Myth busting – clean piped water 24×7 for the people of Odisha

Local skilled teams serve the population of Odisha ©WATCO

Mathi Vathanan explains how the state of Odisha, in India, is working to deliver universal urban water services to transform the lives of its population at the turn of a tap.

Every year, scores of people all over the world die from waterborne diseases caused by a lack of access to clean drinking water. When we reflect on where we are today, safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are still out of reach for billions of people.

The statistics published in the 2023 Joint Monitoring Program Report of the World Health Organization (WHO) is alarming. Water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. Even today, one in four people around the world does not have access to safe drinking water. In 2022, 2.2 billion people lacked safely managed water.

A six-fold increase in the pace of progress is required if the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets for drinking water are to be met by 2030. Currently, no SDG region (the SDGs cover eight regions in 191 member countries) is on track to achieve universal access to safely managed water by 2030.

Is it safe to drink directly from the tap?

A map by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA shows the countries where one can drink water from the tap without fear (see below). Just 50 countries in the world today offer drinkable tap water, and it is observed that the majority of the 50 countries are in Europe, with only four countries in the Americas included. Many developed countries do not feature in this list.

Map of global tap water safety © Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

With this background, when considering a country as large as India, can anyone even think of drinking water directly from a tap? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.

However, Odisha, a state in India, has achieved a seemingly impossible feat. Once infamous for drought and poverty, Odisha is now providing direct access to high-quality drinking water that meets IS 10500 standards to homes in cities across the state. We aim to roll this out to every household in the region.

Odisha’s water story

Odisha is a coastal state, accounting for up to 4% of the total landmass of India. With 48 million people, its population is greater than many countries. Of this population, around 8 million people are concentrated in urban regions, spread across 115 urban local bodies.

Despite a GDP of $110bn, Odisha was facing multiple issues concerning water accessibility in its urban regions up until around 2016. With many areas without a pipe network, drinking water coverage was inadequate, with only 40% of the urban population having access to drinking water facilities. This would result in people being forced to wait in long lines to obtain water. Only 30% of houses had water connections and, as a result, illegal connections were rampant. In addition, the region suffered from low pressure and an erratic supply, often providing access to water for only two to four hours each day.

The region’s population had inequitable access, with disparities in water availability within and between cities. Water was not metered, and revenue collection was very low, with water loss as high as 50%. This was accompanied by huge public distrust in government service delivery. The region’s water was of poor quality, with leaky networks and resources frequently contaminated, leading to outbreaks of waterborne diseases. In response, the state government initiated the Drink from Tap (DFT) Mission in 2020 – a groundbreaking effort that has revolutionised drinking water service delivery across the Urban Local Bodies of the state. This transformative initiative aims to deliver 24×7 access to IS 10500 quality drinking water directly to all urban household taps. The primary objective was to provide safe, round the clock water directly from taps, minimising health risks and guaranteeing 100% household coverage with piped water and metering.

“Just 50 countries in the world today offer drinkable tap water”

How far have we come?

Today, we see coverage such that, in urban environments, 99% of households have piped water connections in their homes, with this lowering slightly, to 97% of households, in informal settlements.

With the ambition to leave no one behind, Odisha has moved to the higher orbit of cities, providing DFT IS 10500 quality water to every home 24×7. In July 2021, Puri, the holy city of the state, with a population of 0.3 million people and 20 million tourists a year, became the first 24×7 DFT city in India. So far, 24×7 DFT supplies have been successfully delivered to 24 other cities in the region, benefitting 2.5 million people, with seven cities declared as DFT cities. Over the next five years, we plan to upscale to provide 24×7 DFT to all 115 cities in the state.

The business case

From the previous high levels of water loss and illegal connections, Odisha’s figures with regards to water services have improved considerably. Now we are receiving upwards of 90% revenue collection, non-revenue water (NRW) is below 15%, and 100% metering has been achieved.

The hurdles along the way

This transformation was not easy. We faced many challenges and roadblocks, and learned many lessons the hard way. So, what did we learn from this project spanning five to seven years? The path followed and the solutions adopted for each hurdle we faced are enumerated below.

