“Water- a bequest of nature” bases all innovations in curbing water crisis to make our blue planet green and sustainable.
There is an Indian proverb, “vaani aur paani har 100 km mein badalta hai” which when literally translated means, in India, one can see difference in language and water quality after every 100 kms. India is the most populous country in the world, with more than 1 billion citizens. It also has the distinction of being the highest and the most reckless user of groundwater in the world, constituting about one-fourth of the global total! This is one of the reasons why we are among world’s most water-stressed countries. In 1950’s, India had 3000-4000 cubic meters of water per person. Today this has fallen to around 1000 cubic meters, largely due to population growth. While China, on the other hand has twice the amount of water per person- about 2000 cubic meters! (World Bank Report)
Scientists are saying that ground water is being pumped out 70 % faster than what has been estimated. As if this wasn’t enough, we have left no stone unturned in contaminating the existing water bodies as well. According to a report of Central Pollution Control Board, more than 38,000 million liters of waste water goes into the major water bodies and even percolates into the ground every day.
Water conservation is the need of the hour. In a recent attempt to this, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the government to prohibit the use of Reverse Osmosis purification equipment where TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) in water is below 500 mg/l and sensitize the public about the ill effects of demineralized water. Upon hearing the petition filed by Sharad Tiwari, general secretary of a Delhi-based Non-Profit, ‘Friends’, NGT ordered the RO manufacturers to recover 60 % of the treated water and not more than 40 % should go as waste. According to him, RO purifiers lead to enormous water wastage during the process, which should be raising concerns, especially by those living in water-scarce areas. The report even orders the RO manufacturers to label the equipment, specifying that the unit should be used if TDS is more than 500 mg/l.
A report like this would surely instill doubts in everyone’s mind. Well don’t worry, this blog will demystify the buzz and debunk all the existing myths about RO purifiers, but first let’s hark back on the NGT ban. The NGT report has three angles to it:
1. RO purification is not required for water with TDS less than 500 mg/l.
2. Water with TDS levels 500 mg/l, when processed through RO, leads to demineralization.
3. It leads to immeasurable amounts of water wastage during the purification process.
Let us analyze all the standpoints independently and understand why these arguments are incomplete and irrational.
NO MATTER WHAT THE TDS IS, WE NEED RO IN INDIA!
This is not the first summer when a story like this has come to light. While water is a ubiquitous resource, in India, drinking water scarcity is ubiquitous! Water supplied in Indian cities is of abysmal quality due to the heavy contamination of ground water from industrial mining waste, agricultural discharge, domestic refuse, untreated sewage discharge, it is a never-ending list. Dumping of such waste into the water bodies is a common practice in India.
The inorganic contaminants that seep into these water bodies include aluminium, iron, lead, antimony, arsenic, barium, chloride, fluoride and much more. With falling water tables, contaminants and salts dissolved in water reach high levels of concentration which can spell doom on the human body! These contaminants are not visible to the naked eye and so no suspicion is created until people in the community start falling sick! Pertaining to this, here’s another fact for you- World Bank estimates that 21% of the communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and lack of hygiene practices. Every 20 seconds, a child dies of water-borne diseases. With the daunting increase in pollution levels, water purification has become a necessity to avoid life-threatening water-borne diseases.
One of the primary goals of WHO is that “all people, whatever their stage of development and their social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to an adequate supply of safe drinking water.” While in India, more than 163 million people do not even have access to clean water- NGT states. Poor execution of work, weak management of water-supply projects, irregular cleaning of water treatment plants, abandoned projects and use of old equipment has become a classical method of operating in India.
Not just this, the water supply systems in urban India too suffer from inadequate operations and maintenance. A visit to the local water treatment plant would confirm the worst possible state of affairs! One can find algae and fungus in the aeration fountain, unwashed iron deposits, sand filtration units lacking back wash systems. Supply systems involving iron pipes lack maintenance and it is ordinary to find pieces of rust in tap water. Iron may sometimes promote the growth of iron bacteria. They grow and accumulate in water, eventually oxidizing the iron to insoluble ferric state that produces a thick rust-colored slime or gunk on fittings and hoses. And not just this, due to lack of proper planning, one may find supply water pipe lines next to sewer lines underground!
The NGT report says, “Application of RO in developed countries is limited to desalination, which is producing drinking water from high TDS containing seawater. The growing use of this technology in treating low TDS water is the new normal in India.” With all the facts in black and white, do you still think water from our taps is as safe to drink as that in western countries?
DEMINERALISATION IS A MYTH!
The palatability of drinking water has been rated by panels of tasters in relation to its TDS level as follows (According to WHO report):
Excellent - Less than 300 mg/l;
Good - Between 300 and 600 mg/l;
Fair - Between 600 and 900 mg/l;
Poor - Between 900 and 1200 mg/l;
Unacceptable - Greater than 1200 mg/l.
Well, the report also mentions that water with extremely low concentrations of TDS might be flat and of insipid taste. The palatability of water with a TDS level of less than 600 mg/l is generally considered to be good; drinking-water becomes significantly unpalatable at TDS levels greater than 1200 mg/l. What we need to understand is that change in taste of water has no impact on the health of an individual.
The NGT report asserts that Ro technology causes demineralization of water. It is common knowledge that minerals are important for our body to function. Removing minerals from water wouldn’t make much of a difference as the actual amount present in a glass of water is insignificant. Not just this, most of the naturally occurring minerals in water are not even absorbed by our body!
