Spending a summer building scalable water access in rural India

A young college graduate shares his experience working with Tata Trusts in Assam on water issues.
Stream Network in Tezpur, Assam. Image credit: Rohit Sar Stream Network in Tezpur, Assam. Image credit: Rohit Sar

This summer I had the incredible opportunity, to work with the Tata Trusts and their Tata Water Mission (TWM) initiative, exploring avenues to provide scalable water access to stakeholders in rural communities. TWM is one of the Trusts’ flagship initiatives in India, at the forefront of ensuring Water Access, Sanitation and Health through multiple programs across the nation. I had the privilege of working with Mr. Divyang Waghela, National Head and Mr. Rajat Pati, Area Manager, North-East and a host of partner organizations across multiple project sites in Assam. I had been looking to spend my summer doing something meaningful, challenging and exciting and as I pondered on a suitable endeavor, Madhav Datt, friend, senior at IIT Kharagpur and part time senpai suggested I take a look at the development sector. Madhav’s initiatives in this area with his NGO, Green the Gene had for some time captured my imagination. Green the Gene is an entirely youth run organization, pioneering extremely low-cost technology and data driven solutions to help local communities in acute and immediate environmental crises across the world. I set off to look for someone who would want a bright-eyed undergrad on their team, and with Mr. Waghela happening to be just that person, a few weeks later I found myself bunking down with a rural community two hours out of Guwahati. The experience I had this summer was eye opening in so many ways. It allowed me to appreciate the sheer scale of the water crisis this nation is facing and the battle that TWM and organizations like it are fighting every single day.

It also taught me that context specific solutions are critical, that there is a need to engage stakeholders at multiple levels and that young people are among the biggest assets in the fight to provide clean water to every individual.

The importance of context specific solutions became increasingly clear as I spent more time on the ground in Assam. The topography, climate and hydro-geological composition of Assam varies quite significantly throughout the state. When I arrived at my first project site in Nalbari, some two hours out of Guwahati, it was humid, hot and extremely wet. It appeared to rain here a good half of the year and the whole district was full of sources of static surface water, like lakes and ponds.

One almost wondered what sort of water crisis could possibly affect this area. Unfortunately, despite an apparent abundance of water, the one source that was used at scale by the vast majority of the community, ground water, might as well have been poison with extremely high concentrations of iron and arsenic, over 10 times the WHO mandated limit.

Tata Water Mission was partnering with Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM), the NGO I was embedded with in Nalbari, and Drinkwell Technologies to implement and maintain a few Water ATMs in the district which provided clean drinking water to hundreds of households. Prior to the implementation of these automated filtration and supply systems, communities had been ravaged by chronic gastrointestinal illness and cases of cancer caused by mineral pollution of the water.

The Water ATM in Nalbari. Image credit: Rohit Sar

While the Water ATMs provided a steady and reliable supply of drinking water, it became quickly apparent that the severity of the pollution in the water table necessitated alternate solutions. The ATMs hit bottlenecks with maintenance issues and limited supply capacity due to the extreme stress that was placed on the filtration systems. For long term sustainability, contamination free sources of water had to be identified, mapped and solutions had to be built around them to serve the community. I spent several weeks in Nalbari, trying to better understand this situation and do something about it. Madhav’s work with Green the Gene in developing water purification technology for rural Africa had inspired me to head to Assam. It also gave me a solid insight into how to approach solution building in a rural environment, leading me to believe, that while best practices, manuals and handbooks provided a solid understanding into the technical challenges, the actual solution should come from within the community.

As such, I would cycle several kilometers every day, through the beautiful bucolic landscape, to a nearby village of about 1500 people, Kothora, that was the project site for the first Water ATM. I spent a lot of time with the community to hear out their grievances and their opinions on feasible solutions. People complained about long lines, travel distances and the significant amount of time spent obtaining water from the Water ATM. With most of the village engaged in service and not agriculture, losing an hour a day directly impacted their daily wages and as such proved to be a major inconvenience. Sit downs with village administrators such as the Headman and the Panchayat President highlighted the possible opportunity in utilizing surface water from ponds and lakes that were abundant. Working with the community, I was able to map the water resources in the village, estimate capacity and prepare a plan for a community scale water filtration system utilizing water from the large ponds in the village.

The system has the potential to eliminate 6.5 Lakhs Person Kilometers and 1.3 Lakh Person Hours spent annually on collecting potable water.

It also reduces the cost for both the NGOs and the stakeholders by nearly 50%. The sheer potential took everyone by surprise in that only about 15% of the water in a single large pond was capable of providing uninterrupted annual water supply to the entire village.

At Tezpur District in North East Assam near the Arunachal Pradesh border, the situation was quite different. Located at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, this was a region with lesser rainfall, a distinct lack of lakes and ponds and where rocky terrain made it very challenging to sink wells to tap ground water. Iron contamination in the groundwater here had once again been identified as a major problem. Households had no access to electricity or clean drinking water supply. Residents drank water from fetid streams and small pools of water in the surrounding marshy area. Households were not boiling water or even performing rudimentary filtering prior to consumption, and water borne stomach illnesses were rampant in the community. It was absolutely urgent that a simple, energy-independent and scalable solution was needed in this region as soon as possible.