Enabling policy measures

To increase coverage of piped water to each home, we deployed enabling policy measures with the aim of providing universal coverage with last mile connectivity. These included:

  • A citizen’s Right to Tap Water, with a particular focus on the urban poor;
  • The drinking water application process was simplified, with documentation reduced from 14 to just two pages;
  • Connection fees were waived for the urban poor and other vulnerable people;
  • Execution of house connection responsibilities were shifted from consumers to the government, easing the problem of gaining permission for roadworks and engaging skilled operators.

Process re-engineering

To achieve universal coverage, the state had to move beyond existing practices and re-engineered the processes for delivering water services, including:

  • An amendment to pipe procurement policy: departmental procurement reduced the cash flow burden on contractors, resulting in a more competitive market for local contractors;
  • Large projects were unbundled, and smaller projects let local contractors bid more competitively.

Infrastructure augmentation

With the aim of reaching every lane, by-lane and each home, massive infrastructure augmentation works were implemented. This entailed an investment of $750m on more than 1200 projects; the laying of more than 8000 km of pipeline; and 100% metering of house connections, going from none in 2019 to 0.7 million in 2023.

Community partnership

Once we addressed infrastructure and policy needs, we realised that without forging partnerships with the local community, and building trust between consumers and the water authority, our objectives would not be achieved. As part of this work, we introduced the Jal Sathi initiative and partnered with women’s self-help groups (SHG). The local SHG members were engaged as Jal Sathis at ward level in a performance-linked, incentive-based partnership.

The Jal Sathis act as a bridge between the water supply agency and consumers, providing doorstep services and facilitating hassle-free connection processes. The initiative, importantly, also provided a partnership model that fostered women’s empowerment and gender parity. So far, we have trained and equipped 947 Jal Sathis, each earning an average of $200-300 per month. Their roles include facilitating new connections, regularising unauthorised connections, meter reading, bill generation and collection of water user charges, water quality testing in the field, and raising awareness of good health and hygiene practices among consumers.

“With the aim of reaching every lane, by-lane and each home, massive infrastructure augmentation works were implemented”

How do we ensure quality at the consumer’s tap?

To ensure that the quality of water was maintained, we set up state-of-the-art water testing laboratories across the state. We also implemented IoT-based real-time water quality monitoring, with real-time flow and pressure analysis. Online residual chlorine analysers were installed to support an automated chlorine dosing system to ensure contamination-free water at consumer taps. In addition, for every DFT city, a Lab on Wheels was deployed for on the spot quality testing. Each Jal Sathi also conducts a minimum of 30 indicator water quality tests, such as hydrogen sulphide and free residual chlorine tests, at consumer taps in their respective areas.

Plugging leaks and losses

Water losses from the system were our biggest concern. To address this, we implemented: IoT enabled digital water management with real-time data collection and analysis; GIS-based assets and consumer mapping; real-time flow and pressure management; repair management measures; complaint redress tracking; an exclusive NRW cell in each city; and improved house connections, with saddle and compression fittings. We also created a community of plumbers to ensure house connections were leakproof.

Building trust and consumer confidence

Building consumer trust and confidence was key. First, we needed to instil consumer-centric service delivery and embed a consumer-friendly attitude in our staff. Initiatives focusing on this included the provision of:

  • A 24×7 customer care centre with a toll-free number and real-time tracking of complaints;
  • Quick response team delivering service anytime, anywhere;
  • A Lab on Wheels, providing on the spot water quality analysis;
  • Water quality indicator testing, delivered by community partners;
  • The ‘Pure for Sure’ campaign to build public trust and confidence;
  • Real-time displays of water quality in public places.

As testament to this initiative, an independent impact assessment survey of consumer perceptions by the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), found that in Bhubaneswar and Puri DFT zones, 79% and 88% of people respectively drank from the tap without filtering or boiling their water.

Is the Drink from Tap model replicable and scalable?

