Friday, 7 November 2008

Clean Water for India: Where Do We Start?

Shedding some light on the water problems in India, the purpose of my last post was to identify why Gujarat lacks clean water. Now that we know the general problem and causing factors, where do we go from here?

As a small group of college kids with perhaps lofty idealistic goals, many of us have only glimpses of where to begin.

Thankfully, we're not in this alone...

With their practical foresight, Drs. Oerther and Maurer (the professors spearheading this class effort) teamed us up with a non-government organization, Sadguru, located in Gujarat. Sadguru headquarters are located in a region known as Dahod, which is the most impoverished district in Gujarat.

Dahod is home to 1.63 million people. Approximately half of these people are literate. The average household size is 6.7 people. A strong majority of the local population is Hindu (96%) followed by Islam (3%) and other religions (1%). Roughly three-quarters of the population belong to "scheduled tribes" or "scheduled castes" as described by the government.

The caste system in India is a tricky social infrastructure with several quirks concerning castes, tribes, and other "untouchables". Since I don't have sufficient knowledge on the facts of the caste system, please try a Google search on "caste system in India" and browse through the 96,000 results provided by the most powerful search engine on earth.

As I understand the system from my limited knowledge of Indian sociology, the caste system is a form of historic "social hierarchy" with very little room for mobility among the classes. In a nutshell, your status in society is determined by the family into which you are born. (Farmers marry farmers who later breed farmers. Nobles marry nobles who later breed nobles. Understand the idea?) The lowest rung on this social hierarchy is the "untouchables". Untouchables are typically forbidden to interact with those outside their own class. They are sometimes even barred from community gatherings, public water sources, and tribal councils. The children of untouchables are also deemed "untouchable"' by birth.

The good news is that the caste system is quickly deteriorating in large Indian cities. Since we will be working in rural Dahod, however, the castes and tribes are cultural issues that we may need to consider in the design process.

The majority of citizens in Dahod are farmers with the largest source of income coming from agriculture and agriculture-based products. In relation to water issues, irrigation and fecal contamination via animals are major concerns.

Established in 1974, Sadguru NGO has already accomplished much in its relatively short existence. With a strong focus on water supply, Sadguru has implemented many schemes to bring sufficient water supply into villages for irrigation, drinking, and domestic use. To increase the quantity of local water supply, Sadguru has primarily implemented check dams, wells, and lift irrigation schemes.

Check dams are barriers constructed to slow the water flow of natural rivulets and streams. By slowing flow, surface water is able to pool near the local area, thus creating a source that dries up less quickly during periods of drought. This increased supply of surface water allows farmers to irrigate their fields year-round, which leads to multiple harvest seasons and an increase in economic growth. Like most technologies, check dams come as a double-edged sword. By interrupting the flow of natural streams, villagers in Dahod are effectively halting water supply to downstream regions of India, thus causing droughts in other villages. By increasing the amount of surface water, animals often defecate near these sources, thus contaminating the supply with water-borne diseases. Though water is now readily available via check dams, the quality of the water is far from clean.

One direct positive result of check dams in Dahod is that they have decreased the villagers' dependence on ground water. By using less ground water for everyday use, previously dried-up wells have been given a chance to recharge with clean ground water. According to Sadguru's 2008 Annual Report, over 17,000 wells have been recharged by this organization to date. Recharging of wells allows the ground water tables to increase to sustainable levels and, as a result, the overall salinity and mineral content of the ground water is reduced to non-toxic levels.

Because surface water harvested via check dams cannot support domestic and drinking needs as well as irrigation demands, Sadguru has begun investigating lift irrigation schemes. Lift irrigation is a process in which water from a distant location (e.g. rivers, lakes, etc.) is pumped to a village many miles away. Last year, Sadguru implemented 23 lift irrigation schemes, which currently serve over 22,000 households. Though lift irrigation effectively aids drought-prone areas, the economic feasibility of lift irrigation is still under question. The process of pumping water several hundred miles is much less efficient than utilizing nearby water sources. Also, lift irrigation schemes begin to falter when the demand for water exceeds what the distant source can provide, thus causing these more abundant sources to dry up in the near future. Implementation, maintenance, and operational expenses for lift irrigation can also be costly in the long term.

Probably the biggest achievement of Sadguru NGO is their ability to revive local interest in sustainable water projects. By entrusting ownership of community check dams and wells to democratically-elected village councils, local villagers are forced to establish their own methods for facility maintenance and use. This is extremely important for ensuring that local water sources remain intact for decades to come. If these village councils did not exist, villagers would allow newly-built facilities to quickly depreciate. In a sense, we cannot simply give technology to impoverished regions without sufficient social infrastructure to maintain the donated facilities.

