Water ATMs: A 15-school pilot could pave the way for sustainable citywide solutions

An estimated 6.5 million children in India lack access to clean drinking water in school. The consequences are dire. Globally, lack of access to clean water and sanitation claims more young lives than malaria, AIDS and accidents combined. Some 48 percent of children in India suffer from the effects of malnutrition, stemming in large part from water-born contaminants.

As part of our efforts to establish a comprehensive school-based health program, the foundation has long sought effective and sustainable ways to supply clean drinking water to students in government schools. The launch of a pilot project in the Rajasthani city of Jaipur to set up water ATMs in 15 schools represents a key step toward reaching that goal.

How it works

In the pilot, Sarvajal, a company founded in 2008 to develop market-based models for delivery clean drinking water to impoverished Indian communities, will set up water dispensers — a.k.a. water ATMS —  in 15 government schools. Each of the students in the pilot schools will be provided a radio-frequency identification (RFID) card, which will function like a prepaid cellphone card with a certain “balance” of purified water (in this case ~2 liters per child per day).

The ATMs, which provide clean water to students, teachers and support staff, are designed to be easy for children to operate. Children simply go to a dispensing unit in the school, insert their RFID card, select a button for the volume of water they want and obtain the purified drinking water.

As part of our efforts to establish a comprehensive school-based health program, the foundation has long sought effective and sustainable ways to supply clean drinking water to students in government schools. The launch of a pilot project in the Rajasthani city of Jaipur to set up water ATMs in 15 schools represents a key step toward reaching that goal.

Sustainability & a model for a complete school-based health program

During the three-year pilot, the foundation will support the cost of water for children so their RFID cards are free. At the same time, two potential options for long-term maintenance will be explored:

  • Government support for Sarvajal’s ongoing operational expenses in schools
  • Installation of low-cost, for-fee dispensing units in the communities near the schools to subsidize free water for students

If successful, the pilot (which would contract all maintenance out to Sarjaval) will likely be expanded to all the government schools across the city.

The pilot is a joint project of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Sarvajal and the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which seeks to provide school children with  healthy, balanced meals as an incentive to stay in school. It also rests on work supported by a grant from the Ripple Effect project – itself  a collaboration between IDEO and the Acumen Fund to develop entrepreneurial, market-based solutions to the challenge of delivering safe drinking water to impoverished communities where infrastructure is lacking.

Well-designed school-based health programs have the potential to radically improve children’s baseline health. The foundation is already working with Akshayapatra in Jaipur to provide fortified mid-day meals, health screening and health education in government schools on a pilot basis. The added component of a sustainable, market-based clean water delivery system brings us one step closer to showcasing a complete package.