India has the world’s second largest population, and its growth shows no signs of slowing down. The massive population combined with agricultural demands for water is putting a serious strain on the country’s resources. Poor sanitation plagues the already limited water sources. The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of the country’s communicable diseases are related to unsafe water.
Kenya, too, is in the midst of a water crisis. Its arid climate limits natural water sources and population pressures are pushing people into slums with little access to fresh water or proper sanitation.
Many small NGOs operate in both countries, digging wells and partnering with communities to build wells or otherwise provide clean water, but millions are still left without access. Water.org, for example, supports four microfinance institutions providing microloans to rural and urban communities to buy water in Kenya. The Water Project partnered with Wells for Life to fund fresh water well projects in India. However, some activists are concerned with the long-term efficacy of such projects.
To supplement these efforts, a unique initiative is being launched independently in both countries: water ATMs. These ‘ATMs’ dispense affordable, clean water to customers who pay using smart cards. The cards are easily refillable with water credits, often at much lower prices than those of local water vendors.
Danish engineering company Grundfos has set up four such ATMs in the slums of Nairobi. The Nairobi City Water and Sewage company says they charge half a Kenyan shilling (half a US cent), for 20 liters of water—100 shillings cheaper than what vendors charge in the suburb of Eastleigh according to a report by the BBC.
Sarvajal has launched a similar initiative in India, delivering solar powered water ATMs and filtration devices into the care of local businesses. According to The Economist, because they do not accept government subsidies, they are able to sell 10 liters of water for just six cents.
Of course, these products cannot fully address the systemic inequities that prevent millions in India and Kenya from having access to safe water. Both companies are looking to expand with the hopes that water ATMs can provide a sustainable source of fresh drinking water for communities in serious need.