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?”

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.

    superb news and all true I LOVE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHY

  • Anabella

    Finally somebody wrote about sewerage situation in India! It is horrific and the government is still not doing anything about it or should i cite the local officials ” we are doing studies on the sewerage problems”.

  • SSC2012XYZ

    This amazes me that the government in India is not doing anything about this.

  • Geopr

    Good work as usual N Geographic, certainly makes me want to find out more!

  • james ryan

    why isnt the wealthy countries helping india to clean up this problem and poverty in genral yet the us can waste billions on wepons sad sad shame shame they want to be the world police but wont help the needy

  • india world

    India is rich enough to fix its water problem and more. There is no need for “rich countries” to chip in to fix this basic and fundamental issue. What’s more, any monetary funding from rich countries is likely to go into the politician’s pockets, rather than being used to fix the water problem. Having clean water available to the citizens is very low priority issue for the Indian government, no matter which party is elected. Keeping the rivers and waterbodies clean is a low priority problem for the citizens themselves who don’t mind throwing garbage into the river or peeing and pooping in the lakes. It has been that way for hundreds of years and that will be the way for decades to come.

  • Nitin

    Thanks for raising this issue on N Geog…..As of now this is low priority problem for India as of today …..Awareness is increasing among the Indian citizens about this problem….In coming years Government will have no option but to fix this issue…
    Major issue of Poverty is still a major concern to be tackled first…
    Unfortunately 99% of Indian Politicians are not genuine …
    so the country management is weak…

  • ravi

    Those people are not living in India they can’t have rights to show the finger to INDIA’s situation.
    I’m talking about Australia.
    INDIA HAVE 1220 million people and Australia have only 50 million and INDIA’s area also have smaller than Australia, almost less than half.
    So controlled such large people, their education, security their job is not so easy.
    Australia don’t have any neighbor country while it is surrounded by World’s biggest Ocean i.e. natural security. India’s neighbors are Pakistan a Terrorist country, poorest countries like bhutan, nepal, bangladesh, sri-lanka. China also supplies neclear weapon to Pakistan. China also claimed some parts of India which threats to our security.
    Australia have only Christian(50 million) community country.
    While India have Hindu(800 million), muslim(220 million), Sikh(60 million), Christian(100 million), Jain(25 million), Bhaudhism(15 million).
    India is Worlds’s fourth Wealthy country and world’s second highest G.D.P. rate 7-8%.
    Australia is not even in the Top 10 list of wealthy country and negative G.D.P. rate.
    Shame shame Austruu.

  • Ema de Freitas

    India is such a wonderful country. I love with all the good and bad, still there is way to much to be done concerning these and other issues. Sooner or later they will have to deal with this. They are one of the emergent economies… Lets hope for the better, that it will be sooner than later.
    “Getting defensive” about these issues does not help Indians…

  • AS

    I do not feel that it should be another countries responsibility to reform India’s sewage and water issues. It’s common sense that you wouldn’t want to drink the water that you take baths in, or wash your clothes in, or worse yet that you defecate or urinate in. Obviously these things should be kept seperate. India needs to reform it’s government. If they can’t even handle basic needs like clean drinkable water, then what is the government for? Corruption is the issue here. Elect or enforce a government that is going to provide at least the basic essentials for it’s people. Don’t travel the planet looking for a handout.

  • snooozep

    Most of asia’s pollution is due to globalization and outsourcing manufacturing from the first world countries. So in a way the pollution is outsourced too. The first world countries get all the benefit without fixing the mess they have caused. So yes , helping them clean up is partly their responsibility.

  • Christian

    India is a wonderful country with history spanning more than two millenias. It was a cradle of great civilizations, therefore its present-day citizens should inherited the creativity of their ancestors. Then why their federal and state government (s) could not feed potable water to their people ? They have all they need, as reflected in this article. Maybe their politicians lack political will to solve such critical matters – matters which could mean dead or life for some parts of the society. Caste system ? Arrogance ? or others ? Whatever the blunder is, its now their people must push the governments to take care of their basic needs !!!

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