Monday, July 30, 2012

Drinking water access in Sultanpur: notes from a Dutch perspective

When leaving for India from the Netherlands, with the purpose of field research about drinking water access in peri-urban Gurgaon, I did not really know what to expect from ‘the Indian village’. What would be people’s main water resources? Would there be a government-organized supply or would people rely more on traditional water sources? And would drinking water scarcity be an issue?

For my MSc thesis in International Development studies, I joined SaciWaters’ peri-urban project in Gurgaon for the past three months. Most of my field research was conducted in the village of Sultanpur. A large part of this village is served by government (PHED) water supply, but this supply is erratic and the quality of the water is not trusted to be drinkable by many. The supply does not reach everywhere, as the southern part of the village is excluded from the network. For drinking water, most people rely on the groundwater from public hand pumps or private tubewells. Only a few drink the supplied water and many cannot afford a filtering system. But as groundwater tables are falling, due to climatic change and peri-urban pressures, the water is slowly becoming saline, thereby threatening the potable water reserves.

Now that the research is done and I am about to return to my home in the Netherlands, it is interesting to reflect upon the water situation from a Dutch perspective. I will return to a country where 24/7 water supply is no more than normal. From village to city, no part of the country is unserved by the public water networks. Moreover, the quality of the water is said to be among the best in the world: recent research showed that Dutch tap water is of better quality than the expensive mineral water that can be bought in bottles. As we have a single-tier supply, this high quality water is also used for bathing, washing and even flushing the toilet. For most Dutch people, opening the tap and water not coming out, would be simply unthinkable. I personally cannot recall such a thing happening even once in my lifetime.

Comparing our drinking water situation to that of Sultanpur, the differences are obviously huge. The physical labour involved in obtaining drinking water for the household, is something that belongs to the past in the Netherlands. People have long forgotten about hauling water from wells and catching rainwater in reservoirs. It is eye-opening to see how the people of Sultanpur had to fetch their own drinking water to their homes. Men and women, elderly and children, all could be seen carrying the heavy matkas with about 15-20 litres of drinking water on their head or shoulders. It is hard to imagine having to do this twice a day, for drinking water only! The time that it takes to walk up and down to the pump, waiting for your turn and then filling up the pots, which requires some physical labour as well, should not be underestimated.

Another thing that struck me was the debate about the quality of the PHED supplied water: is it filtered well enough for drinking or not? Many villagers choose to remain using their traditional groundwater sources for drinking water, even though these are depleting. According to the PHED however, the water is filtered well and suitable for drinking. Such debates are never heard in the Netherlands, where the water quality is carefully monitored and tested in order to secure healthy supply. A public testing of the supplied water in the village might help in establishing more clarity about the actual water quality. Even if the water leaving the treatment plant is safe to drink, contamination might occur during the transport, caused by breakages in the pipelines.

There are many more differences that I could write about, for instance the open sewage system in many Indian villages and the enduring influence of the caste system on water security between different population groups. But one should also keep in mind that the general situation of both countries is very different. The Netherlands is a small, low-lying and water-rich country. In fact, keeping the water out is a more salient challenge than dealing with water scarcity, such as can be experienced in the hot and dry Indian summers. As a highly developed country, the investments needed for a good quality public water network are more easily made than in India, where the scale of the investments needed is much larger as well (India being 70 times bigger than the Netherlands in terms of population and 80 times in terms of area).

Doing field work in Sultanpur has been a great learning experience for me, and brought me many new insights on drinking water access. Most of all, it has shown me that many things I used to take for granted, are not so commonplace at all.
 Afke van der Woude
 Wageningen University
Student Intern
(Gurgaon), SaciWATERs

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