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Can these 'water ATMs' bring relief to thirsty India?

By Sumnima Udas, CNN
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Residents fill drums from a water distribution tanker in New Delhi on June 16. Water shortages are a continuing problem in much of India, as around 150 million people have no access to clean water, according to government data. Residents fill drums from a water distribution tanker in New Delhi on June 16. Water shortages are a continuing problem in much of India, as around 150 million people have no access to clean water, according to government data.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some 150 million Indians have no access to clean water, according to government data
  • Authorities are trying to make communities understand the importance of water quality
  • The Delhi government is setting up "water ATMs" to combat the shortages

Editor's note: Sumnima Udas is CNN's India correspondent based in New Dehli. Follow her on Twitter.

New Delhi (CNN) -- In a New Delhi neighborhood, residents line up in the blistering 45 degree Celsius heat (113 Fahrenheit) carrying empty jerry cans and water bottles, waiting for the government water tanker truck to arrive.

'We only get water once a week and each time we have to fight for it," one woman yells.

There are no laid pipelines in unplanned areas like this, so tanker trucks are their only source of water.

With the truck arrives chaos.

Sumnima Udas
Sumnima Udas

Some climb to the top of the tanker truck, reaching out for the pipes. Others jostle and argue below, trying to collect every drop.

Minor scuffles ensue. Many have been waiting for hours for their weekly supply and they are visibly angry.

Every household in this neighborhood is allowed only four jerry cans each.

"With so little water, we don't know if we should drink it, cook with it, or bathe with it," one woman says.

Water shortages are a perennial problem in much of India, but this summer the country's newly elected government is facing extra heat over water.

With so little water, we don't know if we should drink it, cook with it, or bathe with it.
New Delhi resident

Some 150 million Indians have no access to clean water, according to government data.

Finding a long term solution will take time, but for now the Delhi government has finalized plans to set up 500 "water ATMs" across the city.

The tall cylindrical concrete structures hold solar powered machines that look and function like an ATM. Instead of cash, they dispense water.

The innovative idea was initiated by an Indian social enterprise called Sarvajal -- meaning water for all.

Since the pilot project was launched in late 2013, Sarvajal has installed 15 water ATM's in a New Delhi re-settlement colony called Sarva Ghera.

For one cent, one can draw up to four liters of water. That's cheap even by Indian standards.

Though response has been slow, the thousand odd families who use the services say it has made a significant difference to their lives.

Dispensing water to India's poor via ATM
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India's New Era

"There's no more tension now," says Bhagwati, a Sarva Ghera resident.

"Now we can get water whenever we feel like it."

Before these so-called water ATM's, she too had to wake up every morning worrying about where to find water. Her whole day revolved around the water tanker truck's schedule.

Now with her rechargeable smartcard, Bhagwati can access clean drinking water 24/7.

Ground water is purified at localized plants, and distributed through these solar powered ATMs.

Sarvajal's project manager Amit Mishra says incidents of water-borne diseases have decreased in this neighborhood since the project was launched.

But India's poor have yet to realize that paying for clean water can save much more in health care costs later.

The biggest challenge is that everyone expects everything for free, Mishra said.

Mishra and his team have held countless meetings with the community to make them understand the difference in water quality and why clean water is worth paying for.

The change in mindset may take some time, but this simple but high tech idea may be the solution in a country with ever increasing thirst for clean water.

Read more: This machine makes drinking water from thin air
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