India’s water vending machines: A solution to the country’s water access problems
By Ashleigh Whitehill
Sapura Bee lives in a dry and dusty community on the outskirts of Hubli, Karnataka.
While most of the houses in this settlement were built decades ago, the poor community has never been connected to local water infrastructure.
Until recently, people relied on water deliveries from the government. But often these deliveries were late, and the community had only one other option: drink contaminated bore water.
“I hated having to give it to my kids because I knew they would get sick,” says Ms Bee. “People would develop flu symptoms from bacteria in that water.”
Thankfully, Ms Bee’s community now has a new water source: a vending machine.
In a country where accessibility to clean drinking water can be a daily struggle, water vending machines have emerged to change the lives of many in India.
The machines offer a trustworthy and reliable water source in areas without connection to a main water supply.
Initially developed by Piramal Sarvajal and dubbed ‘water ATMs’, the technology is user-friendly and convenient for people from both rural and urban areas. Customers insert one rupee into the machine and 10 litres of water flow from a tap where it is caught with buckets or containers and transported back home.
Since 2008, Piramal Sarvajal has installed more than 180 units across the country while a number of other organisations have followed suit with their own interpretation of the machine.
Rear Tech Solutions in Hubli, Karnataka is one such organisation. The social enterprise has helped install water vending machines in more than 200 villages and settlements across the state.
Company founder, Basavraj Shivalli, says the filtration process used by the machines ensures consistently high quality results by eliminating large pollutants, small particles, bacteria and other contaminants from the water.
“We purify bore water into soft water so it’s the same as what you would buy at the market,” says Mr Shivalli.
Water contamination is a problem all over India. Many of the country’s water sources are contaminated with organic and inorganic particles including high levels of fluoride, arsenic and nitrate, all of which can lead to damaging health complications.
The health of small communities and rural villages was one of the key reasons behind Rear Tech Solutions establishing their water vending machine technology.
“If people drink bore water they could develop health conditions,” he says.
“[But] if they drink this water, their life expectancy may be increased and they may not have as many health issues like dengue, malaria and other water borne diseases,” Mr Shivalli says.
One of Rear Tech Solutions’ initial machines was installed in Ms Bee’s hometown. The company is also behind the installation of a water treatment plant and free vending machine at Shri Siddharoodha Swamy Math, a temple located in Hubli.
At its peak, this purification unit can provide water to more than 500,000 people per day.
At just one rupee per 10 litres of water, these vending machines are an incredibly cost effective technology for both consumer and company.
Each unit costs about two lakhs (equivalent to nearly AUD $4,000) to construct which, depending on the success of the machine, can be paid back within a year.
“Every day the machine will collect around 600 to 1,000 rupees, which is about three lakhs per year. So we can recover our money plus salaries in just one year,” says Mr Shivalli.
Dr Meenakshi Arora from the University of Melbourne has worked extensively on issues of water accessibility and contamination in India.
She says water vending machines have gone a long way to ensuring a reliable supply of water to those in need.
“It is doing some good to those communities by providing safe water for drinking and it comes at a very little cost as well so people who can’t afford bottled water can easily afford this water,” says Dr Arora.
However, she says there is still more work to be done before the problem is fully resolved.
“Water ATMs are a good move and they solve problems to some extent … but they don’t provide a solution to the overall water problem India is facing at the moment,” says Dr Arora.
Sapura Bee agrees. While the water vending machine has improved life in her community, reliable access to safe drinking water is still a major concern.
“Water wise, the best case scenario would be plumbing and a tap, but I know we’re still a while away from that,” says Ms Bee.
[Interview with Sapura Bee conducted via English/Hindi translator. Feature photo by Nick Parkin.]