I'm sure you've heard the mantra, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime." This motto falls short in that you can teach people skills to increase their livelihood, but unless you give them proper tools (e.g. a fishing pole), they cannot put their skills to use. So one of the main goals of Sadguru is to provide tools (wells, check dams, lift irrigation schemes), and then teach villagers how to properly use and maintain these facilities.

With Sadguru providing villagers with adequate quantities of water, the next step is to focus on the quality of the water. Improving water quality is where our design class hopes to have an impact.

Have you ever been thirsty in a swimming pool? Ever consider drinking the pool water to quench your thirst? Probably not.

This analogy can be applied to the Dahod region in Gujarat. Sadguru has done an excellent job of increasing the water supply to villagers in Dahod, but the water is not often clean. With no other options, villagers drink contaminated water because dying from water-borne illnesses is a slower process than dying from thirst. Without water to drink, you will die. Without clean water to drink, you may die, but your chances of living are greater than without drinking water at all.

Sadguru has dabbled in a few projects to increase water quality (e.g. sanitation), but much work has yet to be done. Companies and organizations in the developed world have designed and implemented several possible solutions that could be adapted to our project in India. Before our upcoming travels, each of these solutions must be carefully examined for performance, economic feasibility, and sustainability. In short, we have a lot of work to do...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Indian Water Problems: A Complicated Mess

After a quick blog post on my family ties to Gujarat, India and a few posts on world poverty, our original question still remains:

How did India get into this water quality mess in the first place?

The answer to this question is a somewhat long and convoluted discussion that merits an entire blog post. Though I'm not going to pretend to understand the entire situation, here is a summary of what I have found on the current water issue:

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my cousin's father-in-law (who currently lives in Gujarat, India) emailed an article to me written by Indira Hirway for the World Health Organization. Translated into English, the article systematically outlines Gujarat's water decline from historically stable to currently "water-stressed" to "water scarce" by the year 2050. With this report as my main source, my interpretation of the problem is as explained below.

Historically, India has had very few documented water problems. Before 1960, there was enough ground water stored in the area to fulfill the basic drinking and farming needs of the people. Due to natural water filtration of the earth, this ground water was also of fairly good quality for drinking and domestic use.

In 1960-1961, a severe drought struck India, thus causing 16-17% of Gujarati villages to experience acute shortages in drinking water. To aid its people, India's national government recognized the water crisis and proceeded to take control of traditional local water management systems. The government's plan of action was to identify water-troubled villages and provide them with a reliable water source.

Though well-intentioned, the government's temporary policy to solve the water crisis had a few unforeseen consequences. First of all, the government's original plan was to harvest ground water by implementing additional wells in water-troubled villages. Unfortunately, this solution is merely temporary in that ground water supplies typically dry up during long periods of drought. So although this scheme worked in the short-term, the benefits were short-lived after ground water resources were used up, thus causing villagers to revert back to their original situation.

Secondly, it stripped authority from the local villages that traditionally managed their own water resources. Though several people were probably happy to be relieved of their water-finding duties, this power-shift caused local villagers to become apathetic towards water-related issues in general. Most Americans can relate to this unconcerned attitude. Take a moment to think about it... Do you honestly care how water travels to your faucet? Before this class, I can easily admit that I had no idea nor was really concerned how water arrived in my early-morning-three-dollar-Starbucks-cup-of-tea. In the States, however, it's not exactly a life-or-death situation if the average American understands the idiosyncrasies of modern water treatment. Thankfully, there are enough water experts in the US to spread across the local areas and monitor water quality for the average American. In Gujarat, authority from top-level government water programs has not yet filtered down to the village level.

In addition to issues with government water policies, cultural changes in India have also led to ground water depletion. As touched upon in my former blog post on world poverty, India is a developing nation that aspires to become an influential force in the world's economy. To increase their wealth, farmers have been encouraged to increase crop production for international export. An increase in crop output requires higher demands on irrigation, which currently derives its source from ground water supplies. Deforestation for farming has also caused streams to dry up due to a sudden lack of shade and natural habitat. The current depletion of ground water is so severe in Gujarat that the water tables recede 10 feet every year.

Industry has also found a presence in developing India as more manufacturing facilities are constructed each decade. Though industry is generally a positive sign of the rise out of poverty, it creates problems in that developing countries often fail to regulate pollution emitted from factories and manufacturing plants. While also using ground water for industrial processes, many industries in Gujarat decrease water quality by dumping pollutants into ground water supplies.

Though these are just a few major contributors to Gujarat's current water woes, you may be able to see two important aspects that need to be addressed: water quantity and quality.

