Water purification and the regulatory vacuum in India

By Aviram Sharma, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU

Water purification technologies have witnessed a rapid rise at firm, household and community level in developing countries, especially during the last two decades. Yet they remain as one of the most neglected areas of research. So much so, in fact, that these ‘emerging’ technologies often fail to get noticed, eclipsed by big buzzwords such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

These technologies need to be studied from different perspectives, such as public health, regulation and through the lens of sustainability. When regulation is absent, technologies can begin to be used in contexts where they might cause unintended harm.

A new article published in Current Science, co-authored by me, addresses many of these aspects.

The article explains the growth of different water purification technologies and the emergence of Reverse Osmosis (RO)-based water purification technologies as a “dominant” technology in India:

“In the field of drinking water purification, however, RO is a relatively new technology in the Indian market compared to UV, chlorination, carbon adsorption, etc. both in bottled water firms as well as at the household level. It has, however, now become a market leader in this field. Manufacturers of RO purifiers not only include giants firms like Aquaguard, Kent, etc. but also numerous small assembling units importing the key components of RO and often selling the assembled products at a much cheaper rate.”

But when technologies which are developed in specific contexts to achieve specific objectives (eg to desalinate sea water) get widely adopted in an unregulated manner in other contexts, this may pose several kinds of challenges.

As the article describes, in the case of RO:

“During industrial use, [RO] wastes water to the tune of 30–40% (ref. 10). This is a huge wastage, given the large (and expanding) size of the bottled water industry. Ironically, it has failed to capture the concerns of climate change enthusiasts and policy makers. The major bottled water firms that we surveyed do not have any concrete plans to use this ‘extra’ water (worse in quality than the feed water as it carried all impurities with higher concentrations). Some firms feed the wastewater into groundwater aquifers, which has the potential to contaminate the aquifers, at least in the short term; it also affect the water used for irrigation and drinking. The problem is compounded when groundwater has arsenic or fluoride, and RO ploughs back all of them with greater concentration to the acquifiers.”

From a STEPS perspective, this underlines the argument that “contexts matters”. The social, ecological, and economic contexts must be taken into consideration while specific technologies are promoted for wider diffusion. Rampant use of RO based water purification technologies in water-starved cities and regions could have a damaging effect on local ground water sources, which are already under threat from human activity.

The paper ends with advocating judicious regulation for protecting public health and conserving environmental resources (ground water) from over-exploitation and contamination.

Read the article

Bhaduri Saradindu, Sharma Aviram and Talat Nazia (2015) Growth of Water Purification Technologies in the Era of ‘Regulatory Vacuum’ in India, Current Science, 108 (8), 1421-1423
Read online (PDF)

About the author

Aviram Sharma is a researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU. He attended the STEPS Centre Summer School in 2012.