Hacking the Challenge of Safe Drinking Water

CCC5lo2W0AEI0FR copyOn Thursday the 9th of April, as part of the Sankalp Forum, Karmany organised a Social Design Jam, aimed at simulating a systems innovation approach to solving social issues. As facilitator of the Jam, they invited Aditya Dev Sood from the Vihara Innovation Network, to walk the participants through the process of systems innovation. Aimed at solving some of urban India’s major challenges, the Jam also brought together three partner organisations, Embarq, Accion and CivicLabs, to present the participants with problem statements that they would work on through the day in six teams. These problem statements were – the provision of safe drinking water (CivicLabs), the design of public bus systems to ensure women’s safety (Embarq) and the establishment of financial literacy programs to drive digital utility payments (Accion).

Following an icebreaker and a quick round of Yoga exercises, participants were organized into small groups so that there were two teams each working on the three problem statements. My team was uniquely interesting with folks from different backgrounds who brought in various perspectives to the table. To initiate us into the challenge of safe drinking water, Namrata Mehta, who spearheads the Civiclabs at CKS, walked us through the information she had put together for this jam. According to this, 60% of Delhi residents consume water supplied by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) which comes from the Ganga basin, Yamuna sub-basin, Indus basin and its internal aquifers. These sources are fast getting depleted due to ever accelerating demand. According to tests undertaken by the MCD in 2012, 70% of water in Delhi is unfit for consumption because of high ground water salinity, chemical and microbial contamination due to sewage over flow and leaking sewer lines. To top it all, there is a severe lack of information in the water sector; weekly reports on water samples tested are published on DJB’s website but without any explanations of contamination present. There is no dissemination of information about water quality at the neighbourhood level. The Delhi Government in its vision to make safe drinking water a right of all residents of the city, has identified water as a priority area. This necessitates a shift from availability of infrastructure – water supply coverage – to delivery of service-level outcomes – quality water distribution which is one of the key challenge area the Civiclabs has been looking at.

To help us understand the challenge in greater detail the CivicLabs had brought together three leading experts in the water space for us to talk to. Sundeep Narwani, from the Delhi Dialogues Commission who heads the urban water task force and has recently been doing a lot of research on the state of Delhi’s water for the state government. Pradip Saha, who used to work with the Center for Science and Environment, and currently runs an organization called Damage Control. Lastly, we had Vandana from Development Alternatives, who brought with her a portable water testing kit Standard Kitthat measures about 14 different physical, chemical and microbial parameters of water quality. These experts informed us of the asymmetrical supply of water in different parts of Delhi and exposed us to the myriad problems of water contamination such as disposal of untreated sewage into the rivers largely because of shortage of electricity required for running the sewage treatment plants (STPs).

The Jam was a day long activity and was designed in a fashion so that the discussion moved outside the boundaries of the room, that is, after the debriefing session with the sector experts, teams were asked to go out and interview users to gain deeper insights into the problem for discussion and solutioneering. With the limited time that we had, my team went to the nearby Meherchand neighbourhood which comprised of slum dwelling as well as more permanent low income apartment buildings. We interviewed residents from both of these residential setups, both of who predominantly obtained drinking water from the Delhi Jal Board supply systems whereas some bought filtered water cans for Rs. 20-25/- everyday. While some people residing in the apartments complained about finding tapeworm in their water, others living in the slums complained about the dirty looking, smelly water that came out of their taps at times. Most of the residents did not have water purifiers and had no other way to determine if the water they were drinking was clean. On asking what clean water is, they said if it looks clear and is free of any smell it is clean and safe to drink. They differentiated drinking water from regular water by tasting it and only if it tasted sweet and cold would they store it for drinking. At times, when they faced drinking water supply shortage, they even drank the regular (non-potable) water from taps unaware about what this may lead to. Most residents did not know of the source of their water and whether it was in fact purified before supplying. The slum dwellers mostly relied on the Pradhan for solving all kinds of issues and the apartment residents on the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) which were not very active.

After this short but intensive fieldwork, we gathered once again in the room with a better understating of the problem we were attempting to solve. Some of my team-mates had done this exercise for the first time and felt a shift in their own perspective soon after they conducted interviews. We now had information from both our experts and users, based on which we identified some key challenge areas

  1. Unawareness among the residents as to what kind of water they were drinking,
  2. Supply of contaminated (chemical/microbial) water at times,
  3. Shortage of drinking water supply,
  4. No fixed timing or announcement around drinking water supply,
  5. Mixing of sewage water with drinking water,
  6. Leakage in water pipelines
  7. No grievance redressal mechanism around the same.

Once we had this list, we prioritized them based on the ones we thought were the most crucial to solve and came up with three key opportunity areas.

(i) make residents aware about the water they were drinking,
(ii) develop a system that would monitor water quality effectively, notify and empower the residents,
(iii) perhaps through the use of technology create real time information that is currently lacking and can be used by the Delhi Jal Board, MCD, Central Public Works Department, Pollution Control Board among other stakeholders to tackle water scarcity and safety problems better and faster.

Our solution : SAF/साफ (Safe Aqua Foresight)

During our fieldwork, we had identified that the slums receive water through direct pipeline system whereas the apartments get it from the community water reservoir. Our idea was that if each area has its own community reservoir and all pipeline water can be first directed to it, it can become one of the major hubs for water testing. This reservoir can be embedded with sensing technology to check water for both its quality and quantity in each area. This technology shall be able to monitor water for all kinds of contamination possible and check the levels of the same, with the use of sensor-LED technology attached to the community taps which would blink either green, yellow, orange and red according to the levels of contamination and notify the residents about the same when they open these taps. The real time data created at the reservoir can be transmitted to the DJB where it is not only monitored but also finds place on its website with detailed explanations of water contamination which does not exist as of now. Such a system will not only educate and empower residents but the water authorities will also be able to take quick action against water shortage and contamination. Although it sounds a bit futuristic in its approach, this technology is practical and if utilized could contribute to solving the challenge of safe drinking water to a significant extent.

IMG_20150409_151505Sensor enabled reservoirs and taps to check water quality and quantity

– By Pooja Lakwal

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