Solar-powered water ATMs in India's slums

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community ManagerCarlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager

Clean water does not come easily to Mumbai slum dwellers. While municipal taps are now increasingly available, household tap water is reserved for a privileged few. The result is that women in slums must queue for hours at common taps at inconvenient times — many start their day at 4:00 a.m., when the city makes the water available for just a few hours. In addition, the water — often much more expensive than the prices "legalized" consumers pay in the city — is of questionable quality. The health burden adds up in medical bills, days lost from work and school, and, most concerning, the thousands who die every year due to water-borne illnesses.

And for women, water is not only a health concern but a physical and mental challenge as well. A study from 2001 found that in some dense slum areas of the city, more than 4,000 people shared a single tap. On average, 50 slum dwellers used one tap, still making the task a daily, time-consuming burden. The long hours spent collecting water and hauling it back and forth take women away from income-generating activities and household duties. Women are forced to orient their entire day around water, and to deal with the aftermath of related illnesses.

Dr. Armida Fernandez, the pioneering founder behind SNEHA, an NGO focused on improving the health of women and children in Mumbai's slums, has said that providing access to clean, safe drinking water is one of the most important steps in addressing urban health issues. "The health needs of the slum dwellers are enormous and differ from those in the rural areas," said Fernandez in a 2010 interview. "The most important health requirement for those living in the slums is that of clean drinking water and sanitation. Water-borne diseases like hepatitis and typhoid often plague slum children, who are the most vulnerable to such health hazards."

Accessing safe water in urban India

Yet provision of clean water involves overcoming many obstacles in the urban context. For one, municipalities are resistant to connecting unrecognized slums for fear the steps would hint at legalization. Another issue is contamination, which is a result of outdated and mismanaged city infrastructure. Open sewage drains run alongside municipal water lines, contaminating ground water with lead, cyanide, mercury, and more. Take Delhi, for example: the capital city produces 3.6 billion tons of sewage every day, though less than half of that is effectively treated. The remaining untreated waste is dumped into the Yamuna River, which accounts for 86 percent of Delhi's water supply. "Higher demand for water, increased pollution by humans and industry, and the mismanagement of water are most of all impacting the poorest people in the country's towns and cities," said Sushmita Sengupta of a Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in a 2010 article entitled "Urban Poor Suffer Water Crisis as Cities Grow." Mumbai's Mithi River, which runs through Dharavi, the city's largest slum, is similarly polluted with dangerous toxic waste and human excrement.

Given the range of obstacles, water solutions in India's cities require new solutions, partnerships, and interventions that are adaptable to their massive and complex urban contexts. Access alone is not the answer; solutions need to be holistic and sustainable, addressing the issue with a multi-faceted approach that combines purification, distribution, education, and affordability. An increasing trend towards distributed models — off the main municipal water grid — offers the opportunity to work more locally with communities and their specific needs. Ideally, distributed models would involve the community in planning and implementing the solutions to ensure the projects meet their needs. A research paper that calls for the decentralization of the water sector in India says that this move will "facilitate participation and inter-sectoral coordination, develop and operate water supply that is more responsive to the needs of the users and to engender a sense of ownership. To work, such decentralization needs to be gradual, as this requires more comparative studies of the conditions under which users are most likely to be organized and take part in participatory management."

Dispensing water from ATMs

In the absence of municipal services, private service providers have been innovating to fill the basic needs gap. Piramal Water Pvt Ltd, under the brand Sarvajal, has recently introduced distributed water solutions to urban India, many of which have proved successful in the rural areas. Solar-power ATMs that dispense not money but safe, treated water have been piloted in Ahmedabad and are under consideration by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The water ATMs allow 24-hour access by swiping pre-paid cards, which are easily recharged like mobile phones, or by paying with coins. Around-the-clock access provides the sort of convenience that is rarely experienced by the urban poor, who suffer irregular electricity service as well.

Customers pay a nominal fee for Sarvajal's water, which is kept "lower than alternatives" by purifying the water centrally. Using reverse-osmosis technology, the purification centers then supply water to the network of decentralized, "off-grid" solar-powered ATMs. Earlier this year, Piramal Water Pvt Ltd sent a proposal to Delhi's governing boards to open 250 ATMs with 10 filtration plants that cover at least five neighborhoods in Delhi. If plans move forward, the machines would serve 50,000 customers daily by the end of this year.

The ATMs are one of a number of solutions Sarvajal has launched across India since its inception in 2008. The social enterprise focuses on providing affordable access to safe water, but has also devised unique solutions to ensure sustainability. Hundreds of new water technologies have been tested and implemented across the developing world, but sustainability is one of the greatest challenges. Many interventions are defunct in less than five years, leaving communities in a similar position to before the water projects were launched. Sarvajal believes that longevity of the project is more likely if ownership lies in the hands of the community. For this reason, the company follows a franchise model where it recruits and trains local entrepreneurs to run the water service centers.

Another ongoing issue with the sustainability of water initiatives is regular maintenance of the equipment and associated costs. The technologies often break down due to the community's lack of technical capacity or required maintenance reserves. The pay-per-use model provides funding to entrepreneurs to maintain the integrity of the equipment and, therefore, the water. Sarvajal also uses real-time monitoring equipment on the ATMs to track and quickly react to any issues. The monitoring system also provides up-to-the-minute information on the water quality and how much water is being sold, as well as where and when. The data helps the company and local entrepreneur to understand behavior better and tailor services accordingly.

Looking to the future

While private sector models such as Sarvajal's ATMs are providing much-needed solutions to the growing water issue, municipal governments need to be continually and actively involved in the efforts. A July 2009 report warned that in the coming years, climate change could drastically weaken monsoon rains on the subcontinent, affecting the more than one billion people who rely on the rainy season for agriculture and water supplies. "The water demand (in India) will exceed supply by 40 percent by 2030 if it's just a business-as-usual scenario and if the government does not spend adequately on infrastructure," said Bharat Sharma of the International Water Management Institute in the report. If governments around the region tap into the innovations happening on the ground, new partnerships can emerge with potential for wider impact. More state and local investment in infrastructure needs to happen simultaneously with private sector models. Only with this multi-layered commitment to solving the vast and complex water needs of cities around India can the problem truly be solved for the long term.

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