Building community expertise in planning, designing, and overseeing WASH systems

A holistic approach to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) initiatives
20 Oct 2023
0 mins read
Shantilata uses a cloth to filter out the high iron content in the salty water, filled from a hand pump, in the village Sitapur on the outskirts of Bhadrak, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha (Image: WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee)
Shantilata uses a cloth to filter out the high iron content in the salty water, filled from a hand pump, in the village Sitapur on the outskirts of Bhadrak, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha (Image: WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee)

WaterAid India is a non-profit organisation dedicated to transforming lives by improving access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene. The organisation focuses on marginalised and vulnerable communities, striving to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to these essential services. Through innovative projects and community engagement, WaterAid India works towards breaking the cycle of poverty and disease caused by the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. By advocating for policy changes and collaborating with local partners, the organisation contributes to building sustainable solutions for water and sanitation challenges in India.

VK Madhavan, Chief Executive, WaterAid India speaks to the India Water Portal on how the organisation has been instrumental in leading the efforts to address water and sanitation challenges in India and in bringing in strategic vision and a commitment to improving the lives of those in need through sustainable initiatives and advocacy.

Can you provide an overview of the drinking water and sanitation solutions implemented by WaterAid India in rural areas?

Our emphasis for the past four years with regard to water and sanitation in rural areas has been on (a) the provision of safe, assured drinking water delivered at the household level; and (b) on safely managed sanitation, and (c) on ensuring appropriate and adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in anganwadi centres, schools, and health care facilities.

To deliver on our ambition with regard to water, our efforts have included repair and restoration of hand-pumps (as an alternate source for drinking water), in implementing mini-piped water supply schemes. These are then managed by a water user association or village water and sanitation committee, in working with village water and sanitation committees and gram panchayats. These committees develop village action plans for their piped water supply schemes that can be supported by Jal Jeevan Mission, in supporting efforts of the government to implement Jal Jeevan Mission.

This is done by generating demand and building capacity of village institutions to operate and manage the piped water supply schemes that are created, in conserving water with a view to increase reliability of access to drinking water through rainwater harvesting for decentralised storage and use as well as for recharge of the aquifer and in a host of conservation efforts to help increase infiltration of water and potential recharge of aquifers – through revival/restoration of tanks and ponds and through artificial recharge of aquifers – through injection wells as well as the use of abandoned dug-wells.

To support our efforts on sanitation, our emphasis has been on ensuring that people without access to individual toilets can gain access to one, to help retrofit toilets with a view to ensuring that they are appropriate for the ecology they are in, to ensure that there are decentralised solutions for the management of grey water at a household, cluster or habitation level and some attempts at creating rural faecal sludge treatment solutions. On a much smaller scale, we have also focussed on toilets for the differently abled. Our work on WASH in institutions has been to ensure not just adequacy (in terms of the number of users) but to also focus on age and gender-appropriate facilities in anganwadis, schools – including residential schools in two states – and health care facilities.

What specific challenges has WaterAid India identified in the context of wastewater management in rural India? In your opinion, what are the key solutions needed to effectively tackle the growing waste problem in India?

We noticed two trends that were worrying. Firstly, we found that traditional water bodies – lakes, ponds, etc., were increasingly falling into disuse and were being ignored by communities. Secondly, these were becoming receptacles of waste – both solid waste as well as liquid waste that would flow from the habitation into these water bodies. With the announcement of the Jal Jeevan Mission, it became evident to us that as the reliability and quantum of water available to every household increased and more importantly was to be delivered at the household level through a functional tap connection, the quantum of wastewater that would be generated would also increase. This would lead to this wastewater either polluting the existing water bodies or collecting in low-lying areas creating a further public health hazard.

The principles for the treatment of liquid waste in general and grey water specifically are (a) to reduce the amount of wastewater being generated for example by retrofitting toilets wherever possible to eliminate the need for emptying/desludging; (b) to treat it as close to the source as possible by first exhausting all decentralised on-site solutions, and (c) to then look at centralised solutions which required less space, low capital expenditure, were simple to operate and maintain, were not reliant on parts or consumables for which a reliable supply chain did not exist and had lower operating costs.

How does WaterAid India address the health risks associated with the consumption of untreated greywater, and what impact has it had on public health in the areas you serve? Could you elaborate on the innovative techniques, that WaterAid India has introduced for greywater and blackwater management?

Logically, for us, the first step was to try and manage this wastewater as close to the source as possible i.e. in other words to try and focus on household-level solutions to grey water management through soak pits, leach pits, magic pits, or kitchen gardens. To reduce the quantum of black water that required treatment, our first emphasis has been on retrofitting toilets – wherever possible – in favour of on-site sanitation solutions.

Where this was not possible due to constraints of space or if the ecology/terrain did not support it, we would focus on ‘cluster level’ solutions, with the grey water from a cluster of households being treated together or black water from an institution being treated on-site. With the government increasingly, paving roads/paths in many habitations and the laying of drains, in many instances, a centralised solution was required to treat this wastewater prior to its entry into a water body or it being discharged into a low-lying area.

To the extent possible, our emphasis has been on limiting the proportion of centralised treatment systems but if necessary to focus on nature-based solutions that were simple to operate and maintain and did not impose a significant financial burden on the community in terms of costs. Very few of the techniques that we are adopting and using are new. These have existed for many years and have been demonstrated at a smaller scale elsewhere and many of them are based on ‘open source’ technologies and know-how. However, given improvements in materials and the pace of innovation we are witnessing with regard to the treatment of wastewater, in some instances we are currently trying out technologies/processes by different entrepreneurs to assess their feasibility.

