Personal hygiene is critical to fighting corona, but what if we run out of water?

Handwashing and personal hygiene are critical to protecting ourselves from coronavirus. But as summer approaches, Bengaluru faces the threat of water scarcity again. How can authorities and citizens handle this problem?

My domestic help Vijayamma is an ardent student of the WhatsApp University syllabus. Ever since the world began to grapple with COVID-19, Whatsapp forwards have gone from ridiculous to Sajid Khan-movie-level logic. Picture this – somebody told her that exposure to sunlight on Sundays causes the infection, and I found myself sitting in semi-darkness a whole day.

Another day, I woke up to her peering over me, wearing something like Tom Hardy’s mask from the ‘Dark Knight Rises’. Her theories gets so bizarre, I often want to order a chemistry set and start finding a cure for this damned virus myself.

The only good thing that has come out of these forwards, is that she has taken it to heart to keep her hands clean. Every couple of hours, I hear the tap in the bathroom turn on, and she is viciously scrubbing the skin off her hands as the water keeps running. Never mind that neither of us have stepped out of my home in two weeks – not even for groceries. We have got those home-delivered, and those are scrupulously cleaned before being brought in.

Nothing I say can convince her that the two of us are at relatively low risk, and that she doesn’t need to go overboard with cleaning her hands. We are home by ourselves. Our social contact has been non-existent. But the Whatsapp University has told her she needs to wash her hands, and she will do it.

But then Vijayamma has the luxury of clean running water today. Many don’t, and won’t, as we head into the summer.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the world to its knees, water has become our first line of defence against it, creating unprecedented demand for this already-scarce resource.

India’s water woes aren’t new, and have only gotten worse over the years. In the summer of 2019, Chennai faced a disaster as all four of its reservoirs ran dry. It was was ground zero. In 2018, Shimla ran out of water.

About 600 million Indians face acute water shortages, according to the government think tank NITI Aayog. UNICEF said two weeks ago, that 20% of urban Indians do not have handwashing facilities with water and soap at home. Thousands of people queue up at government water tankers for drinking water even in our national capital.

According to the Centre’s Ministry of Water Resources, the average annual per capita water availability fell 15% between 2001 and 2011. It’s predicted to fall another 13% by 2025, and 15% again by 2050. This means, in another 30 years, each Indian household will have about 1.1 million litres of water per year, down from 1.8 million litres in 2011. (A country is considered to be suffering from water scarcity when the availability is less than 1 million litres per capita per year.)

And we haven’t gotten into peak summer yet.

Summers in Bengaluru are a nightmare for those living in high-rises in the newly-added areas of BBMP. Last year was especially bad since we did not have great monsoons in 2017 and 2018. Private tankers, with their hefty bills, are usually the solution to water shortage during summers.

But this February, BWSSB seemed quite confident of tiding over the summer. In a statement to The New Indian Express, BWSSB chairman Tushar Girnath even said that no extraordinary measure would be required to deal with the summer as adequate water was available. The KRS reservoir had 30.78 TMC (trillion million cubic) feet of water while the Kabini reservoir had 12.27 TMC feet water as of February 25.

And then coronavirus happened.

Bengaluru gets 1,450 MLD to 1,453 MLD of Cauvery water each day. That’s the maximum that can be pumped to the city. The rest of the demand is being met with borewell water – either drawn directly or supplied by private tanker operators. As we were battling coronavirus, the private tanker operators went on strike in mid-March, worsening the already-uncertain situation. Authorities promised to supply water then. Now, water scarcity has worsened with the lockdown.

Speaking to Citizen Matters, BBMP Chief B H Anil Kumar said, “People need not worry about the supply of water. We will ensure water supply by taking over the water tankers and human resources of private distributors. We will assign our officials to oversee this.”

The authorities, however, need to step up a little more. Here are three action points for them:

  • Set up a one-point authority to deal with any water crisis, so that it can take over when the need arises. Because there will definitely be shortages as we deal with increased water demand now. A continuous dialogue with the water tanker operators is critical to ensure water to the lower strata of society, who will be the most vulnerable to the pandemic.
  • Ensure there are no power cuts, so water supply is not disrupted.
  • Monitor the supply chain of water to the city, and the health of people who transport water. Ensure they maintain basic hygiene, and give them protective gear.

But it is not only the government who is a custodian of water. We, as citizens, need to take charge as well.

A R Shivakumar, senior scientist at the Karnataka State Council of Science and Technology (KSCST) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), who has championed the cause of rainwater harvesting, agrees. “There is nothing much  BWSSB can do at this point if we are short on water. It is up to us as a society to save this precious resource.”

He suggests some simple solutions:

  • All of us have washing machines at home. Allow the grey water coming out of it to drain into a bucket and use it for your toilet, instead of flushing away clean water.
  • If you have an RO filter at home, use the reject water for mopping, gardening and other non-potable purposes.
  • Avoid jet sprays to wash your cars.
  • Mop common areas instead of pouring buckets of water on the floor.
  • While bathing, use buckets and mugs instead of showers. If showers are your only option, time them.

The pandemic of COVID-19 is still a long way from over. We have to tide over this as a community, and water is our most precious resource to fight it.

It is often said that the next world wars will be fought over water. I tried reasoning with Vijayamma. She decided to head for a 45-minute bath to block out my nagging. So I am now going to stock up on Weapons Grade Plutonium. Anybody know of a dealer who can help me?

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