Women in Indian villages have borne the brunt of water scarcity for a long time. Tales of young women missing out on school or college to fetch water for their families are common across the Indian countryside even today. But then there are extreme examples, such as the village of Denganmal, 150 kilometres from Mumbai. In this village, whose story was featured in an article by the Open magazine, men marry a second—sometimes even a third—woman whose only role is to fetch water for the family by making arduous 3 km-long treks several times a day.

While Denganmal may be an exception, securing even the minimum amount of water for their everyday needs is a daily struggle for a large section of rural India. In the absence of public water supplies, rural households have come to depend on privately-extracted groundwater for 85% of their needs.

According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) estimates, 14% of the households reported shortage of drinking water at some point during the year. But the situation isn’t rosy for those which didn’t. The accessibility of drinking water, measured by time taken to fetch it and the distance to its source, is a serious issue. In some regions where accessibility has improved, the deteriorating water quality remains a concern.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, drinking water that lies more than 30 minutes away is considered inaccessible. Even though the nationwide average is below this limit, drinking water remains inaccessible in states such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Bihar. Lack of regular water supply forces people to store water. Such storage units often turn into breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which spread diseases such as dengue and malaria.

Time

In addition to the time depicted above, an average of 15 minutes is spent waiting at the source. Usually, several trips are made to the water source daily. This means precious hours are lost in securing water. Such inordinate loss of time and energy implies a huge opportunity cost for the entire nation.

In terms of distance, India defines sources that lie within 500 metres of the premises as “near". This means 22% of rural households lie far from drinking water.

Distance

There has been a distinct improvement in accessibility in terms of sources used for drinking water. Use of tap water, considered the most accessible, has risen. Notably, these taps are almost always situated outside households and used as a centralised facility by multiple families.

Source

Official estimates show that India has met the millennium development goal of covering 80% of the rural population with a water source of “improved quality", which includes relatively safer sources such as bottled water, piped water into dwelling, piped water to yard/plot, public tap and tube well/borehole, among others.

However, mixing of effluents with groundwater is fast deteriorating the quality of drinking water, and has led to rampant spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid. The key threat to rural water quality is open defecation because of which water bodies are polluted with human excreta. This is especially a menace in the east, where the water table is naturally high. Fluoride and arsenic are the other major pollutants. The former is a key threat in the southern and western parts of the country, while the latter affects the eastern part of the country most. According to the Central Groundwater Board, the two pollutants together affect nearly 80 million people.

Assessments of the economic impact of water pollution by the WHO and other agencies, taking health effects into account, show that India loses 2-4% of its gross domestic product each year because of unclean water.

This is the third part of a four-part data journalism series on India’s water crisis

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