On March 22 this year, the world, including India, will observe World Water Day, the theme of which is “Leaving no one behind”. Conceived in 1993 by the United Nations, this year this Day aims to create an awareness for the need of ‘Water and sanitation for all’, and to emphasise that their universal access can be drivers for change and sustainable development.

The Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030, a successor to Millennium Development Goals, include 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’, and Goal 6.2 stipulates that by 2030, countries should also “achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.”

Thus, ideally, by definition, this means leaving no one behind in terms of access to safe water and improved sanitation.

In contrast, estimates show that around 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that are faecally contaminated, and some 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation sources such as toilets or latrines. In India, 163 million people lack access to safe water and 210 million people are without access to improved sanitation (2017). The access in urban areas is better than in rural areas. For example, while in urban areas, 6.8 per cent of the population do not have access, 51.6 per cent of Indian population lack access to improved sanitation (2016) in rural areas.

Hygiene poses another challenge; safe drinking water and sanitation in the absence of hygienic habits will not prevent feco-oral infections. In many households, even if the original source of water is safe, the water is frequently contaminated by unhygienic conditions and practices in homes posing adverse health impacts. In fact, poor hygiene and unsafe water are responsible for 90 per cent of worldwide diarrhoeal deaths. The adverse economic impact of not investing in water and sanitation, according to the World Bank, is the reduction of gross domestic product to the tune of 6.4 per cent in India.

The world’s largest number of open defecators live in India. Open defecation is a cause of concern despite the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan scheme of the Central government. Human excreta are often captured in unlined latrine pits from where excreta freely leach into ground water. Also where latrines are emptied, the faecal sludge is frequently dumped into surrounding water bodies. Both pollute water, and cause negative health impacts on communities. In order to avoid contamination in water, the sanitation policy must ensure effective implementation of human excreta or septage management policy. Such policy exists on paper, but its implementation, even during the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is practically non-existent. There is a need to popularise and implement this policy in the field.

Marginalised groups

Although as per Sustainable Development Goals, the access to safe water should be given to all by 2030, there are left-out populations in the Indian context, who live in slums, city outskirts and rural areas. There are marginalised groups such as women, children, refugees, indigenous people, disabled people, and others, living without access to water. There is a need for huge financial investment to cover these populations. Often centralised prescription for providing water to these left-out population is proposed. This approach will not be effective. A decentralised approach should be adopted in association with non-government organisations and other stakeholders.

Appropriate hygienic practices will ensure that no one is left behind in the entire water chain. Since globally inadequate hand hygiene practices affect about 80 per cent of the population, this issue is very important. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, not much emphasis is given for avoiding this behaviour. Water, sanitation and hygiene must be looked at holistically.

Other constraints for effective water and sanitation management are lack of institutional innovation, inadequate human resources, lack of political commitment, inadequate operation and maintenance of assets, insufficient information and communication, poor policy at all levels, neglect of consumer preferences, adverse cultural beliefs, lack of hygiene education, inappropriate approaches, inadequate and poorly used resources, lack of empowering local bodies, absence of connection to sewerage networks and their maintenance, inappropriate technology for sewage treatment plants, inadequate regulatory and enabling environment, inadequate knowledge management, etc.

There is a need for establishing a legal framework with principles to guide implementation of safe water and improved sanitation, improve the capacity of local bodies, undertake appropriate planning and implement sector programmes, and foster an enabling environment for financing.

A country like India will be highly productive if all its population have access to clean drinking water, and improved sanitation, and if it adopts scientific hygienic habits. As sustainable development progresses, everyone benefits.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Senior Director, Natural Resources and Climate, TERI, New Delhi.