COVID 19 and the urban poor: Bare need and ways to restore and ensure water supply services

7 min read
Piped Water Supply in India
Image: WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

Slums and informal settlements manifest the worst form of deprivation in the urban context which is reflective in the poor income as well as health levels of the residents. While these are the people who contribute towards providing most critical and essential services to the cities and towns, every day of their life is a struggle between living and surviving.  Already faced with shrinking water supplies, COVID-19 has added to the water needs in these settings, for frequent handwashing and hygiene upkeep. The lockdown and sealing of locations as part of the disease prevention strategy has added to their already deeper woes. 

As we see, urban slums across the country are currently facing unprecedented and crippling water supply. This is happening at a time when the importance of water for personal hygiene is as crucial as physical distancing. As summer and the disease spread are progressing together, fear looms of a further cut in the water supply for these locations.

Some examples from the National Capital:
A week after 25 March, the date which marked the start of the nation-wide lockdown in India due to COVID-19, Ruchi Vihar, a non-notified slum and a home to around a large number of families in Rangpuri Pahari settlement in South West Delhi has little access to water. The slum dwellers last purchased water a week back and are using it for cooking and drinking only, postponing other tasks like bathing and washing clothes. In the past too, water supply in the slum has been intermittent and dependent on various paid sources. But with loss of wages, this has aggravated their challenges. “Paisa tha to paan bhi aa jata tha, ab paisa nahi to paani ki vyavastha bhi nahi” (“As long as we had money, we could purchase water, now, we have neither money nor water”). On 15th April, the residents received one tanker of free water supply by Delhi Jal Board (DJB), that too not under the routine process but after intense advocacy by civil society groups. However, the arrival of tanker in the slum led to a riot like situation wherein every resident was trying to get their share before the supply got exhausted.

Two other notified slums in South East Delhi- Indira Kalyan Camp and BIW Camp- are home to approximately 250 households each. Living in notified slums, the population is largely entitled to access services like connections to the piped water supply. But both the slums have access to water through tankers of Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the public utility solely responsible for water supply in the city. The residents were fairly satisfied with the frequency and adequacy of tanker water supply for potable purposes. However, since the lockdown, DJB tankers have not been sent into the area until 15 April in Indira Kalyan Camp and 16 April in BIW Camp, leaving families to fetch water from the nearest stand post located at a distance of 2-4 kms. Nevertheless, there is large uncertainty over continuation of regular tanker supplies throughout the extended lockdown duration even if services have been resumed intermittently in some slums.

Not much different is the scenario in Raghubir Nagar, a large notified slum in West Delhi with over 1000 households. The inhabitants are daily wage earners who have lost their monthly earnings to the lockdown. In the absence of government tanker supply, the residents walk for 4 kms to the nearest stand post. Those who can, cycle down to the stand post while most residents, women predominantly, walk for water. Some dwellers, who can neither walk nor cycle, are dependent on a quality affected bore well within the slum.

Human biases and stigmas are also deeply engrained during the pandemic times as slum dwellers fear that infected tankers or tanker drivers may become the carrier of the virus into their slum and have therefore expressed a preference for fetching piped water from stand posts, maintaining physical distance in the queue, even if that entails a long walk. “Tanker kahin sankramit na ho, is dar ke karan saralta se kathinai bhali (as water tanker may be infected with the virus, we prefer doing the hard work of fetching than receiving tanker water easily inside our colony), conveys a resident of Raghubhir Nagar.

In absence of the pipeline coverage in most slums, the reliance is entirely on tanker based supply, both paid and unpaid. On occasions, when the tanker based supply is initiated by the government bodies, the availability is limited to certain parts of the larger slum areas,   excluding the most marginalised and interior settlements. While the authorities used to reach out to the marginalised, systemic, structural and institutional gaps during the pandemic response has led to delays in supplies. Worries amongst the water utilities is another reason, as they are yet organising personal protection equipment (PPE) and receiving systemic approvals for water service delivery.

While the above narrations are from the National Capital, situations are similar or sometimes more challenging in most other parts of the country. As we know, Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest slum setting in the country, is grappling with a disease outbreak. For residents who pay Rs 25 for a gallon of water, the practice of frequent handwashing comes at an unaffordable cost.  Unless we take learnings from Dharavi and give quick attention given to improving the situation in other slums across the country, prevention and control of the disease could be heavily challenging. Hence it is important for different layers of the government and water utilities to urgently act on this issue, on priority.

The Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued an Advisory for ensuring safe drinking water during the lockdown and effective management of pandemic caused by Corona Virus, on 14th April. However, while the document lists slums amongst areas to focus, there are no clear suggestions about how to ensure supply in these areas or about any special provisions for these populations.

Therefore, the following key measures are suggested in order to ensure that the informal urban settlements, both notified and non-notified have access to adequate quantity of water and the same is safely supplied:

  1. Strengthening of the fleets for tanker based water supply in all towns- by a combination of both government and added fleets of private tankers, ensuring that no charges are levied from the slum populations in lieu of the water supply. The private tanker can instead be paid by the water utility. Rostering and mapping of tankers going to different locations may be done both for ensuring daily water supply and for tracing purposes in cases of disease outbreaks.
  2. Ensure provision of a minimum per capita per day quota for all families, with added quantity during the pandemic period. A session with the communities could be done for planning the needs. 
  3. Constitution of a special task force in all towns headed by a senior official and having representation from non-government organizations (NGOs) and urban local bodies (ULBs) to oversee and ensure adequate water supply. 
  4. A water supply helpline dedicated to informal settlements and slums, for grievances redressal within a few hours.
  5. Ensuring physical distancing while forming queues for water collection and not letting anyone be in proximity to the vehicle unless their turns come. Team of young volunteers from the community can be formed for ensuring physical distancing during the water supply hours, while priority in queues could be given to persons with disabilities, old aged, pregnant women, and so on. 
  6. Arranging temporary handwashing facilities in adequate numbers across the slum areas. Ensuring enhanced upkeep and water availability in community toilet facilities, with an adequate supply of water, soap and cleaning material. 
  7. Ensuring COVID-19 Curfew Pass to all tanker staff engaged in the process.
  8. Daily sanitisation of all the water tankers and its movable and detachable components. Special approvals for repair and maintenance of the fleets and water systems, in order to avoid delays in the supply chain. 
  9. Availability of personal protective equipment (PPE)  like mask, gloves and shoe covers and coat, for all water supply service providers, both public and private, who undertake movement with the city to ensure their health and safety. This will not only protect them but also assure consumers that water is being handled hygienically by the supplier. 
  10. Ensuring proper awareness and de-stigmatisation about the COVID-19 situation amongst the community towards the service providers, and building a safe environment for them for delivering their services. 
  11. Covering tanker based water service providers in slum or informal settlements under insurance and compensation schemes in case of infections or casualties.