Gujarat has two major water sources: ground water and surface water. Ground water is a natural resource that develops as precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) falls to the earth and filters into natural cavities underground. Ground water is relatively clean (via natural rock and gravel filtration) but can have traces of minerals and salts (nitrates, fluoride, sodium chloride, arsenic). Though most of these minerals and salts won't harm humans in small doses, high levels of these natural contaminants can cause chronic health effects (cancer, fluorosis, kidney failure, birth defects, etc.). When ground water supplies are sufficiently high, salts and minerals in the water are dilute enough to be safe for drinking, farming, and domestic use. As ground water supplies become overexerted, the salts and mineral levels become dangerously concentrated, which can alter the smell, appearance, and safety of drinking water. Because locals rely heavily on ground water supplies, high salinity and mineral content are the current major concerns for Gujaratis.

Surface water consists of water supplies found in streams, lakes, ponds, and rainwater captured by manmade basins. Though easier to access, surface water comes with its own list of problems. Approximately 75% of rural villages in India lack any form of toilet facility, which means that a large majority of villagers and livestock poop wherever a convenient location might be found (near streams, ponds, grazing areas, etc.). By allowing feces to be left in the open air or deposited near surface water sources, bacteria and other microorganisms from fecal matter are able to run into surface water supplies after each rain. If consumed, these microorganisms can cause typhoid, tuberculosis, and diarrhea -- diseases known to kill thousands of children and adults in developing countries. In addition to parasites and algae naturally found in streams and ponds, it is apparent that surface water must undergo several purification steps to ensure that the water is safe to drink. In Gujarat, however, sufficient water treatment facilities are simply not yet available.

So what's the overall water picture in Gujarat? Here's a simple breakdown:

(1) There is not enough ground water to safely support current levels of irrigation, industrial processes, and drinking & domestic uses.

(2) During water shortages, villagers may be forced to use surface water, which must be adequately treated to prevent water-borne illnesses.

(3) Currently, rural areas of Gujarat lack adequate resources of electricity, health care, and toilet facilities required to run wells, treat water-borne diseases, and prevent surface water contamination.

(4) Top-level government policies are inefficient in that local villagers remain uneducated on water quality issues that may adversely affect their health.

Though there are many interconnected factors contributing to water quality issues in Gujarat, the above points are four major topics that must firstly be considered in this project to develop a sustainable solution to this design problem.

Working with a non-government organization, Sadguru, it is our hope to design and implement some sort of technology that will positively impact the people of Gujarat.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Blog Post Feedback from Students

After publishing my last poverty essay on this blog, I encouraged friends and classmates to read it online and give some constructive feedback on the article. To be honest, I never really thought that anyone would actually read my last blog post and only remotely hoped that they would check out this blog site.

Surprisingly, a few actually did take time to read the essay and sent me their thoughts on the world poverty issues I addressed in the post. Spending a few days to respond to their messages, I thought that it might be useful to publish their constructive criticism and my responses to their concerns...

The first feedback discussion on the blog post entitled "Why the World has Poor..." took place between myself and a fellow engineering classmate, Matt.

Matt's Initial Message:

"It is certainly interesting... however part of India's problem in regards to poverty and social justice is the caste system. Do not get me wrong, I think it is good and noble to go and provide clean water to the people of India (or anywhere for that matter). At the end of this project and projects like it however there will continue to be classes of people who will remain poor, in all senses of the word.

Now, is this to say to not go, and that projects like this should not occur? Of course not, but the realization by us all must be made that until social reform occurs, the halt of the spread of disease and poverty will remain elusive. Will it help with disease? Most certainly, but unlike what your blog claims, providing clean water to your target group will not address the "big picture".

... I hope you don't take this as criticism... if you do, feel free to censor me.

My Response:

"Here's my rebuttal:

(1) True, the caste system is a problem. However, the poverty argument in the article is more general in that it addresses WORLD poverty and how this model fits to India. There are TONS of factors that work into this on a country-by-country basis. The main idea of the essay and Sach's book is how the poverty gap has widened over the last century. I probably generalized a lot in the blog post, but it would take me weeks to go into detail on specific poverty issues... and I'm sure everyone would still have more factors to add to the list.

(2) Yes, social reform is needed. I'm not arguing that it is or isn't important, or that clean water will fix all of India's problems. If you look at the UN's Millenium Goals, clean water is only one of 7 ways targeted to cut world poverty. India's "underlying problem" that I mentioned in the blog post is "poverty", not water issues. Water issues are a result of poverty.
Cleaning up the water primarily helps the health issues. I did not state in the post that it would end poverty... you may have taken that out of context.

(3) The main goal of my statements at the end of the post is that we cannot withhold knowledge from a country that is dying because of lack of appropriate technology.

I know you enjoy playing the devil's advocate on this one... I'm just pumped that someone actually read the article. :-)"

Matt's Follow-up Response:

"Good re-post. As to taking your statement out of context, I vary well may have, I am attempting to do the whole "multi-tasking" thing with varied success.

