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Lack of Votes, Lack of Water

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Surmaal used to be an enthusiastic student in his third-grade classroom.

That was before his father passed away. Now, the 12-year-old is head of his household in the village of Lai, India. But, while he is shouldering an adult's responsibilities, Surmaal is still a child.

That made him too young to vote in the country's recent elections. His concerns went largely unnoticed.

For Surmaal and his family, getting water from the village hand pump is of vital importance. There are wells closer to his home but water depletion has caused them run dry. So, Surmaal traverses two hills with the heavy buckets.

Like most people in the town, Surmaal would love to see those wells put back into use. That way, he could attend school again.

But, without a vote, it is not a high political priority. Water gets overshadowed by the economy and national defense. By ignoring this issue which is affecting India's most vulnerable populations, the world's largest democracy isn't really addressing its nation's challenges.

"It's baffling that something so fundamental to people's lives is way down the list of political priorities for all countries," says Tom Palakudiyil, head of Asia region at WaterAid. "There is a huge amount of loss by not giving water and sanitation the attention it needs."

The coordination India's election is nothing short of extraordinary. It's a feat that involves thousands of candidates, five phases of voting and polling stations that eliminate geographic barriers for country's 700 million eligible voters.

That's incredible coordination, but something that doesn't translate to water. India still lacks sanitation facilities for about 700 million people. On top of that, 200 million don't have access to drinking water. Those that do have no guarantee it is actually safe.

Still, water tends to get overlooked.

"Within the cities are where the affluent voters are, water is not such an issue," says Palakudiyil. "This issue touches the poor families. That's a vast number but it doesn't automatically translate into political dialogue."

The problem is that those being affected the most are not among the eligible voters -- the children like Surmaal.

Surmaal is not alone in missing school to bring water to his mother and younger sisters. Millions like him perform the same chores each day. All are at risk of water-borne illnesses like typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea. In fact, one in nine children will die before their fifth birthday largely due to illnesses like this.

But, it doesn't have to be this way. The solutions to India's water problems are within grasp. It just takes a coordinated effort to actually make it happen.

"Where people have systematically gone about taking actions to regenerate water in a region, after two or three years of community efforts, there is greenery and wells start to hold water again," says Palakudiyil. "If the communities come together, we can improve the water and keep it safe."

While a move towards better water infrastructure is more long-term, there are options to help alleviate the water shortage now.

The communities in which Palakudiyil works have been able to conserve water through rainwater harvesting and educational efforts. As well, point-of-use water purification tablets can eliminate the risk of disease through contaminated water. Currently, these tablets are not widely available. But, through increased distribution efforts, these effective and inexpensive treatments could be sold at shops and kiosks in towns across the country.

"If the communities come together, we can improve the water situation and keep it safe," says Palkudiyil.

These solutions are doable. We just need the political will to stand up for those, like Surmaal, who don't have a vote. India successfully coordinated an election involving 700 million participants. Now, it needs to put that effort into bringing them water.