Our journey so far affirms that, with a systematic approach, the model that we have established is replicable. There were several myths regarding water supply in India, such as a 24×7 water supply will lead to increased demand, high wastage, intensive capital costs and high O&M costs, and will be unsustainable. We have proved them all wrong.

Public health impact

By increasing piped water connections, the government of Odisha has been able to reduce the occurrence of waterborne diseases by more than 90%. In the case of jaundice, for example, there were 3608 cases and 29 deaths reported in 2014. This reduced to only 29 cases in 2022, with no jaundice related deaths in the past three years.

Community benefits

The time that the people of Odisha have saved in fetching water has enabled the community to focus on more economically productive activities. Absenteeism from school and work has reduced, and households have made savings of approximately $500-700 as a result of no longer needing facilities for storing water, or pumps, fuel and water filters. Monthly savings have been made on purchasing water and on the costs of medical expenses. There have also been environmental benefits, with plastic waste from bottled water reduced and tanker supplies and NRW reductions cutting energy use and improving the region’s carbon footprint.

Ripple effect

Our model of DFT has influenced many national policies, including National Guideline AMRUT 2.0, a flagship programme, initiated by the government of India, that mandated to deliver 500 DFT 24×7 cities across the country. A case study ‘Drink from Tap Mission in Puri City (A Case Study of 24×7 Water Supply Project)’ was published by the Central Public Health & Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO) and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), with the government of India in November 2021, followed by ‘Guidelines for Planning, Design and Implementation of 24×7 Water Supply Systems: Drink from Tap’, published in December 2021.

On 20 July 2023, a contract was signed between Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), Chennai City, and the Water Corporation of Odisha (WATCO), with WATCO providing design, bid assistance, contract management and commissioning services in a $200m project to supply 24×7 DFT water to approximately 1.5 million people, funded by the World Bank.

That CMWSSB, an organisation of more than 45 years, serving a large metro city of around 10 million people, has sought the assistance of five-year-old WATCO was very overwhelming for us.

Moving forward, WATCO is now in discussion with Delhi Jal Board, the world’s second largest water utility after Tokyo Metro Water, to deliver 24×7 DFT in New Delhi, the national capital of India.

A project of lasting legacy

The impact of this initiative is being seen and experienced across Odisha. Key to its success was the leveraging of political will, flexibility over policy, community engagement, continuous upskilling and adoption of new technology, and leadership, teamwork, and agile decision-making across the board. This model has the capacity to be learned from and adapted to many regions currently lacking access to safe, clean, piped drinking water. Our model proves that it is possible to transform daily lives, improve public health and benefit the economy. The myths have been busted. The delivery of clean drinking water for all is in our reach.

Strong political and administrative commitments, policy and institutional reforms, and technology adaptation with community partnership at its heart have been the keys to success in this unique and pioneering public water supply management model. •

The author: G Mathi Vathanan is additional chief secretary, Housing & Urban Development Department, Government of Odisha, India. He has authored a book, People First – How Odisha’s Drink from Tap Mission Quenched Every Thirst, on the transformational journey of urban Odisha, encapsulating the strategies, the step-by-step approach that was undertaken from the beginning, the lessons that were learned, how each challenge was tackled, and the overall success of Odisha’s recipe for drinking water transformation. The book can be found at

Odisha’s progress rolling out 24×7 Drink from Tap

2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
Sub-pilot in 1 informal settlement with 471 households 12 zones covering a population of 200,000 City of Puri with a population of 250,000 and 20 million tourists each year 2 cities fully DFT and 17 cities ongoing

(19 cities)

DFT in 24 cities benefiting 2.5 million people (7 cities fully DFT)


Lessons from the DFT initiative

Myths Truths
· Difficult to sustain 24×7 (consumption & demand)

· 24×7 leakage/wastage

· Financially unsustainable due to high Capital Cost and Operation & Maintenance Costs

· Huge manpower required

· High-end external experts required


· Demand went up initially but soon came down

· Metering and water tax collection make consumers responsible

· Need-based rehabilitation of infrastructure

· Huge reduction in leakage bringing down energy costs

· 100% skilled practitioners, made in Odisha