With regard to faecal waste, we have focussed on villages/habitations with a high proportion of septic tanks and have in three locations in rural areas set up decentralised faecal sludge treatment plants. Each plant caters to a cluster of habitations around it. In all three instances, the local Gram Panchayat has assumed responsibility for managing the facility and for running it. Each of them has identified their own model for ensuring the financial sustainability of their treatment facility.

Can you share examples of success stories or positive outcomes resulting from WaterAid India's interventions in rural water and sanitation projects?

In recent times, in rural India, we implemented a host of water and sanitation projects. For example, the Women+Water Alliance project has played a pivotal role in influencing the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission in five districts in Madhya Pradesh and two districts in Maharashtra. The project influenced all facets of the Jal Jeevan Mission, including planning, execution and monitoring of the piped water supply systems by encouraging women leadership at the local level under all key components of the Jal Jeevan Mission.

The project has assisted communities in developing participatory village action plans in over 2,000 villages across seven districts, with women taking the lead in supporting the process. The project provided support to the Village Water and Sanitation Committees and Panchayats in these villages, to institutionalise community-led water quality monitoring and surveillance systems and community-led Operation and Maintenance models for better service delivery and sustainability of the schemes.

We are also providing scalable and affordable rural faecal sludge management solutions to many states across India through our work. For instance, the faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) at Patora Gram Panchayat in Durg district is the first rural FSTP in Chhattisgarh. This 9 KLW plant is completely managed by the Panchayat and also has a vehicle for desludging. The demonstration for the plant was followed by intensive capacity-building training at the state level for the promotion of nature-based FSM solutions. The same model is now been replicated by all the districts in Chhattisgarh. Around 82 more FSTPs are planned for construction soon. The FSTP, appreciated at the national level, is also a good example of community ownership of FSM.

As a sectoral lead for operation and maintenance (O&M) selected by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, our focus has always been to mobilise communities and improve community participation and ownership in our all project areas. As the plant is completely managed by the Panchayat, it takes care of operation and maintenance from the revenue collected from desludging. Recently the Panchayat has also received the required permission for the manure prepared from faecal sludge (Sw-ansh). The intervention has brought many recognitions to the Gram Panchayat both at the state and at the national level and the Sarpanch of the Panchayat has been recognised by the honourable President of India in the recent past for their achievements in sanitation.

Another example that comes to mind is our work in inclusive sanitation in West Bengal. WaterAid India's core value is inclusion and one of our key interventions is sensitising communities and service providers and demonstrating disability-friendly toilets. Recently, in West Bengal, Odisha, and Maharashtra, WaterAid India has helped 95 families in need to modify their toilets to meet the needs of their family members having different kinds of disabilities. We have also mobilised support to provide a few persons with WHO-approved wheelchairs.

Apart from this, we have also demonstrated 40 community-managed pipe water supply schemes in three districts of the state – Hooghly, Bankura, and Purba Bardhaman, providing safe drinking water to over 1,300 families (about 6000 people). Water User Committees are responsible for operation and maintenance, and collect monthly user charges set by the community. Community volunteers monitor water quality using field testing kits. All habitations are also managing grey water at the household level and are free of wastewater issues.

As a sectoral lead selected by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, what role does WaterAid India play in gender-related initiatives within the water and sanitation sector?

Our emphasis has thus far been on ensuring that guidelines reflect the central role that women play with regard to water and ensure that these facilitate their leadership and not merely their participation. We have initiated a few studies in partnership with other institutions specifically to document the role that women are playing in the operation and maintenance of piped water supply schemes and these will inform some of the recommendations that we will seek to make in the coming months.

How does WaterAid India collaborate with local communities and government agencies to ensure the sustainability of its water and sanitation projects?

The public investment made by the union government and state governments in drinking water and sanitation since 2014 is unparalleled. In other words, the availability of public funds is not the challenge. Our emphasis then has been on working with community-based institutions – both formal and informal ones – and specifically Panchayati Raj Institutions to generate demand for water and sanitation services, to encourage them to gain access to these using funds specifically allocated for these purposes and to build capacities at a community level to plan, design and manage these systems. In several states, we have worked closely with line departments or the district administration by providing training and technical assistance to help them invest in water and sanitation services. In a sense, the core of our work is on helping utilise government resources effectively.

What are some of the ongoing challenges that WaterAid India faces in implementing water and sanitation projects, and how do you plan to address them?

Historically, there are families and communities that get left behind. In other words, targeting developmental efforts has always been a challenge for the government’s water and sanitation projects face the same challenges in being able to reach those who require these services the most. This requires a focus on communities that are vulnerable and on geographies that tend to get left behind. As the top wealth quintiles tend to be early adopters of water and sanitation services, in some sense the emphasis shifts once a critical mass is reached and it becomes harder to ensure that the lower wealth quintiles can also benefit from these services.

Generating demand for specific services is also challenging. For example, to retrofit toilets or the get communities to recognise the importance of faecal sludge management or grey water management. We need to focus our efforts on those who need access to these services the most and recognise that this will take time.

Looking ahead, what are the future goals and aspirations of WaterAid India, especially in the context of the Rural WASH Partners Forum and other government-led initiatives?

The Rural WASH Partners Forum is unique inasmuch as it is the first formal institutional mechanism to facilitate the involvement of developmental organisations with the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti and state governments. This provides an opportunity for organisations to genuinely partner with the government. Our focus must remain on the vulnerable, to facilitate community ownership and participation and keep a constant eye on emerging challenges that will require sustained effort such as liquid waste management, water quality, reliability of sources of drinking water, and robust operation and maintenance systems.  


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