Issues Asia: India Ethnography
An Ethnographic Look at India's Water Problems
By Rebecca Shore
Water scarcity is a global problem affecting millions of people in developing nations. It is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN as “imbalances between availability and demand, the degradation of groundwater and surface water quality, and interregional and international conflicts”. Water is also an essential resource for people to survive; one in three people lack the water to sufficiently lead a healthy, safe life (WHO). In India, water scarcity is already a high priority issue because it affects so many families and communities around the country. There are almost 1.21 billion people living there, many of whom lack access to sanitary water and a reliable supply of water. Many issues, such as the government, drought, and sanitation exacerbate the already deadly problem. This leads to serious health consequences, such as cholera, malaria, dengue, malnutrition, and often death. In an attempt to find an appropriate water source, people walk long distances or else they are forced to drink from contaminated rivers and wells. All of these health issues can be resolved with simple solutions, such as ultraviolet light filters, PUR packets, and health and hygiene programs. This paper advocates for awareness of India’s water crisis, what causes it, the health repercussions and how the problem can be fixed through public and private partnerships.
One of the most pressing reasons why the water crisis has not been fixed is the government and how they are handling the situation. India’s government prides themselves on advancing technology and being a leader in the industrial world, however this comes at a price for many of the poorest people. In a documentary called Drowned Out, the people of Jalsindhi in central India are being pushed from their homes by the rising waters of the nearby river. The government has built one of the largest dams in the world downriver from the village, and the rising water from the dam will eventually flood the entire village; already millions of people have been relocated by the government to resettlement sites with no drinking water and barren lands. When confronted by local and international activists, the government said they are doing it because by creating the dam, they will be providing billions of more people with an available water source. However, this situation is problematic for India’s water crisis because the government is taking water and land from one group of people and giving it to another. Recently an internal investigation by the World Bank found that the water coming from the dam will not even be able to reach those who need it most (Drowned Out), but the government refuses to acknowledge their mistake and fix it, ultimately making the problem worse.
Additionally, rapid urbanization means that the government must find adequate ways to distribute water throughout the cities as well as the villages (Dasgupta 87; Sachdeva et al.425). However, some of the government and richer classes are more focused on development, such as the dam, than they are helping the growing poor population in the country. Both Dasgupta and Sachdeva point out that there are some places in New Delhi, mainly where the top politicians live, which have an average water supply of three times what the poor neighborhoods receive every day. In India, the “untouchables” who are the most severely poor, do not receive aid, instead they are forced to live in areas that lack access to clean water, while the upper class have an exuberant amount of water. “Consumption of piped water ranges from 313 liters per capita day for the affluent to a mere 16 liters per capita day for the slum dweller” (93) says Dasgupta. Although the government is trying to better the country through industrial development, they are leaving behind those who lack access to water, a basic human right.
In 2009, a bad monsoon season lead half of India to face drought, a major cause of water issues in the country. According to Hasamnis et al., “drought is a climatic anomaly, characterized by deficient supply of moisture resulting either from sub-normal rainfall, erratic rainfall distribution, higher water need, water resource mismanagement or is a combination of all the factors” (1). Based on this definition, several parts of the country have declared themselves as drought-affected, which means that they now have problems with food scarcity, sickness leading to death, environmental concerns, and economic pressures (Hasamnis et. al 1). In India, many people make their living off fields and crops, but the lack of rain and irrigation has caused these crops to die and families are having a harder time making enough money to survive. The poorest people, who already lack the money for healthy food, are affected most by the drought. They have no choice but to turn to cheap, unhealthy foods, aiding the growing issues of disease and bad health. Within this group, children and elderly people are the populations hit worst by drought, because they do not have access to nutritious food and many suffer from malnutrition and disease. In addition, drought leads to poor sanitation in areas all over the country.
