Water ATMs: Providing safe and affordable potable water to communities

Providing safe and affordable potable water to communities

India lacks low-cost, assured quality drinking water options. This has made consumers vulnerable to waterborne diseases. According to World Bank estimates, 21 per cent of the communicable diseases in the country are due to unsafe drinking water. Tanker trucks, which are currently the alternative source of drinking water supply, are unreliable and are unable to serve a large number of people. In this scenario, water automated teller machines (ATMs) have become the need of the hour.

Water ATMs are automated water dispensing units, which provide access to safe drinking water round the clock to communities where piped water connections are not available. They are solar powered and cloud connected, thus enabling remote tracking of the water quality. To address the issue of last-mile water distribution, a unique water ATM model has been developed that uses smart cards to ensure price transparency and quality accountability. These water ATMs have streamlined last-mile connectivity between the water dispensing unit and households.

The concept of water ATMs has gained popularity in the past couple of years. States such as Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have successfully adopted the water ATM model.

Water ATM projects

The idea of water ATMs was first proposed by Sarvajal, a social enterprise established by the Piramal Foundation, started by Ajay G. Piramal. A pilot project was then launched at Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in southwest Delhi. This project was funded and coordinated by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). As a part of the project, a decentralised water treatment plant (WTP) has been installed to extract groundwater, which is then purified through reverse osmosis (RO) and provided to people through 15 water ATM kiosks in the area. Residents of the colony can obtain 1 litre of water from two ATMs installed at the plant itself by paying Re 0.15 and from 13 other kiosks at a cost of Re 0.30 using smart cards, called Sarvajal cards. Apart from this, Sarvajal serves around 300,000 consumers daily through more than 150 water ATMs across 12 states.

In Assam, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation has set up an 8 kVA solar-powered water treatment plant at Morasali, which supplies treated water to households through ATMs. The plant has been set up in collaboration with the Kolkata-based South Asian Forum for Environment. It was commissioned in July 2015, with a capacity to provide 10,000 litres of water. The plant serves over 500 households in Morasali. Each household has a special card for drawing water from water ATMs.

Further, three water ATMs have been installed at the Assi Ghat, the Hanuman Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. These ATMs started operations in September 2015. They have a capacity to dispense 6,000-8,000 litres of water per day. The water dispensed by the ATMs meets the drinking water standards stipulated by the World Health Organization. The ATMs have been set up on a stand-alone revenue generation model with water being charged at Rs 2 per litre. This initiative has been taken as a part of the “Clean Kashi, Healthy Kashi” campaign under the Clean India Mission. Overall, the project involves the construction of 100 water ATMs across Varanasi.

Key features of water ATMs

Water ATMs provide safe drinking water through customised decentralised solutions at affordable prices to beneficiaries. These ATMs are generally installed in the rural areas, which lack a pipeline network, and in schools and unauthorised slum areas. ATMs are also being installed in public places in urban areas such as metro stations, railway stations and markets.

To provide drinking water facilities at an affordable price in water-deficient areas, small-sized decentralised drinking water RO-based plants are set up and drinking water is made available through ATMs. The water ATM machines operate as cashless vending machines. The customer uses a rechargeable smart card to draw water from the kiosk. The money is automatically taken off the smart card and corresponds to the volume of water drawn from the ATM. Water ATMs are generally ring structured, wall mounted or coin operated. They are operated in partnership with a local entrepreneur or the local panchayat or any other community organisations.

Water ATMs are easy to use and lend a lot of convenience to customers. The kiosk can be programmed to dispense any quantity of water – from one glass to 20 litres. The ATMs have a self-cleaning system with a multiple filtration process and remineralisation. The water undergoes reverse osmosis and ultraviolet treatment, reducing the bacteria and fluoride content. The water quality can be checked online for parameters defined for each unit.

Advantages of water ATMs

Water ATMs have a number of advantages over tanker trucks. They serve a larger number of people at lower costs. Tanker trucks do not have any fixed arrival time and are also accused of charging higher prices. In comparison, water ATMs provide 24×7 supply at an affordable price.

Water ATMs have positively impacted society in a number of ways. With the installation of water ATMs, people now have access to drinking water of an assured quality. The incidence of water-borne diseases also gets reduced. According to estimates of the United Nations, women in India spend a combined 150 million workdays every year just collecting water. Thus, with the installation of water ATMs, it is expected that the time of community members, particularly women and children, in fetching water from remote sources will be reduced considerably. Water ATMs also have an indirect economic impact on society. They have led to the creation of sustainable jobs in rural areas.

Lastly, ATMs enable real-time data monitoring to measure the social impact. These machines have data-driven transparency to the last mile, which assures optimised productivity to customers. Water ATMs are linked to an online management system that aggregates and processes data sent from all water purification and dispensing units. This allows the water supplier to have a unique and detailed insight into the regular functioning of each ATM. By analysing this data, the management system can create alerts if the quality of water is reported to be not as per the standards.

The way forward

Water ATMs are gaining popularity in the country. Cities such as Delhi, Bhubaneswar and Hyderabad have formulated plans to implement the water ATM model in their respective regions. Recently, in July 2016, the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) in Odisha signed an MoU with Piramal Sarvajal to install and maintain 40 water ATMs across the city. Each ATM will have a capacity to store a minimum of 500 litres and a maximum of 40,000 litres of water. As per the agreement, Piramal Sarvajal will set up four water treatment units to supply purified water to these ATMs. Each treatment unit will cater to 10 ATMs. The BMC plans to deploy dedicated vehicles for transporting purified water to the ATMs. The ATMs will run on solar power and provide water at a predetermined rate of Re 0.30 per litre. The project, estimated to cost Rs 49.3 million, will be financed entirely by the BMC.

In another recent initiative, the Hyderabad Water Supply and Sewerage Board in Telangana is planning to install water ATMs at various locations in the city, to provide potable water at a rate as low as Re 1 per litre. Further, in January 2015, DJB signed an MoU with Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited (TPDDL) for setting up 100 WTPs by 2017. The RO-based plants will provide treated water to the ATMs being set up by DJB in north and northwest Delhi. Each WTP will cater to about 10 water ATMs in its vicinity. The cost of setting up and maintaining the plants will be borne by TPDDL, while DJB will facilitate the process by providing land and raw water.

The New Delhi Municipal Council also plans to set up water ATMs on a public-private partnership basis in the city. The initiative is a part of the smart cities project and aims to make safe drinking water available at 118 public places under its jurisdiction. The civic agency has already invited bids for designing, financing, installing, operating and maintaining water ATMs and vending water from ATMs at public places for seven years. Some of the prominent areas where water ATMs are proposed to be installed are Khan Market, Janpath, Connaught Place, Safdarjung Road, Jantar Mantar, Talkatora Garden and Lodhi Garden. Apart from these, a large number of other water ATM projects are either planned or are in the pipeline.

To conclude, given the accelerated urbanisation in India, it is clear that access to water will become increasingly important in the decades to come. In this backdrop, water ATMs are an economical solution for providing drinking water, especially in areas where there is no pipeline network. If this model is implemented in the right manner, it is expected to significantly improve the distribution of safe drinking water. Further, the successful adoption of this model can serve as an example for other states to learn from and implement similar models in their areas.