By Eliza Breed, PWW Intern
I recently returned from a two week backpacking service trip to India facilitated by Boston
University and Operation Groundswell. On this trip, we focused on healthcare in India and met
with a number of local partners. First, we met with The Leprosy Mission, and visited a hospital
that treated individuals with leprosy. We learned that leprosy is curable, and there are
treatments available. We partnered with TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual
Health Issues in India), and discussed sexuality and the challenges many face in order to
receive comprehensive sexual healthcare. We met with the Latika Roy Foundation, a hospital
and school dedicated to help individuals with disabilities further integrate in everyday life.
Through this organization, we visited the Latika Vihar School where we played games with the
students and they eagerly taught us traditional Indian dance and a few phrases in Hindi. We
also partnered with The Indian Stammering Association, a self-help group with incredible staff,
dedicated to work with individuals who stammer in order to improve their speech and increase
their self-confidence. During the trip, we were also able to practice yoga and Ayurveda, hike in
the Himalayas, raft in the Ganges, and take a traditional Indian cooking class. It was an educational,
inspiring, and humbling experience. India is a beautiful country with even more beautiful
While I was in India, the weather broke record high temperatures. It reached 123.8ºF.
Constantly sweating, I experienced the importance of water. We were supplied with bottled
water every day, multiple times per day. It was hard to imagine the experience without this
luxury, and I began to wonder what life was like for those without access to clean water.
I was reading the New York Times article “ Pray for Shade: Heat Wave Sets a Record in India ”
by Nida Najar and Hari Kumar, when I came across a paragraph where Dr. Dileep Mavalankar,
the director of Indian Institute of Public Health, explained the importance of water in the heat. I
decided to email Dr. Dileep, and ask him my questions about water access in India. He emailed
me back right away and was happy to contribute. He sent my questions to one of his
colleagues, Dr. Veena Iyer. She provided me with thorough and thoughtful answers, and I am
very grateful to both Dr. Dileep and Dr. Veena for their time and passionate work.
What are the greatest challenges in accessing clean water in India?
“We need large quantities of water to be able to supply adequate amounts of it to all the people.
For this, we need to invest in water storage capacity all across the country. We need to store as
much of the freshwater that we receive every monsoon so that we can fulfill our needs
throughout the year. Our ground water has fallen to dangerously low levels in many parts of the
country. Replenishing this is another challenge.”
Dr. Veena explained that there are a number of organizations working to improve replenishing
ground water. One such organization that has made a positive impact is Mission Kakatiya,
located in Southern India. Dr. Veena explained that approximately 80% of the country’s sewage
is untreated. Cleaning the water is a difficult task to regulate, and because of this, the amount of clean water is decreasing.
Does the quality of water vary throughout India, and if so, is it always safe to drink it?
Yes, the quality of water varies throughout India. Dr. Veena explained that because the supply
of water to the treatment plants is not constant, the piped water can become susceptible to
contamination. In rural areas, people usually use ground water, however it can “become easily
contaminated as it is pulled near the surface and distributed and stored in homes.” When the
water becomes contaminated, it is not safe to drink.
Is access to water more difficult in rural villages than in cities in India?
“Yes. That is usually the case.”
With a population of 1.3 billion, there are many people with lack of access to clean water.
According to the Indian newspaper The Hindu, in 2011 approximately 70% of India’s population lived in rural areas.
Do you think that access to water is improving?
“Statistics do show that access to water is improving, though this may be at the cost of ground
water depletion in the last two decades.” It is important to remember that groundwater is still a main source of water for many people in India.
What are some organizations that are working to improve access to water in India?
Dr. Veena explained that the biggest organization that is working to improve access to water in India is the Indian Government. There are also many other organizations, including Water-Aid UK, which works with local organizations in 10 states to improve water access and sanitation. There are many individuals working to improve these issues, including Rajendra Singh. In the 1980s, Rajendra Singh went to Rajasthan to open up healthcare clinics. Upon his arrival, he realized that water was desperately needed in this northern, dry state. He began to build dams from the earth. Twenty years later and with the help of many others, water was available in hundreds of villages across the state. In 2015, Rajendra Singh won the Stockholm Water Prize for his contribution to this incredibly important task.
Dr. Veena explained that there are many others working to improve water access in India. She directed me to the India Water Portal, a source where individuals and organizations come together to share their work and provide updated information on water across the country.
Water was so necessary throughout my experience in India, and I am grateful that I was always able to access clean, bottled water. However, there are many people in India, and across the world that do not have this luxury. While this fact is hard and difficult to imagine, it is important to remember that there are many individuals and organizations who are dedicated and passionate about providing clean and safe water to all. Pure Water for the World focuses in Haiti and Central America, but it is very grateful of achievements across the world! Dr. Dileep and Dr. Veena gave me a better idea of the challenges that India faces, but also the amount of people who create a positive impact on so many lives.