Sanitation in India is a major concern for cities and villages all over the country. According to Nath, “many cities and towns are characterized by over-crowding, congestion, inadequate water supply, and inadequate facilities of disposal of human excrement and water waste” (23). These problems of inadequate disposal facilities, as well as poor hygiene practice are leading to serious health issues throughout the country. Without places for people to properly dispose of their trash, bodily wastes, and other types of waste, the clean water supplies are becoming more contaminated all the time. This is because people lack education about the correct ways to get rid of waste, they are not aware of the health risks, or they simply have no other place to put it. As a result, the “lack of safe potable water supply and poor sanitation facilities are accelerating the risk of contracting communicable diseases like cholera, diarrhea and acute respiratory infections” (Hasamnis et al. 1). Not only can people contract these diseases from waste, but they can also contract them from poor hygiene. And therefore government attention is needed to help prevent these diseases and better the sanitation problem that is affecting the country.
Hygiene is one of the simplest ways for people, especially in India and other developing nations, to reduce the spread of disease. However, when 638 million people are defecating in the open, over 50 percent of the population, or throwing stool in the trash, it is hard to implement effective sanitation and hygiene practices (Unicef). Recently, organizations have been creating programs that encourage hand washing with soap, which is “the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrheal diseases and pneumonia” (Unicef). Many of these programs have started in schools where children are excited to learn how to take care of themselves and ultimately teach it to their families as well. For example, older girls are now more aware of personal hygiene during menstruation and how to properly dispose of used products. Mothers now also teach their children about washing their hands after going to the bathroom, before eating, and before preparing food. Hand washing with soap can tremendously reduce disease and death in developing nations. However, the water problems that affect India prevent them from implementing this simple procedure; without access to clean water to wash hands, proper hygiene will not make a difference in the community.
Illness is the most severe outcome of water scarcity. In India, about 2.1 million children under the age of five die each year largely for lack of clean water (Garg, 938; Sengupta, 2). There are many water related illnesses, such as cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, typhus, malaria, dengue fever, malnutrition, and cryptosporidium (Dasgupta,95; Sachdeva et al.,426; Sengupta, 3; Srikanth, 320; Unicef, WHO). According to Current Science, 21% of communicable diseases in India, are due to water-related issues (Srikanth 321). Outbreaks of these pathogens come from many different sources. People who do not have access to a steady water flow face malnutrition because they do not have basic needs to survive and stay healthy. Also, “some canals are so clogged with trash and sludge that they are no more than greenish black ribbons of muck. It is a mosquito’s paradise. Malaria and dengue fever are regular visitors” (Sengupta 4). These rivers are not only dangerous because they are exposed and contaminated, but people who have no other water source are forced to drink from them. Additionally, many people store their water jugs inside their homes for fear of theft, and mosquitoes that carry malaria are attracted inside the house where people often sleep without mosquito nets. “Water and disease are closely related,” says Dasgupta, “ensuring adequate supplies of safe water sources is therefore of paramount importance in relation to both environment and health issues.” These illness stem directly from poor water conditions; having clean water is essential for staying healthy and preventing disease.
Cholera is one of the leading causes of death in rural India. It is an infection of the small intestine that causes large amounts of diarrhea, often leading to severe dehydration, malnutrition and death. Breakouts of the disease occur in places where adequate and clean water are not available for people to drink, cook with, or bathe in. In a study conducted by the World Health Organization from 1997 to 2006, they found that at least 37,700 people died from the disease; an unknown amount of deaths had not been reported, therefore they were unable to be added to the study. Cholera is highly prevalent in India because of the severe water problems that the country faces. Along with sanitation and hygiene issues, many people do not have access to education and consequently they do not know how to prevent or treat it. According to the World Health Organization, “an adequate supply of potable water, improved sanitation and the promotion of good hygienic practices… remain the mainstay for preventing both endemic and epidemic cholera” (Water Sanitation and Health). It is a disease that affects millions but cholera can be easily reduced by educating and teaching people about hygiene and using clean water.
