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An offering of clean water for healthy living

Mar 19, 2010

Water pollution is a silent crisis affecting millions of people worldwide, says Rohini Nilekani, Chairperson and founder of Arghyam. What is needed at this hour of crisis is to revive local water wisdom to counter droughts, understand the critical role of water as the base of the economy, and find ways to achieve ecological sanitation in India, she adds.

Rohini Nilekani is the Chairperson and founder of Arghyam (a sanskrit word meaning 'offering'), which she set up with a private endowment in 2001. Having once donned the hats of journalist, writer and philanthropist, Rohini has been deeply involved in development issues for many years now. She has co-founded Pratham Books, a non-profit publishing enterprise to produce high quality, low cost books for children in several Indian languages. She was the Chairperson for Akshara Foundation, the goal of which is "Every child in school and learning well".

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Speaking with Anna Nath of OneWorld South Asia on the occasion of World Water Day on March 22 , she talks about the need for ensuring safe, sustainable water for all.

OneWorld South Asia: United Nations has dedicated the 2010 World Water Day to improving water quality for healthy lives. Could you highlight some of the issues and regions that we are looking at here?

Rohini Nilekani: I am glad the focus is shifting to quality because in spite of there being some access and quantity issues, it is important to highlight the quality issues. Today across the country there are at least a 100 million people who are suffering the effects of various water pollution problems - we all know about chemical contaminants like arsenic and fluoride. There is high iron content in some of the areas around Bihar, excessive salinity around the border for instance in the Kutch region and of course the coastal regions.

So we see all around the country water sources being contaminated with nitrate and agricultural pesticides run off. There is thus a genuine crisis of quality and unlike quantity; it is a silent crisis since people cannot tell about the water quality just by looking at water. So I am very glad that the focus is moving to quality.

OWSA: It has been well established that the water crisis is going to have the worst impact on women. As the users and protectors of water, how do you suggest South Asian women can jointly contribute towards ending the water woes of the region?

Rohini: It is true that water is a very gendered issue, since women are primarily responsible for household water and also for ensuring adequacy of cottage livelihood’s water. It is very important to include women in the decision making processes.

In terms of cross border conflicts in South Asia, I think women also need to have a voice at the negotiating table. But within their own countries, I think South Asian women need to find the political space to be able to give prioritise water concerns in terms of allocation, in terms of better governance, in terms of their fundamental right to ensuring adequate water and sanitation for themselves and their families. And definitely that is a critical political issue today.

OWSA: You did say that water quality is a critical issue that is rightly being highlighted through World Water Day 2010? But what about water scarcity, given that 167 out of India's 593 districts have been declared drought prone in 2009?

Rohini: Because India is prone to droughts and floods, we really need to learn better how to manage our water at the local level. We definitely need to understand how to have conjunctive use of water, how to integrate the use of our ground and surface water. And of course in the drought prone regions, there is no choice but to use some fire fighting measures in the years of drought.

All we need is to address these issues in a long-term sustainable manner. We can collect water when there is rain and store it well. There is enough local water wisdom in India that needs to be revived and it is definitely a challenge when we have successive drought years. So let’s just hope that this year we get good rains.

OWSA: Your organisation Arghyam is leading a significant number of projects on water. What is Arghyam's strategy and perspective in terms of long term solutions towards sustainable water infrastructure?

Rohini: We believe in two or three principles based on which we operate. Arghyam is primarily in the space of household level water security. So really our work is not so much about water for energy or water for agriculture. Our focus is primarily on household water security - security for water for life, for basic cooking, washing, drinking and little bit for livelihoods around the house and of course, sanitation. So when you look at that, we think that lot needs to be done to spread the awareness about sanitation and to enable households to have their own sanitation facilities.

Some of the surveys we have done show a gradual increase in awareness of the need for sanitation and its impact on health. So that’s a good sign and that shows that we have moved by several notches in terms of sanitation access. Of course much more needs to be done and Arghyam is well focused on it.

We also believe in decentralised solutions as far as possible using the principle of subsidiarity. Water is local and we need to find local solutions using ground water, rain water and surface water judiciously. It is not impossible to make every household in India water secure, at least for basic needs. There are obviously some policy issues, some terrible discrimination issues because of our very structured institutional discrimination against women, against certain castes. But I believe the only way is to keep up the pressure; to build the demand for quality in public services and to engage with government to provide the solutions that it are mandated in terms of water security.

So that’s how Arghyam works together with NGO partners who are at the grassroots working with the people. We also work very closely with government because government seems to have the resources, manpower. But it requires deep long partnerships and so we try to engage with the government so that skills work better on the ground, public money is spent better and eventually at the household level water is made available.