The human anatomy enables absorption of minerals from organic sources very well. Inorganic sources of minerals such as water are inefficient because of less absorption. Dangling another fact here- The minerals in the natural waters are inactive and insufficient! They do not contain enzymes, the essence of life. Only 1% of the total mineral content of the water is organic, so you might need to drink a bathtub full of water to get the minerals that our body requires! We drink water ONLY for hydration and eat food for nutrients. To increase our mineral intake, an individual should have a nutritious and healthy diet, as the food that we eat is way more mineral rich. Hence, there is NO SUCH THING AS DEMINERALISED WATER!
THE ULIMATE SOLUTION: UTILIZING RO REJECT WATER
Currently, Reverse Osmosis is the only process to remove most contaminants from water coupled with UV for eliminating most pathogens. Like any other technology, RO also comes with certain limitations like high water rejection rate.
At present, owing to a narrow surface area of the RO membranes, domestic machines reject water that goes down the drain & eventually into city sewage systems. Interestingly, so does all the water that a person uses for other domestic purposes! According to the Bureau of Indian Standards IS:1172-1993, the average consumption of an average city dweller is 200 liters per capita per day (lpcd) which means a family of four consumes about 800 l/day.
Apart from this, IS:1172-1993 specifies industrial and commercial water requirement as 280 lpcd. The RO reject water is just 3% (6 lpcd) of the total water wastage done by an individual! 80% of water leaves households as sewage because of apparent lack of in-house water treatment mechanism. Water that reaches the city sewage systems does not re-enter the supply as it is never treated to match the potable water quality. This is the underlying cause of water scarcity in most Indian cities which is conveniently overlooked by civic bodies.
We as citizens need to understand our responsibilities towards the water wastage and act upon it. The path to technological evolution is inevitable. A long term allegiance is needed to eradicate water wastage and the solution lies with seamless water infrastructure in and outside homes. One such solution is to have a potable domestic sewage treatment plant that can recycle entire wastewater from the household, enabling ZERO water footprints! This is a solution that needs political will, monetary investment and individual ingenuities.
Hydrological processes like groundwater recharge systems where water moves downward from surface to ground will augment natural groundwater and combat its progressive depletion.
Another solution can be the ancient ingenuity of rainwater harvesting at individual level through Rooftop Catchments, Land surface Catchments or Direct Surface recharge. This technique is very common, especially in rural areas. With the depleting water levels and increasing pollution levels, an approach like this will go places in mitigating such issues.
Due importance needs to be given to water preservation and its disciplined use. Small changes at individual level can revamp the water situation. Make it a habit of regularly checking for toilet leaks, pipe leakage, faulty faucets, etc. Use bucket instead of a shower or take shorter showers, install flow restrictors, turn off taps while shaving, washing dishes and vegetables or even while you’re brushing teeth- something we’ve been learning since class 1. And for the most part, take into account the three R’s- RECYCLE, REUSE, REDUCE to safeguard the water resources from getting deteriorated!
IN THE NAME OF INDUSTRIALISATION
Now that we’ve accentuated water wastage and preservation on a personal level, let’s talk about the elephant in the room- The commercial activities that lead to water wastage and contamination. A traditional practice done by huge industrial facilities is of discharging the waste into lakes, rivers and oceans which has perilous effects not just on our health but on aquatic life too- another common fact disregarded by major industrialists who on the other side gloat over corporate social responsibilities.
Industrial discharge includes pollutants like lead, mercury, nitrates, phosphates, sulphur, petrochemicals, oils and what not. These impurities are hard to clean up once the environment is contaminated and has debilitating effects on human and animal health. Remember when we talked about RO purifiers wasting 75% of water? Well, that was in the case of domestic machines. In commercial grade systems, it is 40%, which is lesser than the domestic reject but still needs due attention.
Industrial facilities need to implement water management methods to reduce wastage and lower their water footprint. Assessment of their current water usage and discovering areas for water conservation needs to be done.
Persistent check on pipelines, low flow restrictors in toilets, purchasing water efficient equipment and educating, engaging and informing the employees about the importance of water conservation and water scarcity issues can be done. Organizations need to seek solutions to compensate for the negative impacts of their technologies and at the same time adopt ways and craft goals that lead the way towards a circular economy.
THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Well, recycling is not the only loop these days; up-cycling and down-cycling are the new trends that companies are following! Closed-loop thinking is the new cool! When we convert discarded materials into something of equal or greater value, it is up-cycling. While down-cycling is, when the product is transformed into something of lesser value. Circular economy is based on sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing and recycling, in an attempt to have a closed loop, where products and the materials are valued and not just used.
Almost every year Delhi or some other major city hits the headlines with its highly polluted water bodies and maladministration of infrastructure. India is one of the most water-rich countries as nature bestowed us with ample river water. If we are facing the issue of water scarcity, it is purely out of mismanagement and poor planning on behalf of not just the government and industries but citizens too.
India has about 4% of the world’s renewable water resources but is home to nearly 18% of the world's population. Fixing the water crisis will need sound policies, conscientious strategies and collective participation. Water conservation and management are comprehensive processes and should not be tackled in isolated efforts. Cohesive civic and domestic paraphernalia is required to fight water scarcity for which results will be long-term and reliable!
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