Although many families and communities are affected by lack of water and disease, not all people live such difficult lives. In an interview with Kalyani Darbha in 2011, a 30-35 year old woman from a city called Hyderabad, she told her story about living and growing up in India until she was 25. For Kalyani, having enough water was never an issue for her or her family. She lived in a city where water tanks were built into the homes so that people never ran out of water. She had access to running water, a toilet, as well as a shower. When asked whether she had ever experienced water scarcity she said she had, many years back during a specifically brutal summer, but there was still enough to water to survive. Additionally, neither Kalyani nor her family ever got sick from the water because they used filters or boiled it for purification. However, she said that she often heard of villages that lacked access to a clean, ready supply of water. Although Kalyani was not personally affected by India’s water crisis, it is still a looming problem in the country’s future, which can be fixed with several simple solutions.
There are several answers to India’s water crisis. Improvements in water supply will create substantial advancements in human health in cities and villages across the country. Increasing clean water supply will reduce the incidence of water borne illnesses and better personal hygiene, food preparation, and washing (Dasgupta 85; Garg 938; Unicef). As part of an objective to improve water quality, Unicef and From Wine to Water have initiated health and hygiene programs, such as the ones mentioned previously, to encourage people to learn about clean water options. Additionally, From Wine to Water has implemented programs that provide ceramic water filters or help villages build water systems. By documenting the spread of disease through drinking water, scientists can develop monitoring systems that assess health risks and offer filtration advice to villages and people in India (Sachdeva et al. 426). Implementing programs such as these, as well as PUR Packets and UV light filters, will significantly benefit the health of those Indians living without clean water access.
PUR Packets were developed by Proctor & Gamble and the CDC to help people in developing nations to purify their water. The PUR packet is a quick and simple way for people to clean their water. It is a powder mixture that removes pathogenic microorganisms and suspended matter, making the water clean. It only takes about 50 minutes to purify 20 liters of water, which a family will use for hand washing, cooking, and drinking. In studies, the PUR packet has been found to eliminate 99.9% of intestinal bacteria like cholera, 99.9% of intestinal viruses like hepatitis A, and 99.9% of protozoa. The PUR packets have also been found to reduce diarrheal diseases up to 90%. Also, since 1994 over 1.6 million liters of clean water, using the PUR Packet, have been distributed to people in developing nations (csdw.com). It is extremely easy to use and very portable, so that people in all areas of India have access to it.
Another solution to the water crisis in India is ultraviolet water filtration, a new system being developed and tested in developing nations. In this system, the contaminated water passes through a quartz glass sleeve in a thin layer over a UV lamp. The sleeve keeps the lamp at a very high temperature of 104 ˚F, so that the UV radiation will alter the microorganisms in the water, making them unable to reproduce. However, UV radiation does not remove the microorganisms from the water, instead it makes them neutral. As a result, UV radiation is usually the last piece of a water treatment plan, including filtration and water softening. In addition, the device should be located as close as possible to the area where it will be used, because after it comes out of the sleeve, it could be contaminated by any other microorganisms in the vicinity. This system is one of the newest solutions for the water crisis. It is extremely effective and easy to operate, it only needs to be cleaned and have the lamp replaced occasionally (Principles of UV disinfection). For people in India, this technology will greatly influence their lives and their water. They can install one of these filtration devices into a contaminated river in a village and as long as people keep it clean, it will provide natural sanitary water for everyday use.
The global water crisis is an extremely worrisome problem facing millions of people in developing nations. By educating people about where water issues come from, what consequences they have, and how these issues can be resolved, people in Western nations can lend a helping hand to those in need. Since India is not the only place facing these problems, the organizations and companies that are aiding them can also translate their solutions to other countries in need of help. There are people in Africa, Eastern Europe, as well as South America that live in equally horrible or worse conditions than those in India. Water scarcity is not an unbeatable problem, as long as we take steps to overcoming it we can end the water crisis in the years to come.
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