OWSA: Could you tell us about Ashwas and what it achieved?

Rohini: Government is mandated to provide basic water and sanitation facilities and now increasingly it is seen as a function of local government i.e. the third tier government- panchayats and urban local bodies. But so far, the capacities and the genuine financial empowerment are not moving to the third tier. That is going to be a long process. At the same time citizens are not aware what the local government is supposed to do, how much money is coming for what schemes, etc. In Arghyam, we believe that doing a thorough citizen survey of water and sanitation services as we did it across Karnataka in 17,200 households will give a very good sense of what people are seeing of the situation.

So we introduced a survey of the gram panchayat’s own services and its own public spending and we found that a lot of things needed to be improved, in terms of quality, source sustainability and certainly in terms of sanitation access. We then went back with the report card to all the gram panchayats that we had surveyed. We took back the citizen’s own reflections of their situation back and helped Gram Panchayats to make local level plans to improve the problems that the citizens reported. In other words - closing the loop on the citizen survey- a satisfaction survey, understanding the problems and seeing collectively if it’s possible to move towards a solution.

We believe that these kinds of citizen surveys are a powerful tool to understand the status of public service delivery; In fact it can be used as a baseline - one can go back after a few years and see how the situation has improved. And the process of survey itself, rather than the outcome becomes a political empowerment tool.

OWSA: What according to you is the role of the communities on the ground? What is their overall contribution to the global water question?

Rohini: Earlier, all communities used to hold water sacred and used it relatively wisely. Over the past hundred years or so, because of various technological advances and other factors water is supplied through tanks and pipes and we have forgotten our connection with the source of water. In the villages, there is still some connectivity but certainly the urban population has lost its contact with water sources, where it is coming from and why it is sacred.

I think in cities especially, people need to reconnect with the real value of water not just the price of it. Even in villages we see sectoral competition for the use of the same finite water resource, whether its agricultural, industrial or local communities in villages or in urban areas. Therefore it important that people understand that water needs to be conserved and needs to be protected from pollution. Today however the awareness on water conservation is growing.

Crisis situations always force people into solutions and I think we are heading for worse times, so I am hoping that people’s wisdom would prevail and all of us will make efforts to conserve water and use it judiciously. When we plan the expansion of all our infrastructure projects for economic growth, we should understand the critical role of water as the base of the economy. If we understand locally that water must be conserved and must be used in as little quantities as possible and design all our supply chains with maximum water efficiency I hope we can avert any kind of major crisis.

OWSA: A new concept of ‘greening toilets’ is catching up in the developed as well as the developing world? Could you tell us how it works, and how it benefits communities in adopting financially sound and environmentally sustainable ways for healthy living?

Rohini: I think we really need to look at this question from the perspective of sanitation. So far the mind set especially as per the sanitation engineering has been to take human waste and use water to flush it and push it out into our water bodies. Even in the developed world much of human waste is mixed with water through the flushing and fluid systems which does not necessarily get treated. So it is just contaminating all the water bodies including the oceans and with high nitrates and high bacterial contamination we face the problem of water quality.

Sustainable sanitation, greening the toilets means that instead of allowing the human waste to go off into the water bodies and underground water, we collect it at source, with ways like composting toilets, separation of urine and faeces at source. Hence there are various ways of achieving ecological sanitation. By doing this not only are we preventing human waste from endangering water resources, we are also capturing the nutrients from human waste because it has many important ingredients that can go into the soil as fertilizers, as manure. So it serves the double function of preventing water pollution and allowing natural fertilizers to go back where they belong to, into the earth’s soil. And therefore we need all our best minds and designs and people to figure out how well we can get low cost and convenient green toilets so that both these problems can be resolved.

OWSA: Could you share a bit about your ‘moment of inspiration’ that led you towards pioneering collective/ collaborative work on water related issues?

Rohini: Well I was pretty much an activist through my college days and even journalism is always a form of activism in certain political space. But after that, for many years I was working in the primary education sector and I was supporting initiatives in health and microfinance and the environment. But when I came into some money because of the Infosys ADR, I wanted to put all of it into the social sector and I was researching areas to work in. In education there are already plenty of NGOs and they are doing a good job. So I was looking for an area where strategic focus was needed and that is how we started working in the water sector.

I am also very glad that Arghyam stated work in the water sector around April 2005 because until then there was no single Indian foundation that was focused on this very critical sector and we found that there is just so much work to do. So I’m glad that Arghyam has focused on water.

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