All in all, the book by Sach sounds very interesting. And as a general comment on your summary of the work, I think with the comparative lengths, you did a great job."

My Additional Response:

LOL... thanks for the constructive criticism... words are meant to be scrutinized. ;) I keep hoping that more people will visit my blog from time to time. The more discussion, the better..."

Matt's Final Message:

"Your last comment is SO true. I am in an ethics class reading a piece of work by T. Beauchamp, and he comes to a similar conclusion in his section concerning health care coverage. He makes the claim that no matter how wrong ANY health care system is, with the public involved in the process through open and active communication, the system will eventually reach a point where 'everyone' is happy. Perhaps a little idealized, but nonetheless it reinforces what you say regarding discussion."

The next thread of discussion on the blog post came from a business student, Jason:

Jason's Initial Message:

Do you realize that by fixing the contamination problem of India's water will just help the earth to its carrying capacity even sooner? Don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but I'm just saying... Survival of the fittest?
(sarcasm was used...)"

My Reply:

"Interesting point... and I've actually heard the population argument used before, but let me counter-argue with this:

Family size is inversely proportional to a mother's level of education. So as women become more educated in developing nations, they choose to have less children. Providing poor areas with clean water is just one way to decrease poverty in 2nd and 3rd-world countries. A drop in poverty will lead to the women of these countries to seek additional schooling, which will cause the family size to decrease.

In the States, the average number of kids per mother is around 2-3. In India, the average number is around 6. In Africa, the number is huge (somewhere around 8-10). As you can imagine the population issue can be resolved just by getting people to go to school.

Thanks for reading my article. Woot! Now I'm up to 2 people who actually visited my site..."

The final set of feedback messages were sent by a biology graduate, Richard:

Richard's Initial Message:

I enjoyed reading your article, Julia. I agree with much of what you write, but I'm curious about your conclusion: "It is our social responsibility to share current knowledge of appropriate, sustainable technology in order to halt the spread of disease, poverty, and social injustice." Although most efforts would have the best of intentions and hopefully the best of results, could this statement not be viewed as a modern reinterpretation of "the white man's burden" if by "our" you mean the developed Western world and not just humankind as a whole? I see what you mean regarding social injustice, but I fear that with the current political climate in the world, the change to many parts of the world would come in a new form of imperialism."

My Response:

It's interesting that you bring up this point as we are constantly debating it in class...

So yeah, the social injustice part of my statement is a tricky one and we're running into problems with it in my design class. Our biggest debate is:

"Should we introduce new technology that might infringe on India's current culture and way of life? What makes our (the Western world) ideas better than theirs?"

To be honest, we haven't found a good answer to this question yet and I doubt anyone really has.

You make a good point and I can't really argue against it. For the purposes of this project, we're forced to look at the fact that people are dying due to water contamination. Solutions to this problem range from changing government policy to convincing people to use a toilet or latrine.

In a sense, we can't really introduce a new technology in the region without somehow affecting their culture, government, and society. Whether or not this fits under the "social injustice" category is a matter of labels.

It's a fine line between helping people and "imperializing" their way of life...

(btw, if you think of a good way to introduce technology without infringing on their core values, culture, and beliefs... please let me know. I am constantly looking for a good solution to this issue.)

Thanks for reading my article! (Woo-hoo! I am now up to 3 people who have looked at it...)"

Richard's Response:

Actually, I do not agree with the idea that all cultural values hold equal merit. While we can certainly try to be respectful, we also can recognize when something is unfairly harmful (of course the extreme cases such as honor killings are easier to spot out than more subtle practices).

For instance, I have met and made friends with many women who have adopted use of a headscarf while in public because of their Christian or Islamic beliefs. Unlike the stereotype, I find many of them to be just as strong-willed or even sassy as any other individual. However, when I see the wearing of full burqas in Iran and elsewhere, enforced through threats of violence and death, I find that crossing the line. Yet, should the UN or the US send troops in to liberate such women?

The problem besides needless aggression and bloodshed is that these practices are just one aspect of a much larger cultural difference. Such change cannot come easily (nor necessarily painlessly). That lack of understanding is a big part of why the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq has been so turbulent.

I don't think there is a straightforward answer of what to do. Probably the best option would be to introduce any new cultural intervention, whether it be technology or belief, to trusted cultural leaders of the population. Convince them of its value, and they can decide the best way to disseminate it to the public. This will not prevent all cries of imperialism, and certainly from an outside perspective, can seem just as perverse as any other subterfuge, but it seems at least more like a scalpel compared to the hatchet of old."

My Final Reply:

Several valid points, my friend..."

If you would like to leave comments or feedback on any of my blog posts feel free to leave a comment on this blog, email, or facebook me. I appreciate constructive criticism and try to encourage discussion on any of the issues addressed on this website.