India: The Cost of Bad Water

Sewage pours into the Ganges River east of Varanasi, India. Just downstream, a water pumping station delivers the wastewater back into local homes. Photo by Dan Morrison.

 

Varanasi, India — A couple years ago, one of India’s leading industrial houses announced a revolutionary new household filter that would for the first time bring affordable, safe drinking water to millions of homes. The Tata Swach combines the inexpensive carbon of burnt rice husks with silver nano-particles to kill and remove deadly microbes including cholera, E coli, and the rotavirus.

The Swach doesn’t need electricity or running water. Unlike some filters sold in the United States, the Swatch’s filter bulb cuts off the flow of water when it’s exhausted, meaning it’s impossible to drink unclean water that’s passed through a spent filter. (There’s no risk in drinking unfiltered water in New York or Denver, but it’s a different story in India, where waterborne diseases kill as many as half a million children each year.)

And it’s hugely affordable: The unit costs less than $20 and monthly filter replacements are just $7.

More than a million of these filters have been sold, and it’s not hard to imagine the public health benefits that will follow. More Indian companies are jumping into the low-cost filter business, which could push prices even lower.

This Indian success story, however, can also be seen as a thin bit of cover for the country’s scandalously poor public services.

In the West, there is often a suspicion of municipal water. In my hometown of New York City, families spend good money to filter water that’s already been rigorously tested. Even worse, they pay for bottled water that often comes from the same city mains as the local tap water.

Indians don’t have that luxury. They need to filter or boil their water because the stuff their government sends them is often dangerous. This was driven home last month when, during a seven-day boat journey down the Ganges, I passed a sewage pipe pouring waste into the river just upstream of a pumping station that in turn sent the dirty water right back into people’s homes.

A water pumping station on the Ganges River located just downstream of a sewage outlet, east of Varanasi, India. Photo by Dan Morrison.

 

With no one else looking out for their health, individual households take on the burden and financial cost of one of the basic jobs of government.

William Nanda Bissell, in his 2010 bestseller Making India Work, describes the economic activity generated by these gaps in governance as “forced consumption.” The money Tata and other companies earn from innovations like the Swach is money that Indian families could have saved or spent on education, housing, health care, or culture and entertainment. The massive investment required to deliver clean water to Indian households is still less than the total amount being spent by hundreds of millions of families to do the job at home –- and of the work and school hours and health expenses lost to waterborne diseases.

According to a new report by the Delhi-based Center for Science and the Environment, India’s cities are drowning in their own waste due to poor planning and administration. “Every city was the same old story,” Souparno Banerjee, lead researcher on the 71-city, 3½-year effort, told the Wall Street Journal. “It had devastated its surface water, it was depleting its ground water and it had no plan for managing its water or wastewater.”

Speaking with the Journal, the Center’s director, Sunita Narain, asks some disturbing questions:

“Is it a reflection of the caste system of Indian society, where removing waste was someone else’s business? The business was untouchable. Certainly it was unspeakable. Or is it a reflection of the current governance systems, where water and waste are government business and, within that, it is the sole business of a lowly water and sanitation bureaucracy?”

“Or is it simply a reflection of Indian society’s extreme arrogance — our belief we can fix it all as and when we get rich?”

Wildlife

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Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.