A New Approach to India’s Water and Sanitation Challenge

Water and sanitation are two of the greatest challenges in India today. A quick glance at some of the statistics is sufficient to give you a gist of the situation:

. A staggering half of India’s 1.1 billion population lives without toilets
. Over 75 million people in rural India do not have access to proper sanitation
. Of the 1.1 million people in the world who defecate outdoors, more than half are in India
. Each year, India logs the highest number of diarrhea-related deaths worldwide; more than 30 percent of all deaths among Indian children under the age of five are diarrhea-related
. Currently 30% of the rural population lack access to drinking water, and of the 35 states in India, only 7 have full availability of drinking water for rural inhabitants
. Water quality problems include Fluoride (66 million people across 17 states are estimated to be at risk), excess Arsenic in ground water (nearly 13.8 million people in 75 blocks are reported at risk), varying iron levels, presence of nitrates and heavy metals, bacteriological contamination and salinity.
. Of the total wastewater generated in the metropolitan cities, barely 30 per cent is treated before disposal. Water supply is not continuous in any of India’s metros

And the statistics go on and on, and the situation seems dire, even hopeless. But articles such as this two-part blogpost by Michael and Susan Dell Foundation’s Urvashi Prasad and Semonti Basu make one more hopeful that innovative new approaches are being thought of and tried out, which can help counter these large challenges, or wicked problems. They propose what they call a ‘Networked Approach to Change,” involving multiple stakeholders in the process:

As with many issues, engaging a range of players in a networked coalition is critical to achieving lasting improvement. In the realm of water sanitation, here are the important players:

1. Local government: Many slum settlements, especially those that have not been officially recognized by the government, lack pipelines or other infrastructure to support supply of basic water and sanitation services to people’s homes. Local officials must be willing to establish and maintain infrastructure, to approve in-home water and sewage connections (or, where that’s not possible, community facilities,) and to subsidize household-level infrastructure costs.

2. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) must link affordable microloans to water sanitation projects.

3. Slum families must be willing to provide the up-front capital investment in water sanitation infrastructure. (One Ahmedabad study found that having individual households contribute to the costs of the initial infrastructure “inculcated a sense of ownership” of the facilities, which helps ensure maintenance of toilets over the long term.)

4. Community-based organizations must motivate community demand for adoption of new facilities (behavioral change is often the hardest thing to accomplish), mobilize government initiatives, and assist with technical aspects of construction such as materials sourcing and design.

They also talk about how the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been applying a systems mapping tool, which would 1) help evaluate which cities are ready for city-wide change and 2) identify how we can best apply our resources to support those who must be involved in any successful effort to bring about sustainable city-wide improvements. The systems map they’ve developed documents:

. The roles and responsibilities of key organizations that affect the success of a project and that can influence particular types of outcomes (see figure below). These include local government, participating families, microfinance institutions, community-based organizations, technical assistance organizations, and others.

. The implicit and explicit relationships among organizations that must participate to ensure project success.

. The functional strength of each key organization. Water sanitation projects in urban India require a consortium comprising stakeholders who coalesce into an organizational network that will implement the effort citywide.

. Environmental considerations, including: the type of job available to most slum residents, which may range from day laborer to shop keeper; existing infrastructure; construction limitations that may affect how a given project is engineered; and legal status of slums (many in urban India are illegal; others are officially recognized as legal residences).

This holistic, cross-sectoral systemic approach to the crisis of water and sanitation in India is probably one of the only ways in which to approach this grand challenge. In fact, a collaborative effort such as this could even serve as a model for work in other development sectors as well.

Sources:
India Sanitation Portal
UNICEF
India Stat

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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