The pandemic has brought forth the reality of the scarce availability of basic human needs and put it to test. The most essential of these basic human needs are food and water, and yet today our country grapples with malnutrition as one of its most significant human development challenges.
At the same time, a vast 50% of our population of over 1.3 billion people have no or limited access to safe potable water. Our country also faces a sharp divide between two sides of the coin, where one small fraction of our society has excellent living conditions and the other larger proportion unfairly suffers from the lack of basic amenities like safe water.
Compellingly, there exists a direct link between the problem of lack of safe, potable water and undernutrition among the most vulnerable children and mothers. To illustrate this, evidence suggests that universally, 50% of undernutrition is associated with infections caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions, 25% of all stunting is attributed to diarrhoea during the first two years of life and poor sanitation is the second leading cause of stunting among children.
Needless to say, both factors of poor nutrition and WASH conditions are direct outcomes of cyclical poverty and structural socio-economic inequality. For instance, children belonging to rural areas in the poorest sections of our society are twice more likely to be stunted due to poor access to healthcare, WASH and nutrition. This begs the inevitable question: how can nutrition and WASH programming go hand in hand and improve nutritional outcomes for the most vulnerable populations of India?
It is reassuring to note that the Government of India’s Union Budget 2022provides to extend tap water coverage to 38 million Indian households from 2022 to 2023. The national government’s flagship program, ‘Har Ghar, Nal Se Jal’ aims to connect every household with tap water and has already covered over 80.7 million households.
The Union Budget 2022 also covers India’s flagship nutrition program, POSHAN Abhiyaan 2.0, which deserves to be applauded for its efforts to conceptualize and integrate interventions that aim to ensure safe potable water for all and create Saksham Anganwadis.
Further, to ensure clean potable water supply and access, It is necessary to undertake interventions that improve water supply systems, strengthen water safety planning, build capacity for operations, ensure safe water treatment and promote behaviour change among community members.
This is extremely essential for improving WASH-related nutrition outcomes among children and mothers. Interventions that strengthen infrastructure and encourage better WASH practices being carried out by different national water and nutrition departments can be further streamlined and converged together.
The Government of India’s POSHAN Abhiyaan (erstwhile National Nutrition Mission) is an excellent example of how our national government has integrated interventions in promoting safe potable water, sanitation and hygiene, along with feeding programmes and inclusion of fortified staples for children and mothers.
On the other hand, we also see that big donors in India have adopted good practices to encourage multi-stakeholder convenings for multi-sectoral project planning. There is a need for donors to expand this to include calls that fund and develop joint nutrition and WASH projects to incentivize such collaborative multi-sectoral programming for India. Finally, civil society members need to partner with the national government, set audacious goals and act as champions to support nutrition and WASH integrated projects by supporting policy formulation and strengthening the capacity of the health system.
With decades worth of progress and advancements in theorizing the meaning of ‘human development’, ‘human rights’ and science and technology, there is no excusable reason why millions of children and other vulnerable populations should still have to die for lack of a basic life necessity – safe, potable water. The onus lies on all of us to step up to the cause.
(Neeraj Jain is Country Director – India at Path and works on health equity. He has also worked on issues related to nutrition, early learning and child survival in the prenatal period.)