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...

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