Amy Lin, Mumbai Guest Contributor
Slums in cities like Mumbai are growing exponentially due to the massive demographic shift to urban settlements. These dense human habitats are often characterized by grossly inadequate access to basic services, including safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. To satisfy the essential daily drinking water need, many slum residents and other low-income urban households face issues of inconsistent quality and unreliable availability. The repercussions for India's urban poor are substantial: high incidence of waterborne disease, lost time and productivity, and the imposition of daily stresses around procuring water. In India, over 1,000 people die every day from diarrhea due to consumption of unsafe water.
Yearlong research by Monitor Inclusive Markets (social change unit of Monitor, the global strategy consulting firm) in the slums and other low-income neighborhoods of Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai showed that the water quality was problematic and highly seasonal — over half of all samples did not meet government standards. In summer, this figure was particularly alarming, with over three-quarters of samples not meeting the criteria for potable water. In addition, residents found water difficult to access, with limited hours of availability and multiple days without supply. This uncertainty leads to self-rationing of water, the use of poorer-quality water sources to supplement their primary source, and even fights at shared taps or tankers. Furthermore, waiting times can be substantial — a quarter of respondents who use shared water access points wait for almost an hour or more even after reaching the source.
To respond to this dire situation, MIM has launched a project to examine this need for safe drinking water and to develop a financially sustainable, pay-per-use water plant solution that provides water in an affordable, accessible, and reliable manner. This decentralized model is already in use in rural India, where water solution providers partner with local governments to install, run, and maintain filtration plants that purify water. Villagers then collect purified water from the plant for user fees ranging from INR3-7 ($US0.05-0.13) for a 20L jerry can. These fees cover the plant's running, and sometimes capital, costs. For BoP communities with limited and uncertain incomes, this model is well suited to their circumstances:
- Pay-as-you-go: Instead of paying a large, upfront cost for the plant or other technology, customers pay usage fees for only the water they consume. In addition, they don't bear any equipment ownership risks of plant failure, theft, obsolescence, etc.
- Economies of scale: Supplying larger volumes of water reduces the cost of each litre of water.
- User-friendly: Customers don't need to source input water, identify the appropriate technology, learn how to use it, or plan for any maintenance. The professionally trained plant operators manage all of these technical aspects.
- Reliability: The professional plant operator oversees all operational aspects to ensure the water is consistently safe and available during the promised opening hours or according to the home delivery schedule. This is a significant advantage over some existing water sources in these communities, whose availability can fluctuate significantly.
While this model is thriving in rural areas, adapting this model to an urban setting is a sizable task. Labor and other expenses tend to be higher in cities, requiring a larger revenue volume to break even. This challenge can be offset by the higher population densities in cities, enabling water plants to reach more customers — thus generating greater impact — through both over-the-counter and delivery channels. The government structure that exists in a city is also fundamentally different than that of a village. Whereas in villages a single panchayat (local council) approval is sufficient to open a plant, the web of government authorities and institutions that make up a city municipality can jam a plant permission for months.
To help tackle these issues, MIM is working with a diverse set of implementing partners and supporters, including critical government stakeholders, to develop a successful model for the urban setting. From large conglomerates to social enterprises and community-based organizations, MIM's partners are establishing urban pilot plants across the country. As these plants mature, this project will test the model's assumptions, assess where and how it is best applied, and share these findings with interested stakeholders. As the project learns from the experiences of the initial water pilots, these findings can inform the sector on how to maximize the usage, reach, and social benefits — thus serving more of the BoP families who are currently battling each day to secure their next can of drinking water.
Amy Lin is a manager at Monitor Inclusive Markets (MIM), where she leads the work on developing social enterprise models that provide safe drinking water in low-income urban communities.
Photo 1: Water cans to be refilled at the WaterHealth plant in Mulbagal. (Photo: WaterHealth)
Photo 2: There is limited availability of water in many urban BoP areas.