My journey with water - a reflection by Dr. Anita Deshmukh

My personal journey in relation to water began as a child, under the tutelage of my beloved father, a farmer by birth and choice. It was from him I learnt the importance of water to farmers’ lives and its deep connection to soil health, human health, ecology and economy.

In later years, while being a faculty neonatologist in Chicago, I volunteered my time for a developmental organization, IDS that supported Integrated Rural Development Projects in India, where I made yearly trips to visit and learn from these projects. Water being utmost on my mind, I travelled extensively in the drought prone parts of our country supporting water-shade development projects that created livelihood for people in Rajasthan, Maharashtra. Whether it was meeting ‘Rajendra Singh’, Magsaysay and Stockholm Water Prize winner “Waterman” in Arawali, in Rajasthan or meeting tribal Gopal in the Attapadi Hills, both of whom “Grew Water” in their regions, it was a sobering as well as exhilarating journey. Those water-shade development and rainwater harvesting projects afforested lands, increased rain falls, rejuvenated rivers, brought the water tables up, stopped soil erosions and increased the yield from the land.

After relocating to India, I began research exploring social determinants of health in the slums of Mumbai through PUKAR, the organization that I work with. In the unrecognized slums of Mumbai, where 65-72% of the population lives, the services of basic amnesties like water, sanitation and energy are NOT provided by the local authorities. Community Needs Assessment in these areas revealed that lack of water was causing communities severe problems around health, family finances, education and livelihood.

Being a public health consultant trained at Harvard, evidence-based research action was the method I followed to find solutions. Our research on water quantity, quality, reliability and costs, revealed that 95 per cent of households did not get enough water to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) recommended minimum usage of 50 litres per capita per day (LPCD), and 48 per cent of households did not even get 20 LPCD, a usage level associated with “high” health risk according to WHO.  Water insecurity may also indirectly impact health by negatively affecting income, livelihood and education. In different seasons, the fee that slum residents pay to water vendors (Water Mafias) is 52–206 times the standard municipal water charge of 3.25 rupees per 1,000 litres of water that residents of apartment owners pay. This represents 6–16 per cent of the average monthly household income, a spending level that in some cases could be catastrophic. Poor quality, inadequate quantity, enormous costs and criminalization by local authorities of alternative modes of accessing water is causing poor health outcomes, financial stress, job insecurity and reinforcing the cycle of poverty in the people of slums.

Our research findings were submitted to the High Court by PIL by Pani Haq Samiti and after 4 years of agitations, finally the Court delivered a verdict compelling the local elected body that every slum resident must receive the WHO recommended water quantity every day irrespective of legal status. The verdict is still in the implementing stage.

The climate change has further worsened the water issue… Droughts, cyclones and floods have devastated all parts of the world in past few years and the struggle for drinking water continues. Water wars loom large on the horizon. Humanity needs to make serious efforts to conserve our most precious resource that makes us what we are…The Earthlings…

The following images are part of PUKAR’s  2 research papers on water that are published in peer reviewed international journals and are available on PUKAR’s website.