Water ATMs are here to offer relief from hot summer

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By Bulbul Sharma

Mumbai : As summer marks its arrival across most parts of the country, water shortage becomes a looming threat everywhere. A new urban project aims to preempt such a crisis by installing water ATMs at various sites in Indian cities, such as railway stations, bus stands, market places and metro stations. Conceived with an aim to provide pure drinking water to all, water ATMs also intend to limit the consumption of packaged water, which isn’t cost-effective, to say the least, and caters to only 5% population in the country.

A brainchild of Parag Agarwal, the water ATM project is initiated by JanaJal (a brand started by Agarwal in 2013), which offers clean drinking water at an affordable price through an automated water ATM system.

Rooting for community level water treatment approach, JanaJal also works towards making safe water accessible to all. Currently operating more than 280 water points, Agarwal also envisions taking on the growing popularity of Reverse Osmosis (RO) water treatment and advocates the use of other treatment systems (UV/UF/ Carbon Filters) depending on the condition of ground water.

Speaking to Guardian 20, Agarwal discusses the need of making drinking water a pay-per-use commodity, underlines the importance of environmentally sustainable measures, and also reflects on how sewage treatment programmes can help address the water crunch in Indian towns and cities.

Q. Water ATM is a fairly new concept in India, why do you think the initiative turned into a massive success almost instantly?

A. The gap between demand and supply of safe drinking water for the common man in India has existed for decades. Over the past 15 years, bottled and packaged water has evolved into an alternative but ironically, despite all its popularity and growth in consumption volumes, it caters to less than 5% of the Indian population as on date. Therefore, the concept of water ATMs was evangelised and advocated by JanaJal for nearly five years from now. It was only in May 2014 when Mr. Modi assumed office of the Prime Minister, was the need for safe water highlighted. Thereafter, owing to the Swachh Bharat initiative and various measures by the government to provide better WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) facilities in India, water ATMs are now considered a reliable, consistent and affordable medium of making safe water available across India.

JanaJal has built a very sustainable yet socially inclusive and impactful model of installation and operations of its water ATMs hence has achieved massive success within this space.

Q. In one of your previous interviews you talked about the psychological block consumers have about mindlessly using Reverse Osmosis (RO). You also talked about implementing other technologies like Ultra Filtration (UF), Ultraviolet (UV) and Carbon Filters. Could you please elaborate on the subject?

A. Over the years, the JanaJal management team has understood the fact that water in India changes every 100 kms. Therefore, no single water treatment technology can provide an efficient solution to purify the same. While RO is relevant for treating ground water and other mineral contaminations such as fluoride, arsenic, iron, etc. it is actually counter-productive to water, both qualitatively and quantitatively when it comes to treating surface water and water supplied by municipal corporations in urban areas. However, excessive marketing has led consumers to believe that the best way to secure themselves is by installing RO system in their homes.

Q. Please enumerate the advantages of community level water treatment over individual one?

A. Community level water treatment systems not only restrict the wastage of water but also focus on applying the most suited treatment technologies that ensure preservation of essential nutrients in the same. Community systems also eliminate the expenditure on building and maintaining costly infrastructure for water distribution. One of the biggest challenges faced by the world is billions of kilometres of water distributing pipelines and water storage infrastructure that are on an average at least 40-years-old. These storage tanks and pipelines continuously damage the quality of water and either will never be replaced or will cost billions to do so. Community water treatment plants such as the ones installed by JanaJal mitigate all the risks faced on this account and provide the much needed last mile connectivity by purifying water at the point of consumption.

Q. How is JanaJal contributing to Swachh Bharat Mission and other sewage management programs?

A. JanaJal follows AAA philosophy which is to make water Accessible, Available and Affordable that is exactly in line with the Swachh Bharat mission. The focus is to make this precious resource available in a consistent manner to the common man who finds bottled water very expensive or has to walk several kilometres everyday from their home to the nearest water source to collect water with no assurance that it is safe to drink. It is observed that women and children are most impacted by this daily routine and more time spent on this activity means less time for earning money or going to school. JanaJal sees itself not only contributing significantly to the Swachh Bharat mission but also to development of the New India initiative that our Prime Minister has envisioned.

Q. Water inaccessibility is a major problem in the country, how does JanaJal plan to overcome it?

A. While JanaJal believes that water ATMs provide the much desired ‘last mile connectivity’, we understand that even a mile can be a very big distance when it comes to accessibility. Water is the only commodity upon which the demand for accessibility is consistently seen to grow in time. Therefore JanaJal is now planning to roll out WOW – Water on Wheels that is a 500 litre secure tank built on a battery operated e-rickshaw and will deliver water to peoples’ homes. This is being viewed as a tool to provide “last metre connectivity” for delivery of water and is scheduled to be introduced in September 2017.

Q. In addition to contributing to the water management and conservation, your initiative is also generating self-employment opportunities, offering skill development training and various health benefits. Could you please share with us your ideas on the same?

A. Every JanaJal water ATM provides technical training to individuals to work as operators to earn sustainable livelihood for themselves. JanaJal also provides social entrepreneurship opportunities and shapes the mindset of individuals to enable them to serve communities. This is an intrinsic part of the company’s business and operating model. At railway stations where specific water ATMs operate on 24X7 basis, three operators are deployed on eight hour shifts per system. Safe water delivers health and wellness to communities. It has widely been experienced that children turn more responsive and interactive at school once they begin to consume safe water. Their overall development and growth has been significant. Women are also able to contribute to the family’s income by using their time more productively versus fetching water previously. This is the essence of JanaJal’s tag line “KhushRaho India”.

Q. While both the government and private organisations are coming up with several advanced technologies that aim to conserve water, how important is it to change the individual approach towards water conservation? What steps can the government bodies take to bring about this change at an individual level?

A. Creating social awareness campaigns and advocating programs that draw peoples’ attention to conservation of water and consumption of safe water is essential. The inclusion of the private sector for implementation of safe drinking water projects is also critical for increased consumer confidence and overall efficiency in the management of such projects. People have to be made to realise that for every litre of water they consume, they have the power and ability to save two litres. This can only be achieved through advocacy that bears a ten year outlook towards water. A lot needs to be done and unless vision is combined with execution, India is faced with the risk of becoming the world’s largest water stressed nation in the near future.

Source: The Sunday Guardian

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