Since my arrival in India, I have had access to three different sources of water; tap, which most of the time comes from a tank in my roof and is used mostly to wash dishes and take showers; filtered, for washing vegetables and to cook with; and mineral water, consumed in bottles or from a dispenser.
There are also water tankers (used by millions of families), big trucks that deliver water in case of water shortages, and people selling water in the streets.
Access to drinking water remains one of India’s biggest challenges. This issue is reinforced each day by a growing population, rapid urbanization and the growing demand for water from agriculture, energy and industry.
Access to drinking water is recognized to be, above all, a question of public and domestic health. According to UNICEF, only a quarter of the total population in India has drinking water on their premises and nearly three-quarters of all diseases in India are caused by contaminants in the water supply.
After more than 30 years working in the water sector in France, the Czech Republic, Morocco, Gabon, South Africa and India, I am convinced that working hand-in-hand with municipalities and all stakeholders is the main challenge to implement innovative, sustainable and equitable solutions that meet city’s and industries’ expectations and needs.
Whatever the location and the context, I would say that the water sector has to meet five main requirements to ensure access to water for all.
Capitalize on existing assets
The primary mission of a water operator in India is probably to optimize existing infrastructure, such as water production and treatment plants, water networks and reservoirs. Basically, the idea is to supply water to more people while using the same capacities, rather than waiting for new infrastructures to be built. Efficient management is crucial in extending the scope of existing services.
For instance, since 2006 in Karnataka, as part of a performance contract with the cities of Hubli-Dharwad, Gulbarga and Belgaum and in partnership with the World Bank, it became possible to provide a continuous water supply to 180,000 people who previously, at best, received water for only a few hours a week.
Adapt services to ensure affordability
In the context of public-private partnerships, the public sector retains ownership of the assets and, most importantly, sets the tariffs. One of the main challenges is to ensure that the cost of an individual connection is affordable and that tariffs are not prohibitive for the poorest people.
In the towns of Hubli-Dharwad, Belgaum and Gulbarga, working with the municipal corporations and the World Bank, we devised a solution that ensured charges for individual connection to the water network were affordable for all.
Create local customer services
Designing services for all citizens in partnership with elected representatives is something that most local people will expect. Offering the most well-adapted customer service to all our users by targeting their needs precisely is a duty that every water distributor should have.
For instance, in the city of Nagpur (Maharashtra), a new unit was created within the Customer Services Department of Orange City Water (the joint venture company between Veolia and Vishvaraj Environment Ltd.) named the Social Welfare Team.
All the members of this team are social workers from local communities who visit every household to explain the work of Orange City Water and answer their questions. They also carry out various service operations, such as dealing with applications for a water connection, subscriptions to the service and access to information about the water supply.
Apply the notion of ‘social business’
In a context of economic crisis and with the growing discontent created by mainstream capitalism in recent years, new business models are emerging. One of the most famous of these is “social business”.
Testing new models is another challenge for water operators, particularly when creating access to water to peri-urban and rural areas.
This is why, in 2008, we launched a joint venture between Veolia Water and Grameen Healthcare. Based on the “social business” model, the project set up a quality water service for two villages in Bangladesh where the country’s groundwater reserves are not very deep and are naturally contaminated by lethal levels of arsenic.
The profits of the new service will be reinvested to extend the distribution network and launch other similar projects. Thanks to this model, today more than 2,600 people have access to drinking water in the villages of Goalmari and Padua Union.
Speak to users and raise awareness
If technological expertise is at the root of a project, too often social support is missing, despite the fact that explaining good water use is essential to maximizing the benefits of services for local populations.
Communicating the relation between water, good hygiene and health, for example, should be one of our main responsibilities.
Access to drinking water is a concern that everyone in India faces, rich or poor. By distributing pressurized and potable water via taps, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, we can ensure that everyone has equal access to this precious resource. As long as the will is there, it is possible.
Author: Patrick Rousseau is the chief executive officer of Veolia India.
Image: Boys hold buckets as they stand in a queue to collect drinking water for the Iftar (evening breaking fast) meal on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan in India, inside a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave