cover story

Clean break

An affordable purification system has rendered water contamination caused by arsenic and iron a crisis of the past in rural Assam

Quantity over quality is certainly preferable when it comes to goals scored in a football match. Not so when the parameter is attached to a resource like water. The realities surrounding water in India are such, though, that availability tends to take precedence over purity. This is far from desirous, especially since the consequences of consuming unsafe water unfold over longer periods, making prompt detection and treatment of its ill effects less than easy.

The facts about unclean water in the country are alarming: about 50% of rural households depend on untreated water; biological and chemical contamination of water affects countless people every year; industrial growth and chemical farming are leading to rampant pollution of surface as well as groundwater sources; there is an acute shortage of purification and monitoring systems; and lack of awareness about water contamination is widespread.

Chemical contamination of the water that Indians have access to, particularly in rural regions, is perhaps the biggest worry. The Central Ground Water Board has identified a number of ‘water-quality hotspots’ in the country based on high chloride, arsenic, fluoride, iron, salinity and nitrate contamination in local water bodies. It is estimated that the groundwater in almost two-thirds of the Indian states is contaminated with heavy metals.

Assam is among the states hit hardest by water contamination. It was to address this issue that the Tata Trusts began a pilot project in May 2017 in Borigaon Kothora in Nalbari district. The ‘community-owned and operated drinking water purification system’ (COPS) was aimed at ensuring that the village’s residents could access water free of arsenic and iron.

The Borigaon Kothora initiative has, since then, been replicated in other villages in three districts of the state, reaching more than 5,000 households. Village communities are at the core of COPS, which is calibrated to take a holistic and decentralised approach that integrates the social, the technological and the administrative in delivering potable water in rural India.

COPS has under its canopy technical assessments, community mobilisation, awareness and behaviour-change campaigns, nifty engineering and sustainability. Water sources affected by heavy-metal contamination are identified, deeper tube wells are set up, and treatment and filtration units are installed. For the longer term, there are schemes planned for piped supply from surface water bodies.

Drinking safe

COPS at its best

In Borigaon Kothora, which has become an example of COPS at its best, some 2,000 people from more than 300 households have benefitted from the safe water project. The stakeholders in the exercise were the village development committee, the local political leadership and voluntary organisations, the district administration and Assam’s public health engineering department.

Before the project began in earnest, drinking water sources from five villages in the neighbourhood were tested for contamination levels and two villages having the maximum concentration of arsenic and iron were selected. Borigaon Kothora was finally picked because the village was more receptive to the COPS idea, providing land for water-treatment infrastructure and showing a greater commitment to sustaining the effort.

The Trusts have relied upon two partners to create COPS and to showcase its effectiveness. Gramya Vikas Manch (GVM), a community-focused organisation familiar with the social landscape of Nalbari, pitched in by mobilising villagers, conducting awareness camps and doing assessment studies.

DrinkWell, a Kolkata-based social enterprise with expertise in drinking-water systems, designed and delivered the water-purification methodology, deploying its patented arsenic and iron removal technology (called HIX-Nanotechnology).

The Tata Trusts team, GVM and DrinkWell worked closely in technology deployment, in trials and commissioning. The meatiest contributors to COPS’s success probably were the villagers themselves. They had for support and encouragement their village council, the district administration, state government officials and their elected representatives.

The safe drinking water they now have does not come free for beneficiaries of COPS. This does not cost much — a 20-litre can of water can be purchased for 7 — and payments are made by villagers through ‘water ATM cards’. These cards work like their banking equivalents, with villagers paying their dues to an operator appointed by the community. The money collected covers maintenance and the operator’s salary.

Efficient and easy to maintain, COPS units can work up to eight hours a day and purify 5,000 litres of water while complying with global safety standards. Importantly, this standout water-purification programme offers a beacon of hope for communities battling water contamination in rural India.