In Tezpur I worked for a couple of weeks with another one of the Trusts’ partner organizations, Balipara Foundation and another regional NGO, Mahila Shakti Kendra (MASK). It was with Mr. Dhruba Das from MASK that I biked almost 150 kilometres a day to visit several village clusters across the district, to listen to grievances and look for possible solutions. We focused on the Bogijuli Forest Village Cluster, a region with around 500 households some 30 kilometres from Tezpur.

It quickly became apparent that the entire region was crossed by a network of streams and rivulets originating from springs in the foothills. The villagers had additionally diverted these streams to help irrigate their crops. Accompanied by enthusiastic members of the local community we set out to chart and map these streams, following them into the hills as far as we could go. We were able to measure the flow rate, gauge capacities and conduct multiple interviews with community leaders and village elders to gain local knowledge on seasonal flow variations and weather patterns. I also leveraged the wealth of experience the Trust had gained by piloting initiatives across the country, to identify an electricity-independent filtration system that would work in this context.

Having obtained the required information, I was able to design a system that sources water from the running water channels crisscrossing the area to provide scalable water access to this district. As with Nalbari, the potential was massive. < 1% of the annual stream water potential in the region was sufficient to provide for the community.Both of these solutions leveraged the natural environment and opportunities presented therein. They were also cost effective when benchmarked against other projects that had been executed. A sensible co-financing structure setup between the community and the NGOs, implemented as an EMI payment scheme by the stakeholders, could fund the projects and sustain them over time at a very nominal cost to both the stakeholders and their NGO partners.Engaging stakeholders at multiple levels is crucial to the success of any intervention, even more so in an environment that has not been exposed to any such prior intervention. In Nalbari this was quite visible in how the Trust had built its local network. It has partnered with committed local organizations with the motivation and capability to deliver scalable impact, provided them with funding, technology and best practices and then let that percolate into the community down to the individual level. The Water ATM in Nalbari was community managed and maintained, with support from GVM. As a relatively large and experienced NGO, GVM, led by its extremely forward thinking and tireless founder, Mr. Prithibhushan Deka, an alumnus of TISS has tirelessly been working towards rural empowerment over the last 2 decades. GVM is a well-established and trusted entity in the local community and has a proven history of delivering scalable impact.

Mr. Prithibhushan Deka, Founder, GVM. Image credit: Rohit Sar

At the ground level, stakeholders from the project village contribute to the overall maintenance and management of the system. I was privileged to meet Mr. Phaben Deka, a resident of Nalbari and the main PoC in the project village. His assistance was instrumental in obtaining data, performing surveys and the sheer enthusiasm with which he approached the whole exercise was infectious in the amount of cooperation and assistance it elicited from the local stake holders.

In Tezpur the aim is to build similar connections with the communities. The Trust has very strong partners in the Balipara Foundation which has since 2007 carried out experiments in ecological protection and the rapid restoration of the Eastern Himalayan Region through the concept of NaturenomicsTM. The foundation is very well established, has a large foot print and a dedicated team of individuals working across various domains. Mahila Shakti Kendra, the organization at the fore front of initiatives in Tezpur, is another well-established community pillar. Local stakeholders will be critical to the project implementation in Tezpur. Diversions will have to be dug, streams will have to be tapped and all of this requires the local knowledge and assistance of the community. NGOs are increasingly looking at long term solutions to be community owned and managed after an initial support period. In the long run this ensures the feasibility of such projects and builds self-sufficiency within the community. Additionally, it is extremely important to build solutions that are aligned with the local context and with the needs and requirements of local stakeholders.

The author with Shashank BisbaruahYoung people are among the biggest assets we have in this fight to provide clean drinking water to every individual. In Nalbari, one of the stakeholders responsible for maintaining and managing the Water ATMs is 22-year-old Shashank Bisbaruah. A native of Nalbari, he has been working with GVM for several years since graduating high school. He looks after the technically demanding process of cleaning the filtration system, monitoring its performance and chemical dosing to ensure proper filtration. As my colleague and guide, he was also my biggest insight into understanding the community and their needs. Communities everywhere need more progressive young people who understand the larger context of the challenges faced by their communities along with the technical know-how and entrepreneurial spirit to combat these issues and find scalable solutions. Structured efforts need to be made by NGOs to accelerate the growth of champions from within the communities.

In Nalbari, GVM plans to start a rural youth skilling program devoted to learning and development of safe water access, plumbing and sanitation in the district. Around 30 youth are to be selected for the program and the belief is that they can not only help with implementation and maintenance of systems but also become business owners in the water sector. Such a group of skilled youth, well versed in this field would prove to be an asset for any implementation in this sector. In Tezpur I was able to observe large scale youth engagement programs geared primarily at afforestation initiatives organized by the Green Task Force of the Indian Army. It is never too early for young people to join the cause for access to clean water, among the most urgent and pressing concerns facing this country and the world at large.

My summer experience was extremely humbling, impactful and rather adventurous. My first foray into the Development Sector taught me a lot about how solutions are to be designed and implemented and also showcased the sheer humanity involved in the stellar work that organizations like the Tata Trusts carry out. Looking at the dry, cracked soil across large parts of the country, falling water tables and delayed monsoons, one is reminded of the severity of the problem and the monumental task at hand. However, having spent the summer with some of the most dedicated and talented individuals and organizations working to make access to clean water a reality, I am convinced that the fight is far from over.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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