Wash your hands, sure, but where's the water?

Wash your hands, sure, but where's the water?

The consternation is there to see when celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan appear on television screens and appeal to citizens to wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds to avoid Covid-19 infections. On 1 April 2020, a week into the country- wide lockdown, India recorded a staggering one-day increase of 400 cases of Covid-19. Two weeks into the outbreak of Covid-19 in India, the appeal to wash hands with water and soap for 20 seconds appears pervasive in every form of media.

Social media is abuzz with celebrities and politicians delivering similar tutorials for washing hands. Further, places where incidences of Covid-19 occur need to be sanitized again and again and that needs large quantities of additional water. Hospitals require adequate quantity and quality of water; public places such as bus stands, railway stations, metro-stations etc., need regular sanitation and require more water than usual to thwart Covid-19.

The intention of these appeals for cleanliness are not in doubt. But the doubt is whether all our households possess enough water to wash hands for 20 seconds frequently or sanitize homes and public places to thwart Covid-19? Celebrities have no answer. Two years ago, NITI Aayog projected an alarming scenario of the water crisis in India saying the country was suffering the worst water crisis in history with 60 crore or about 45 per cent of the population being vulnerable to high to severe water crisis.


Twenty-one cities could run out of groundwater by 2020, it was projected. Yet in March and April 2020, everyone is issuing appeals to wash hands for 20 seconds several times a day. What we have not understood so far is how do 60 crore Indians, two years after the NITI Aayog report, find enough water to keep away the highly contagious Covid-19?

Probably, most of us have forgotten due to the ongoing hysteria that there even exists a massive water crisis in India cutting across states, demography, regions, religions and caste. A rough estimate shows that one to two litres of clean water will be required for every hand wash per person for 20 seconds. At that rate, for several hand washes in a day, a household of five individuals would require at least 50-70 litres of additional water.

For the National Capital Region of Delhi with an adult population of nearly 20 million, the additional quantity of clean water required would be about 35-40 million litres per day (mld) for overcoming Covid- 19 infections alone. For a chronic water-stressed city like Chennai the additional quantity of water required is 20 mld (assuming a population of 10 million). When you add the water required for cleaning homes and public places, the additional quantity of water required is enormous, i.e. more than that estimated for washing hands alone.

Thanks to the bountiful monsoons last year, most of the water bodies across India now possess some water; else, the scenario of Covid-19 in India would have been catastrophic. Still most water bodies are polluted and unfit for washing hands. Such water from polluted sources is useless in the fight against coronavirus. Large areas within India – covering parts of Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, etc., – are located in arid and semi-arid regions.

These regions, typically characterised by low groundwater table, extreme temperatures, annual rainfall varying between 100 mm and 800 mm, face persistent water shortage. And these are also the regions where the Covid-19 maelstrom has just begun. Data from the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation shows only 18.33 per cent rural households in the country possessed piped water connections as on March 2019. In urban agglomerations across India, the unaccounted water due to medieval-style water distribution systems amounts to 20-30 per cent.

Most slums within urban agglomerations depend on tankers for water supply. And for such households, alcohol-based sanitisers are unaffordable and inadequate. The subtle but dire water crisis has a role to play in the spurt of Covid-19 infections. It is fortunate that the rise in infections has been rather modest till date in India unlike countries in Europe, the USA and Iran. The slow progress in rise of infections could be due to countrywide lockdown declared by the government.

But dependence on lockdowns alone could be a disaster as lack of clean water could ignite the muchfeared community transmission which government strategists are fighting hard to avoid. Unless adequate attention is paid to access of clean water, community transmission is like a powder keg waiting to explode. World Bank estimates that 21 per cent of communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices.

So, at least 45 per cent Indians under a pernicious water crisis are at various levels of risk of not only from Covid- 19 transmission but also other communicable diseases. Most of the time, the lack of adequate, accessible and good quality water or the maladroit water management in India per se multiplies the threat of infectious diseases. So, even after several rounds of lockdowns of cities, towns and villages, the virus can spread within households and from household to household clandestinely. Either the water scarcity will be accentuated by Covid-19 or Covid-19 will be accentuated by the lack of adequate, accessible and clean water.

This is a vicious trap at least until the next monsoon arrives. Water governance is concatenation of multiple disciplines and sectors including healthcare. Therefore, years of neglect of water infrastructure, chronic underfunding and lack of good water governance has put the nation and its citizens in danger of spread of Covid-19. At this juncture, there is no panacea except ensuring adequate water supplies and adequate funding by governments to areas under chronic water crisis on war footing so that the population can use water to disinfect households and public places frequently and arrest the mayhem of Covid-19.

In the long term, rhetoric and policies that confound themselves should cease and measures to increase water availability to the vulnerable population should be undertaken. To achieve this, not just funding, but incentives and accountability should be enhanced to overcome the hurdles of diverging policies and programmes between multiple levels of government.

Any procrastination in augmenting clean water to the vulnerable population will only weaken the nation’s resilience to combat future disasters that are linked with water. Therefore, in addition to the appeals by celebrities, better water governance is fundamental for thwarting diseases like Covid-19 and other future healthcare challenges.

(The writer is Director, Central Water Commission, Government of India. The views expressed in this article are personal)