Opinion

Decentralised tech can help meet drinking water demand during Covid

SK Sarkar/ShresthTayal | Updated on May 12, 2020

Atmospheric water generator is ideal for India. The water produced is potable and the tech is scalable, portable, cost-effective, and leaves no by-products

The lockdown for Covid-19 mitigation has increased the demand for clean and safe water in the already water-stressed sectors in India, especially in the domestic sector and in areas such as in camps for relief of migrant workers, isolated labs for testing of Covid virus, quarantined places, hospital beds using railway facilities, and where there is a disruption of water supply in cities such as Chennai.

Cleanliness is considered to be the ultimate solution for mitigating Covid crisis, which is more likely to continue even after the lockdown ends. As water is the universal cleaning agent, no fight against Corona would be complete without water and it forms a fundamental part of personal protection practices (PPPs).

Also, the government’s Covid mitigation guidelines also include frequent washing of hands for at least 20 seconds each time. This is likely to increase per capita water demand in the country by 15-25 per cent both in rural as well as urban areas. In summer, this increase may further augment the water stress scenarios in the country and Covid facilitation centres will bear the brunt of this, due to lack of any assured water supply systems.

Drinking water

The challenges of drinking water supply are many. For example, artificial groundwater recharge is possible through injection, but a major constraint is the clogging of pores by particulates, chemical precipitation and bio-film formation, which have an adverse effect on the quality of groundwater.

Second, rainwater harvesting requires the dependence of rains and there is an issue of pollutants and other contaminants in water.

Third, desalination requires large infrastructure, which is expensive, and its by-product, salt, causes damage to the ecosystem through dumping.

Fourth, reverse osmosis purification has a disadvantage because of the production of waste-water. About two-thirds of the water used in this method is discarded as waste-water.

In the country, both domestic and industrial sectors consume 5-7 per cent of total water, each. Hence, one may wonder that due to lockdown the water demand in industrial sectors has been reduced, especially due to reduced working facilities in non-essential industries like textile and leather, and this water could be diverted for domestic consumption. However, diverting this excess water from industries to domestic sector is not easy.

While water demand is highly decentralised, water sources are also generally away from the demand centres. Moreover, unlike the electricity grid that links all the power plants with their demand centres, the country lacks the infrastructure that integrates water sources with the demand centres.

Secondly, water needs to be treated to make it potable before supplying for domestic consumption. All this would require time and efforts and hence would not be available immediately. Thus, although groundwater is conserved as a result of its reduced use, the surplus water cannot be diverted immediately to the domestic sector. In the agricultural sector, water demand is unlikely to change during the current Covid crisis.

If the demand for water is more due to Covid-mitigation measures such as additional domestic sector demand and water required for relief camps, temporary makeshift hospitals and quarantined places, piped water supply may not be an immediate option and we need to devise decentralised water solutions.

Tech available

Is there a technology that can offer solutions to this problem?

Humidity present in the atmosphere holds the solution to the problem of providing a decentralised water supply system. At any given point of time, the atmosphere contains about 37.5 million billion gallons of water which could be extracted through condensation process. Atmospheric water generators employ this process and extract water from the atmosphere through air filters.

These generators are especially suitable for Indian conditions, as they work in an environment where the humidity level in the atmosphere is 20 per cent and above and the atmospheric temperature is not less than 15-degree Celsius. The quality of the water produced is potable and meets WHO standards.

Plug and play

Thus, the technology can provide a “plug and play” potable water supply system without using any pipes. Such water can be supplied to the most vulnerable sectors with isolation premises, thereby dispensing with external contact and dependence. This technology can be used by front-line warriors who can receive safe drinking water even in locations where there are no potable water services.

Railway coaches that are being converted into isolation wards can use this facility. Areas facing disruption of water supply can opt for this as well. This technology requires no input water source and leaves no by-products. This technology provides a solution that is a scalable, portable, and cost-effective.

These atmospheric water generators are now available in India and also being produced indigenously. However, the technology as well as the manufacturers needs strong support from the government to make these water generators available for the Covid facilitation centres. With the onset of summer season and likely water stress in these centres, governments need to take immediate note of the presence of technology in the country and its manufacturing may be classified as part of essential services.

Sarkar is a Distinguished Fellow and Tayal is a Senior Fellow at TERI

Published on May 12, 2020

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