Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quenching India's thirst

When I first arrived at Beijing one summer for a study abroad program, my program advisor offered me a quizzical piece of advice: stay away from the bottled water sold on the streets. It wasn't until I actually walked by one of these water stands that I understood why. Perched on plastic stools and shirtless, the "vendors" had tubs of plastic water bottles that they were refilling with a water hose that connected to who knows where. From the few feet away where I stood, stunned by the disparate scene, I could see the water was murky -- clearly not fit for drinking. Even more unsettling was the fact that the vendor had customers, albeit none American tourists. When I asked one customer why they were buying that water they answered, "I'm thirsty and this water is better than what I have at home."

My firsthand exposure to a small piece of the water problem in China is even more of an issue in India. According to World Bank estimates, China has been able to store five times more water than India does per person. A past New York Times series examines India's water crisis on a national level. A large part of the problem is the nationwide water distribution network, which insufficiently provides water from the public tap "more than a few hours a day." For rural India, where water is often contaminated with pesticides and agricultural waste, access to clean drinking water presents even more of a challenge. One article indicates:
Conflicts over water mirror the most vexing changes facing India: the competing demands of urban and rural areas, the stubborn divide between rich and poor, and the balance between the needs of a thriving economy and a fragile environment.
The exposure to high levels of dangerous chemicals from the water also leads to health issues requiring medical care. Equally challenging is the issue of getting adequate health care and treatment in rural areas. The problem is largely infrastructural. Professor Pruitt's law review article applies a capabilities-model analysis when discussing India's infrastructural deficits, also briefly summarized in this blog post.

With the entire nation suffering from this problem, some might think resources are best allocated towards urban areas, the centers of water distribution. According to a recent NPR article, however, one incentive for providing rural areas with clean water is that it is actually profitable. Situated in the rural town Rajiana, Healthpoint Services is a company whose goal is to bring clean water and healthcare to rural communities on a "global scale." Since it's inception two years ago, the company's model combines inexpensive videoconferencing, diagnostic tests, and water in one building to bring affordable healthcare and water to low-income people.

By condensing the resources into one building, visits to the hospital could be whittled down to a single visit, which means less transportation costs. While videoconferencing allows patients to meet with doctors two hundred miles away, they are still satisfied because they still personally interact with clinical assistants at the site.

And with eighty percent of all diseases in the region directly or indirectly triggered by drinking contaminated water, Jain has found that providing clean drinking water eliminates the vast majority of health problems in the area. Many households in the region subscribe to Healthpoint's clean water, which comes directly from the clinic's filtration plant. For $1.50 a month, a family could receive 600 liters of water.

The model is also profitable, according to Healthpoint Services CEO Amit Jain. It's a matter of meeting demand -- "even low-income Indians spend money on health care," and for too long, companies "ignored that opportunity to make a profit meeting the needs of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid." Healthpoint Services currently has eight pilot clinics and hopes to expand globally. Reaching out to social-minded investors internationally, the company has raised an additional $3 million. Company projections estimate services will reach 7.5 million people in India within the next four years. Pilot clinics will also expand to the Phillippines and Mexico.

Jain's goal in establishing Healthpoint Services was primarily based on his social mission and secondarily, on his financial return. While not all companies will necessarily share Jain's benevolent motive, perhaps the profitability of the model might nudge them in the right direction.

No comments: