouded. It has no chemical and external energy requirements thus making it an affordable choice.

Role of Infrastructure

  • More than 80% of rural habitations have been provided rural drinking water supply infrastructure due to which 40 liters of water per day per person is ensured.
  • The-monitoring tools such as Water APP and Drinking Water Quality Testing are ensuring sustainable safe drinking water to the rural people. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has been making great efforts in providing safe drinking water to the rural people of India with the constant cooperation with the State governments.
  • In this regards, SWAJAL was originally launched as a pilot scheme in Februray 2018 in 6 staes of India. The state governments were also advised to access the funds under the Flexi Funds under National Rural Development Water Programme (NRDWP).
  • Various field studies have been conducted, which revealed that a good number of villages in the country are maintaining Operation and Maintenance (O&M) with the active participation of rural communities, specifically women resulting in 24 X 7 safe drinking water supply on a sustainable manner.
  • Local community members, notably Self Help Group (SHG), women, are recruited and trained as mechanics, thereby creating a cadre of capable technicians amongst the user community.

Role of Gram Panchayat (GP) in Operation and maintenance (O&M)

  • GP would pass a resolution for taking up maintaining works such as repairing leaks and burst, changing gate valve, extension of pipe, replacement of old pipeline etc. by utilizing the Panchayat funds.
  • The GP incur expenditure on water supply maintenance work as per the finance limit as fixed by the State Government, when expenditure exceeds the limit, the countersignature of the Block Engineer may be obtained.
  • It may provide household tap connections after passing GP resolution and after obtaining the concurrence of Boards. It would collect water charges from the households at the rate fixed by the govt.

Safe rural drinking water supply: A study on RO

  • Safe drinking water is essential for a healthy community. Chemical contamination in water causes diseases. Water safety plan aims at minimizing risks of contamination via sanitary surveillance and by providing treated water for drinking.
  • Until a technology that is better than RO is introduced, RO technology has to be adopted by the Gram Panchayats, despite a huge amount of reject water.
  • GP has invited private players, NGOs to run RO plants, often on commercial plants. RO technology is used for removing excessive minerals from drinking water.
  • It has started with simple ‘sand filtration’ and ‘charcoal filtration’ comes with multiple modules as a complete water purification system. Later, even state governments also started setting up RO plants in rural areas.

Disadvantages of RO

  • RO, as a purification technology, is infamous because of the huge quantity of reject water, the system ejects in the process of purification.
  • Setting up RO Plants in places where the quality of water is at par with acceptable standards would entail an additional burden of maintenance expenses to the Gram Panchayats.
  • RO technology tends to filter out or remove essential minerals as well, even when they are well within permissible limits. This deprives the water users, the essential minerals that they should be getting from drinking water.
  • Therefore, RO Plants should be set up only in places that have water quality problems, as certified by water quality laboratories. It should not be allowed to become a fashionable infrastructure.

Steps taken by government

  • Constant efforts have been made by government in tackling water and sanitation issues starting from the Bhore Committee in 1946 to Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (1972), and ‘Swajal Dhara’ scheme (1999) by empowering and involving local communities.
  • In 1999, the Department of Drinking Water Supply was created in the Ministry of Rural Development.
  • Cental Governemnt introduced ‘Bharat Nirman’ as a flagship programme which created the required infrastructure to have good quality water to rural household.
  • Another programme National Rural Development Water Programme (NRDWP) aims at assisting States in providing adequate and safe drinking water to the rural population by creating sufficient.
  • The Central Government aims to cover 90 per cent rural households with piped water supply and 80 per cent households with tap connections by 2022. Hence, ‘Har Ghar Jal’ was launched, which aims to provide piped water supply by 2030 under Jal Jeevan Mission, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Some states such as Gujarat, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh have provided piped water to more than half of the rural households; while others states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have minimal (less than 5 per cent) piped water coverage.
  • A pilot project known as “Swajal” launched by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation that is designed as a community demand driven, decentralized, single village, preferably solar powered to provide sustainable access to drinking water to rural people.
  • Swajal Dhara have been adopted to enable the rural community shoulder the responsibility in management operation and maintenance of water supply systems at village level, decentralized, demand-driven, community managed approach.
  • The Central Government has also come up with a World Bank-aided Atal Bhujal Yojana with community participation to ensure sustained groundwater management in overexploited and ground water-stressed areas in 7 states.
  • In March 2017, MDWS (Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation) started as new sub-programme under NRDWP known as the National Water Quality Sub-Mission (NWQSM), which aims to address the urgent need for providing clean drinking water in already identified 28,000 arsenic and fluoride affected habitations.
  • To further strengthen community participation in the drinking water sector for sustainability, National Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring & Surveillance Programme has been launched in February, 2006.
  • Under this programme, 5 persons in each Gram Panchayat are to be trained to carry out regular surveillance of drinking water sources for which 100 % financial assistance including water testing kits, are provided by the Government.
  • The first-ever formal schematic intervention was initiated with the implementation of the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) during 1972-73.
  • The first-ever National Water Policy was drafted in 1987 to give a concrete direction to the approach adopted to create sustainable water infrastructure.
  • The Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) facilitates the Ministry and the line departments to monitor the coverage status of rural habitations and population with potable drinking water.

Few Good Initiatives

  • Rainwater harvesting is one of the most important initiatives which can help in a long way in sustaining the supply of safe drinking water in the rural areas.
  • Central Ground Water Board has prepared a conceptual document entitled ‘Master Plan for Artifiicial Recharge to Ground Water in India’.
  • There are many success stories in India which draw their success from ancient traditional knowledge and wisdom.
  • In 2001, the Tamil Nadu government made it compulsory for each household to have rainwater harvesting infrastructure and the results are now reflected in the improvement of overall water quality within 5 years.
  • The efforts done by local communities to improve water availability have been lauded in a United Nations report that highlights the importance of finding nature-based solutions to meet global water challenges.
  • It also cited the example of China’s Sponge City which aims to recycle 70 % of rainwater.
  • According to this report, the collective water storage efforts have benefitted Kadwanchi village in Jalna district in Maharashtra to go in for high value crops such as grapes, ginger and chillies.
  • The report also highlights the importance of beris, traditional system of harvesting rainwater in part of western Rajasthan. Shaped like matkas (pitcher), these shallow wells are dug up in areas with gypsum or bentonite beds which prevent the rainwater from percolating downwards but guide them towards the wells through capillary action.

Way Forward

  • There is need for regulatory mechanism by the State governments to check the overexploitation of ground water as it is the main problem in India.
  • An independent mapping of development status at frequent intervals is the need of the hour.
  • Presently, the role of PRIs is minimal. There is need for more roles of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in making the drinking water supply schemes functional.
  • There is need for empowerment of local communities to manage and monitor the rural drinking water sources and systems at the local level to achieve the objective of ‘Har Ghar Jal’.
  • A shift in approach is required from ‘universalization of programmes/schemes’ to ‘area-specific development interventions’.
  • There is need to go for a rigorous convergence drive of Government of lndia’s various rural development programmes, such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, other scheme for watershed development and restoration of water bodies, etc., backed by a need based village-level water planning.
  • There is a need to develop better data, on water quality and quantity and a robust hydrological information system for developing precise information about the resource availability and planning accordingly.
  • Water management at the sub-basin should be initiated.
  • Sanitation management would be a crucial element in achieving water security.
  • Capacity building of institutions involved in water resources management would encourage informed decisions.

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