American economist and Nobel laureate Michael Kremer has estimated that if Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) -- India’s flagship safe tap water project for every household by 2024, succeeds, 1,36,000 deaths of children below the age of five can be prevented every year in the country. The only precondition for this possible achievement is that water delivered through JMM is free from microbiological contamination, a study published by the professor and his team as part of a University of Chicago project has said.

Professor Kremer termed their calculation as conservative, as it assumes that households that don’t have access to safely managed water have child mortality rates 25% higher than those which do. “The mortality difference between these households would likely be larger, if households with access to safely managed water also have better nutrition, or access to better medical care”, the study points out.

The study observed that in 2019, at the inception of JJM, more than 50% of the population did not have access to safe drinking water. Although geogenic contaminants such as arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate are widespread in certain regions of India, the most ubiquitous type of contamination is microbial and diarrhea is the third most common responsible disease for under-five mortality in India, the study noted.

Stating that water treatment is a cost-effective way to reduce diarrheal disease and child mortality, the study referred to a recent meta-analysis of 15 randomised controlled trials conducted by Prof Kremer and his team, which suggests an expected reduction in all-cause under-5 mortality from water treatment is around one in four. This meta-analysis also suggests water treatment is among the most cost-effective ways to reduce child mortality, it said.

According to the researchers, microbial contamination is a serious challenge in providing safe piped water in India. Even in cases where water is treated at a central location, negative pressure in pipes can cause contamination, the study says. It also cites a 2019 study in Maharashtra, which found high rates (37%) of E. coli contamination in piped water samples as an example to illustrate the threat. Treatment of water closer to the point of use may be necessary in systems where water pressure is not constant, it suggests.

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