Fight against COVID-19 is a fight for water, against inequality

Let us end our water divides. It is already late

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Thursday 23 April 2020
Water tap. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Indians woke up very late to the threat of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in the first week of March. The first thing that people were advised to do was wash hands with soaps or liquid hand wash agents.

Alcohol-based sanitisers that anyway are a luxury for most Indians, vanished from the market within no time. While soaps come at an affordable price, the liquid hand wash remains a dream for a majority of Indians. 

The need therefore narrows down to Rs 5-10 soaps. Most Indians perhaps can buy a soap, that is said to be no less effective than a liquid hand wash in cleaning hands. But there is another thing that determines who can afford a hand wash and who cannot. That’s water. 

The great water divide 

Access to quality water at one’s doorstep divides India like nothing else. And as the summer sets in, this divide grows. 

With handwashing at the core of our fight against the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2), water really determines who is more vulnerable and who is less. The  relatively privileged classes, that are under lockdown in their homes, with tap water connections and the ability to buy groceries, soaps and hand wash, have nothing to worry so far. 

The only worry is they are now using at least twenty to forty times more water in washing their hands than they normally used to do.

We have been advised, for our own good, to wash our hands each time we touch a surface, a door handle, go out to get groceries, medicines, vegetables; each time we do almost anything. The expert advice is to wash hands with soap or liquid hand wash for at least 20-30 seconds each time. 

That means we need to use at least two litres of water per wash. With a minimum of 20 washes a day, a person requires at least 40 litres water per day in a country that is striving hard to provide 55 litres per person per day of tap water by 2024. 

Even if someone uses water judiciously and does not waste a single drop, the required amount is still too high. The hand wash is therefore a luxury for most of the villagers and slum dwellers, who do not have water supply at their doorstep.

Storage is another issue for the common villager and slum dweller. In India, seven per cent of the population are without even a basic supply of water close to their homes. About 81 per cent rural Indians don’t have a tap connection at home.

They bring water from some source outside, between a few metres to several kilometres away, and store that for the day’s consumption. And what is stored, many often not more than a few buckets, is normally carried by the female members of the families, as is the usual tradition in India. 

Handwashing among these sections of the society, both in rural and urban areas, is therefore practically limited to one or two times. And most of them are not privileged to have soaps. Some wash their hands with detergent cakes and powders, soil and ash.

The protocol, the warnings, don’t matter to them. They don’t have the resources. Government support has been useful, though not sufficient. With no income in sight, perhaps for months together, no one wants to invest in soaps. 

Some of whom I spoke to, felt they could survive the crisis if they were at home and had basic food stocks. Many who use public water sources to meet their daily chores, are not aware of the restrictions to use public bathing ghats, bore-wells, open wells and other sources. 

These sources, no matter how safe they are as defined under Census guidelines, are not safe at these times especially when the water is still, drying up due to summer, and being used by several people at one time. 

In these challenging times, we are reminded with more emphasis, that these are the sources that meet water needs — for daily chores — of the majority of rural India. Even a huge chunk of the urban poor depend on these to bathe, wash their hands after and before food, after using a toilet, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, so on and so forth.  

Migrants on the road 

Then, there is the new segment of marginalised people created by COVID1-9: Migrant workers. Millions of them, who could not get sufficient time to prepare to return back their homes after the lockdown was announced, have very limited access to water. 

Many were moved by the scenes of misery faced by these people, treated as second grade citizens of the country. They were seen carrying their children on their shoulders, walking down hundreds of kilometres, with no food and money to buy anything. 

At some places, they were provided food and water and at others, they were unwelcome guests, beaten up and tortured by the police. After the initial confusion, governments started to act to help them. Civil society also came to their rescue. 

However, one thing is sure: They are not washing their hands. They don’t have access to water. The Supreme Court has already intervened and has asked states to provide proper shelter, food, clean drinking water and sanitation facilities to migrants who are being debarred from going back to their homes. 

In general, water provisioning on the highways and public places even for well-to-do tourists is very poor. All of us who travel on the road for work or during vacation, have to buy bottled water. That’s during normal times. 

During such unprecedented time of crisis, the shops are closed and even if they were open, the migrants on the road would have no money to buy water. I saw the interview of a man who had just Rs 3 in hand and had set out for a 400-kilometre journey, with his little child on his shoulder. 

Another person said buying one bottle of water would mean dispensing with 10 per cent of the daily wage he earned. And he was not earning anymore. The factory owner gave him Rs 500, out of the thousands of rupees wage that was due, as an emergency amount to flee.

Though not all of them had to go through the inhuman experience of being sprayed with chlorinated water, not getting safe water on the way or where they are being settled is no less of a crisis. 

Thirty per cent of all migrants travelling to their homes might be carrying the risk of coronavirus, the Centre had informed the Supreme Court. After this, states have been asked to shelter migrants and not let them move anymore. Governments have made many provisions to supply food and water, but many complaints from the field remain.

Half the country now faces a water crisis and the situation is getting worse by the year. If pandemics like this increase in their frequencies and intensities, which may actually happen because we have already damaged our natural defence to an irreparable extent, water, our frontline defence against such crisis may fail us in more deadly a way than what we experience now.

And the poor and marginalised will be eliminated first.  Let’s conserve our rivers, our water bodies, our natural forests, our creeks, our mangroves, our lakes so on and so forth. Let’s end the water divides. It’s already late,

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