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Are Government Water ATM Stations Really Pro-Poor?

By Wayan Vota on December 13, 2018

water atm in kenya

There is no question that water ATMs – automated water dispensing units that can provide communities with 24/7 safe water access – are an intriguing WASH innovation.  People without access to clean tap water in their homes can visit a nearby facility, where for a few cents paid in cash or smartcard, they can access fresh, purified water for human consumption, cooking, washing, and other normal domestic needs.

Water ATM technology is not particularly unique. You can now find thousands of water ATM access points across India, and they are spreading to African countries. They serve an obvious need, with a clear fee-for-service business model that has private enterprises rolling out water ATMs as fast as they can get municipal approval.

So from a public-private partnership perspective, we can celebrate water ATM technology as a positive development intervention.

Are Water ATM Stations Really Pro-Poor?

water atm station

The Supreme Court of India has decreed in various judgments that water is a fundamental human right as part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Therefore, providing free potable water to every household every day is a basic government duty to its citizens.

If we use WHO estimates, each state government in India should be providing at least 50 liters of potable per day per individual for drinking, cooking and washing.

Abdicating that basic government responsibility to private enterprises that then charge for access to water – and charge much more per unit at water ATMs than via tanker truck or municipal systems – can come across as disingenuous towards poor people.

For example, The Hindu newspaper found that a government water ATM dispenses reverse osmosis water at ₹5 for 20 liters, yet municipal water is ₹7 for 1,000 liters – 35 times cheaper than the water ATM.

That’s why some communities have rejected water ATM stations, demanding instead that government install municipal water services to facilitate water usage at greater scale and less cost than water ATM stations can provide.

We Should Hold Government to Account

I am the first person to celebrate an effective ICT4D intervention, and we need more WASH innovations that can be sustainable over time. However, I am concerned when we seem to accept government inaction or worse, discrimination, in their interventions, and then rush in to fill the void without first demanding governmental change.

In the case of government supported water ATMs, it seems quite clear that each person in India should get an initial 50 liters of potable water for free, and then they could be charged a comparable rate to municipal water services for additional water consumption.

Of course, a water ATM itself should only been seen as a stop-gap measure. True success is potable water delivered to every home, indoor plumbing, and functioning sewer systems that remove and treat waste water.

What’s your thoughts? Should we celebrate that the poor have something? Or should we demand that government give them more equitable services?

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “Are Government Water ATM Stations Really Pro-Poor?”

  1. Kaspar Bro Larsen says:

    The basis for the calculation of price is important to consider as well to ensure all costs are considered. As such water trucking by a government agency could be subsidized indirectly. As well as supply costs varying substantially between areas. Basically supplying water is not free. In Denmark water is financed in a mixture of user payment, direct and indirect taxes and delivered through public-private partnerships. Why should it be any different – in the long term – in India? Partial subsidizing of lower income groups could be factored in through the taxing system.