Water riddles

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

I travelled in Kerala last fortnight, seeking answers. I wanted to know what government was doing to meet the drinking water needs of people in this wet-drought state. Searching in villages and academic papers, an anomalous statistic caught my eye. According to 1999 estimations of the National Sample Survey Organisation and the 2001 Census, only 11-14 per cent of rural Kerala had access to potable water supply. But the same data showed some 77-85 per cent of people had drinking water supply.

This discrepancy, I then understood, stems from government parlance. "Coverage of drinking water supply" takes into account government (or publicly) created assets -- pipes, tubewells or handpumps. But people in Kerala depend upon private dugwells, which technically falls outside the scope.

This missing link was confirmed when I asked people. They invariably showed me a dugwell inside the homestead. The problem, they explained, was their well dried up in the 2-3 peak summer months. I then learnt there were an incredible estimated 4.5 million dugwells in the state -- 300 per sq km. These wells tapped the shallow aquifers, a perfect solution since natural recharge is largely poor in this mostly lateritic region. The yield was sufficient to meet household needs in normal times. Clearly these dugwells -- 5-50 metres deep -- were the perfect decentralised source for Keralites. So I wondered: Shouldn't these be integral to drinking water supply programmes?

No. Kerala follows the national norm: rural drinking water supply built around piped water or handpumps. As early as the 1970s, the Central government introduced the accelerated rural water supply programme to give states grants for water supply. In 1986, the programme was revamped as the Technology Mission on Drinking Water and then, in 1991, renamed as the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission. In 1999, the National Democratic Alliance government proclaimed it would provide safe drinking water to all in five years and upgraded the mission. A new department of drinking water supply came up.

By 2002-03, Rs 40,000 crore was spent and over 91.6 per cent of villages fully covered -- that is, they had a source of water 1.6 km from the settlement. But even government officially accepts that this estimation is not worth the paper it is written on. Villages are "covered", but water is not available. Even as government reaches 100,000 settlements each year through pipes and handpumps, it finds another 100,000 -- source dried-up, water quality worsened or pipe broken -- back in the list.

In early 2000, the government addressed these "sustainability" problems through 'reform'. It allocated 20 per cent of the rural water supply funds to quality improvement and keeping the source sustainable, and 15 per cent for operation and maintenance (O&M). But was such reform adequate? The Centre for Development Studies, some years ago, estimated that the entire annual expenditure on the programme -- some Rs 2,000 crore -- was needed to just meet the replacement costs of equipment and for O&M.

In late 2002 then prime minister Atal Behari Vajapayee launched with great fanfare the Swajaldhara scheme: now, the "community would own, operate and maintain" the water system. Communities were to contribute 10 per cent to the total capital costs; once completed, panchayats would take over O&M. They would charge for water delivery and recover their costs. The state, downloading its duty, believed the "sustainability and quality" problem plaguing the programme was solved.

In Kerala, the only difference is that the community brings in 15 per cent, the panchayat 10 per cent and the government the remaining 75 per cent of the total project cost. Some Rs 400 crore is allocated for 5 years till 2006; the "beneficiary group" of self-selected households is expected to contribute to and oversee programme implementation. From what I saw, it was clear this approach would improve the quality of service delivery. But sustainability? Here, each household pays roughly Rs 2000 for capital costs and Rs 30-50 per month as electricity costs. The source of the water -- pumped to a tank and then to homes -- is invariably a well some distance away. The problem is that in densely populated Kerala, these wells for private (call it community, if you will, but the arrangement is quite privatised) water supply are a potential source of conflict, with other well-owners in adjoining lands worried about water level decline. Also, if not adequately recharged, the source could dry up, becoming a wasted asset. The cost makes it impossible to replicate across the state.

In this context, let's return to the dugwell. It is a decentralised source. It is cost-effective: over 70-80 per cent households have access to it. Still, government does not begin to plan for it. I would argue that the drinking water programme in Kerala should have been centered around this wealth of 4.5 million dugwells, resolving then the problems of quality and quantity. Kerala also has the largest number of unsanitary toilets, located near water sources. Therefore, the greater need is to invest in better sanitation. By actively harvesting Kerala's massive rainwater endowment to build up aquifers, peak summer shortage could be tempered as well.

But water planners in Kerala, as in the rest of the country, always fail to see what is under their nose. How many such systems have been destroyed wilfully by bureaucracies that failed to see what people were doing to secure their water-future? Will Kerala's dugwells hold out? Provide answers for the new government's (mandatory) to-be-relaunched drinking water mission?

-- Sunita Narain

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