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Water – The Most Basic Human Need

The other morning, I got talking to our home-help Reetha about her daily routine.  As part of that conversation, I asked her about drinking water and water for washing.  Mop in hand, she told me that she was lucky because she didn’t have to take a water jar and collect water anymore.  Because now she has piped water in her slum, with a faucet just outside her door. For two hours every morning, water passes through the pipes, allowing Reetha to collect enough water for washing and drinking.  However, she tells me that the first 30 minutes are a waste of time as she has to wait for the water to wash through the system – as it is black and vile and only after half an hour, does it start to become clear.

Washing in an Indian slum involves a bucket and a cloth.  No fancy chrome shower fittings!
Because the water only comes early in the morning during that two hour slot, Reetha only has a limited time in which to wash herself, her family, her clothes and her home before she even starts her day’s work – cleaning the apartments of four expat clients. Reetha sets off for work at 7.30 am from her home in Andheri, taking the bus to Bandra.  Between 9 am and 4 pm she will have cleaned three homes in Bandra before travelling to her last job of the day in Powai. This can be a two hour journey or worse in bad traffic. She doesn’t take a rickshaw because it is too expensive. And she doesn’t get home until 10pm when hopefully her son or daughter will have cooked the family a meal in their 12ft x 12ft chawl. If not – she does it herself because her alcoholic husband is too useless to help.
Slum dwellers waiting for the water truck.  (Photocredit)
Our driver Peter lives in a similar situation (although it’s just him and his father whom he cares for, with no women-folk to help).  In fact Peter does not own an alarm clock – he is awoken every morning by a neighbour who passes by on his way to collect his daily allowance of water.  Although some are ‘lucky’ with their piped facilities, others have to carry water pots to the nearest outlet and then carry all they can manage on their heads back to their dwelling. It’s worse than medieval England. 
Whilst I sit here in my apartment with its three bathrooms and kitchen, I can’t help feeling extremely guilty. (I feel guilty about many things!) Except for those rare cases when there is a Mumbai-wide water shortage (say, if the monsoon has been poor), our water is on tap 24-7. And although you wouldn’t want to drink the water unless it has been filtered, it is at least clean and constant.  This basic human need – which is abundantly used to clean our floors, bathrooms and kitchen (never mind cooking) – really is an absolute luxury for the majority of Mumbaikars (after all, approximately 85% of Mumbai’s 20m population live in slums, chawls or on pavements). I always ask Reetha to drink our bottled water when she is here and encourage her to fill up her flask before leaving. Even 13 Rs for a litre of Bisleri will be a chunk out of her daily budget.
Huge pipes carrying water down to the city’s apartment dwellers from Powai Lake – as seen from Bandra Skywalk
I have no idea whether Reetha and Peter live in slums that are recognised by the government (these are called ‘notified’ slums, e.g. Dharavi). If they are ‘notified’, then they will have access to clean municipal water supplies.  If not – their water will be provided by ‘informal means’ – perhaps community run or privately supplied by standpipe or water truck. Us apartment dwellers will have seen the water trucks that traverse Mumbai – ironically with precious water pouring out of a broken tap at the rear – and perhaps you have seen the crowds of people patiently waiting to fill up their water bottles. Not only will this type of water supply be charged out at hugely inflated prices, but is also more likely to be contaminated with E.Coli bacteria. 
Typical Mumbai water trucks. Photocredit: Kuni Takahashi
I know through working for an NGO, that unclean water is a huge problem for the children of Mumbai. Bacteria in the stomach quickly leads to diarrhoea and vomiting, exacerbating the conditions leading to malnutrition. If children can’t retain food and water, they become nutrient deficient and dehydrated, leading to even worse health issues….and sometimes death.  During the monsoon season, the problem becomes even more serious – a recent study found that 50% of point-of-source water samples were contaminated during the rains. And that is before it even reaches ‘point-of-use’ in the household itself. Stagnating water around the home can further attract mosquitos – leading to a high risk of malaria infection. 
So whilst we sit in our ivory towers, spare a little thought for the daily struggle of Mumbai’s majority – I naively hope that one day, free and clean municipal supplies of water will be made available to the masses…this is a city that claims to be very much in the 21st century after all!
(The fact that there is one toilet per 1,500 persons in Dharavi – is subject matter for another post)

Stagnant water sits in between huge pipes…children will often play, pee in and drink from pond and river water.
Can you imagine???? 

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