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WATER WISE: Water Quality Solutions – Some Experiences from the Ground

The reasons behind the popularity of the sanitary well as a safe water source were, firstly it was easy to install, operate and maintain. Additionally, it was cost-effective and could be done at the community level.

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Dunguripada, a small village in Saipala Gram Panchayat of Nuapada district in Odisha, had only one tubewell fitted with a handpump to get water for drinking and other domestic purposes. The community was under the impression that tubewell water is safe for consumption. In 2013, WaterAid India along with their local partners Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) intervened in the district and conducted a ground assessment. The assessment found that the tubewell contained fluoride of 5 parts per million, which is way beyond the permissible limit.

With some guidance, the villagers learned that a sanitary well (dugwell fitted with handpump with due assessment and protection measures from the sanitary point of view to avoid physical and bacteriological contamination) can be a safe source of water. However, it was not an easy task to implement. Each household contributed manpower to dig the 18 feet deep well, break boulders and construct the wall. They also contributed INR 11,150 to meet the cost for sand, cement, transportation and the mason. Even fluorosis affected people contributed in some form or the other.

The reasons behind the popularity of the sanitary well as a safe water source were, firstly it was easy to install, operate and maintain. Additionally, it was cost-effective and could be done at the community level. Since then, a number of villages in the district have already adopted the sanitary well concept to get safe drinking water. Kadameri is another village in Nuapada that has constructed 16 sanitary wells so far. The model has been well appreciated by the Government and Rural Water Supply and Sanitation department has so far constructed 45 sanitary wells across the district to combat the issue of fluoride.

The key lessons learned from Dunguripada community is that once an ideal solution to a community’s problem has been identified, it makes sense to work on their capacity development as well as encourage them to rely on themselves to sort their own problems. The government’s approach of one-size-fits-all, where engineers in no way get involved with the community, results in a pre-mature death due to the lack of proper Operation and Maintenance (O&M) compounded with heavy recurring cost. This is exactly what has happened in the village in Gaya in Bihar that I wrote about a few months back – An expensive engineering driven solution without any thoughts on O&M.

It’s not that those options are not viable or shouldn’t be tried. But in a context where the state is often found wanting in terms of its reach and willingness to invest in those who are on the margins, it is imperative that solutions are found near to the people. And as they say, till the cows come home!

However, the government does need to play a critical role in several areas. Here is a select list to ponder over from a report WaterAid published on water quality issues some years ago.

The government can take a cue from its own massive awareness drive being conducted in the Swachh Bharat Mission. If people’s lives are at stake, it certainly needs to drive a much more urgent and a massive campaign around the perils of contaminated water.

Testing and Remedial Action: There is an urgent need to enhance the monitoring network by establishing monitoring stations across all regions and seasonal assessments of all water sources. In case of contamination detected, an action plan for dealing with sources should be provided. The challenge lies in establishing well-equipped laboratories with well-trained staff.

Capacity Building of Communities: The role of panchayats is critical. Increasingly, stress is being laid on community-based approaches in dealing with water-related problems. A prerequisite for increasing the community participation is the training of people from the communities so that they are able to make well-informed decisions.

Making the Service Provider Accountable: Article 21 of the Constitution of India relates to the Protection of Life and Personal Liberty and the right to pollution-free water is guaranteed under this provision. The user has the right to know whether the water, being provided at source, is free from any contamination as claimed by the authorities. Financial expenditure on water supply schemes and testing water quality should be known to the public. A clear chain of command and accountability needs to be established in all these instances. Bihar’s recently enacted Public Grievance Redressal Act (a national version of it was drafted some years ago and lays buried now) can be a good start for any such redressal.

On the other hand, the lack of maintenance of rural water supplies and infrastructure is an area of concern. This may be due to lack of funding capacity, apathy or unwillingness on the part of the communities to handle operation and maintenance. This calls for a change in the shift among the users that the onus of maintaining a water source rests with the people and the communities as they are the owners of the system and are most likely to be impacted in case of the degradation of the water supply system. This calls for a joint implementation by panchayats and communities. With the coming of decentralized funds to villages via the 14th Finance Commission, increased funding is now available to look at these eventualities.

Also, the benefit of institutionalizing community participation is that it propels the search for alternate water sources, water harvesting options, and simple, low-cost treatment technologies. Similarly, the revival of traditional water conservation structures like tanks, lakes, ponds that have been in use in India since ages could provide another viable option. These served as sources of water for people by capturing rainfall and surface runoff. However, in the past few decades, one has seen many of these structures becoming dysfunctional.

However, awareness, surveillance, monitoring and testing, mitigation measures, availability of alternate water sources and adoption of hygienic practices continue to remain roadblocks. There is a need to promote sanitary inspection along with community-based water quality monitoring and surveillance at the grass root level as a mechanism to identify problems and take corrective measures.

None of these solutions is novel or untested. The question is that of the political will of the people. If they can be mobilized, governments will be forced to respond.

About the Author
Avinash Kumar is Director – Programme, and Policy at WaterAid India.

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