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10cr people deprived of safe drinking water and 60cr people facing water stress in India: Safe Water Network

Natural water sources in India are contaminated with bio and chemical pollutants, and they cause more than 21% of India’s waterborne diseases which can prevented by providing safe piped water, says Poonam Sewak, vice president (program and partnerships), Safe Water Network

Poonam Sewak, vice-president, Safe Water Network
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Poonam Sewak, vice-president, Safe Water Network

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About 100 million people in India don't have access to safe piped water. Almost 600 million people face water stress and are under climate change threat. Safe Water Network, a non-profit organization, is empowering local communities in India to own and maintain water stations which provide access to safe drinking water to thousands of people. Poonam Sewak, vice-president (programme and partnerships), Safe Water Network, in an exclusive interview with Bizz Buzz, says, "we are directly impacting lives of 1.3 million people through social enterprises driven by entrepreneurs and women self-help groups and the balance through policy and advisory, providing technical assistance to state and local government, building their capacities, and networking with Safe Water Enterprise Alliance partners."

How grim is the water situation in India?

With an investment of more than $90 billion, the Government of India is changing the country's landscape with respect to water access. Its two national programs- Jal Jeevan Mission-Rural, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti at an investment of $50 billion and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation 2.0 under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs at $40 billion. If we look at the status today, about 100 million people in India don't have access to safe piped water. Almost 600 million people face water stress and are under climate change threat, so that is another challenge. If we look at water quality, our natural water sources are contaminated with bio and chemical pollutants, and they cause more than 21 per cent of the country's waterborne diseases. We face the challenge of raw water availability as the water table is dropping and aquifers are drying up. As per the assessment carried out by Central Ground Water Board CGWB on water scarcity, we have 839 over-exploited and 226 critical zones in the country.

Do you work in conjunction with the government or its agencies?

Yes, we have always worked in conjunction with the Government both at the Central and State level. We work with the Ministry of Jal Shakti as a key resource centre and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs as an advisory support unit at the Centre. We are also working with the State governments of Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, with the municipality, Gram Panchayat Committee, and District water authority at the local level. All the work is done in the public-private partnership mode, including government, private sector, civil society, and local communities.

Is desalination a plausible solution for India given its vast coastline?

Yes, seawater desalination offers a potential solution to water shortage in India. It is expensive and costs twice the amount of water from freshwater sources. For desalination as a plausible solution, we will need to adopt renewable energy to reduce costs and put environmental protections along the coastline to safeguard marine life. So, desalination is very much on the horizon.

How many people in your organization can reach across India?

We worked directly and through our 'safe water enterprise alliance' partners. SWE alliance, founded by us, is a network of SWE implementers, water sector specialists and NGOs who are committed to safe and affordable drinking water access for improving public health. This safe water enterprise alliance has about 40 partners, and we are partnering with six organizations as water knowledge source partners and have a footprint pan-India.

What are your plans for scaling up?

We will expand our footprint through our safe water enterprise alliance partners directly to reach out to more communities across India.

What are your funding options and how do you plan to raise funds in the future?

Various organizations like USAID and corporates currently fund us through their two per cent CSR grants. We will be following the same mechanism to raise funds. Some of our partners raise funds through social impact funding, debt financing, etc.

What is the strength of your team in India?

In India, we have a team of 79 people working directly or indirectly. We operate our 350 water stations with the help of over 1,000 local social entrepreneurs, operators, and distributors.

What futuristic technologies are available to use the earth's resources efficiently and sustainably?

Futuristic technologies that are environment friendly and play a critical role in water purification are solar energy. Other new technologies in practice are harvesting water from the air, 'HIX' Hybrid Ion Exchange nanotechnology, improvisation of reverse osmosis technology that reduces reject water. To use the earth's resources efficiently and sustainably, we need to reduce, reuse, and recycle the water, prevent water leakage, reuse treated wastewater. The government's campaign 'Catch the Rain' gave rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge a significant thrust. We, along with our partners, worked with local communities to harvest rainwater. AMRUT 2.0 focuses on the rejuvenation of at least three water bodies in each city. The use of digital technology for mapping, measuring, and data analytics provides good holistic feedback on how we should be monitoring our program and controlling it so that the earth's resources are efficiently and sustainably utilized.

Do you see the potential for large corporates to enter the fray as a corporate social responsibility?

Yes, we have already seen many corporates having a robust CSR program in water, and we are confident many more will join looking at the behemoth challenge. Water is essential to address all the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What are your plans for the future in India?

We at Safe Water Network work with communities at the local level so that each community owns and maintains its source of safe water and thrives. Currently, we impact 14.6 million people in India. We are directly impacting 1.3 million through social enterprises driven by entrepreneurs and women self-help groups and the balance through policy and advisory, providing technical assistance to state and local government, building their capacities, and networking with Safe Water Enterprise Alliance partners.

Vincent Fernandes
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