Top 12 Challenges Facing India in the Decades Ahead – 05 – Sanitation

Sanitation in India is a major problem. The fact that India is 13th among a list of the 16 countries outside of sub-saharan Africa that are poorer than it in the rankings does not do the severity of the problem justice. As we noted in our post on Poverty, in India, 55% of households practice open defecation. In comparison, in Bangladesh, which has half of the GDP of India per capita, only 8.4% of the population practices open defecation.

Moreover, only 88% of the population has access to an improved (clean) water source (for drinking). In rural areas, the statistic is even worse — 84% (compared to 96% in urban areas). That’s 16% of the population without even access to clean water. For an emerging country, this is a disgrace. In China, a country with three times the land area, the statistics are 98% and 85% (and 91% overall). Why is it so bad? Well, for starters, as of 2010, only two cities in India — Thiruvananthapuram and Kota — get a continuous water supply (which is a situation that needs to change).

This is a huge problem. Even worse than the health care situation. When you get right down to it, if more people had access to sanitary conditions, communicable diseases and infections, which account for a percentage of deaths that is (at least) 20 times the percentage of deaths that communicable diseases and infections should account for, wouldn’t be so widespread. (People can’t die from a communicable disease or infection they don’t get, and the number one way to stop the spread of communicable diseases and infection is better sanitary conditions and sanitary practices.) With respect to diarrhoea, 88% of deaths occur because of unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Sewerage, where available, is usually in a bad state. In Delhi, for example, the sewerage network has lacked maintenance over the years and overflow of raw sewage in open drains is common, due to blockage, settlements and inadequate pumping capacities. The capacity of the 17 existing wastewater treatment plants in Delhi is only enough to process about 50% of the waste water produced. Across India, the most recent estimate (in 2003) was that only 27% of India’s wastewater was being treated, with the remainder flowing into rivers, canals, groundwater or the sea. Abysmal!

Just how bad is the situation? Consider this passage from Wikipedia:

For example, the sacred Ganges river is infested with diseases and in some places the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by. NewsWeek describes Delhi’s sacred Yamuna River as “a putrid ribbon of black sludge” where the concentration of fecal bacteria is 10,000 times the recommended safe maximum despite a 15-year program to address the problem. Cholera epidemics are not unknown.

Plus, the continuing depletion of ground water tables and the continuing deterioration of ground water quality are threatening the sustainability of both urban and rural water supply in many parts of India. India can’t afford to pollute any more of its water supply and needs to get waste water treatment under control rapidly. Otherwise, health care problems are just going to get worse, and the repercussions will be substantial.