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Millions of unclean hands pose India’s biggest public health threat

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Poonam Sewak, Vice President-Program & Partnerships, Safe Water Network highlights the role of handwashing during the pandemic and management of water to avoid its scarcity

Contaminated hands are often the first routes of microbial infections. Unclean hands are responsible for 80% of infectious diseases – be it digestive or respiratory tract infections such as flu, and diarrhoea or common bacterial and viral eye infections. Washing hands with soap and clean water, for an optimum time of 20-30 seconds, inactivates pathogens: water disrupts the water-loving (hydrophilic) portion of a pathogen’s molecular wall, while soap takes care of its water-hating (hydrophobic) portions. Hence, the two most important arsenal people have against contagious diseases are soap and water.

Handwashing with soap is extremely important during the COVID-19 pandemic as it has the potential to physically attenuate coronavirus. Water and soap are any day better than hand sanitisers because hand sanitisers come with toxic and environmentally unfriendly contents. However, only 66% of India’s households have water on their premises – according to a National Sample Survey report of 2018. Due to a lack of proper infrastructure and widespread socio-economic inequalities, the rest of the households do not have this basic necessity. Hence, for people in these households, frequent handwashing with soap and water remains a mirage. As per the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16), only two out of ten poor households use water and soap for handwashing, as against nine out of ten rich households.

According to the World Resources Institute, India is the thirteenth most water-stressed country in the world. Moreover, two-thirds of India’s 718 districts are affected by extreme water depletion. Studies say that India’s water demand will exceed the available supply by 2030. India’s heavy reliance on groundwater is unsustainable. Residents also rely on trucks for water supply where there is no local water supply infrastructure – but these deliveries are unreliable and infrequent.

Water scarcity can have a direct impact on the economy. According to the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) 2018, India stands to lose 6% of its GDP by 2050 due to a lack of water. The country currently pins its hopes of providing clean water to all its citizens on the government’s Jal Jeevan Mission and Jal Sakthi Mission. The former envisions to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India – while, the latter focuses on promoting water conservation and water resource management especially in the water-stressed districts. This project has five target interventions: water conservation & rainwater harvesting, renovation of traditional and other water bodies/tanks, reuse and recharge of bore wells, watershed development and intensive afforestation. River basins, catchments, and watersheds are set to be utilized for water and soil conservation, which in turn will improve the hydrology of the river basins.

India’s Swachh Bharat has made large parts of the country open defecation free. The country can also achieve its Jal Jeevan and Jal Shakti targets – provided it pumps in resources and galvanises public support. In the past year, the Jal Jeevan Mission has served 20 million families with clean water. Jal Sakthi is embarking on many groundwater recharging and micro-irrigation projects. In many Indian states, there are legislative changes to promote better water management.

But, it also needs alternative service delivery approaches to provide clean water to the water-distressed communities. One of the models worth mentioning are decentralized Water ATMs that provide affordable and safe water to low-income communities and also serve as water knowledge resource centers working in the local communities on WASH sensitization and awareness. These projects executed by the locals by NGOs with support from development partners and CSR donor funds are contributing to public health improvement through WASH activities.

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