One aspect of Whitman Direct Action’s (WDA) 2007-2008 Sadhana Clean Water Project is the Appropriate Technology Study Group, looking at the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley of southern India. Traditionally, WDA has been an implementing organization, generally working with an in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) to bring a piece of technology to a community or region. In early conversations with one of our collaborating partners, Sadhana Village, we determined it would be more poignant to rather work to understand why water access projects aren’t adopted to the degree hoped, and establish some of the challenges they face.
The Kolwan Valley [Google Maps], where we conducted our research, is an area an hour drive from Pune. It is comprised of 17 villages, or 19 if you count the larger Paud [Google Maps] and Kolwan [Google Maps]. The large majority of households earn their income through subsistence farming, with wheat and sugarcane being the primary crops, and everyone else through a small variety of other means. At this point in time, there is almost zero industry in the valley. This could soon change because of the proximity to a rapidly expanding urban center (Pune). Village size is generally between 70 and 400 households, which are then commonly split into between two and five “wadis” or pockets including the village proper. Composition of the wadis is, for the most part, determined by socio-economic background; for instance, in many of the villages we worked in, there was a “harijan vasti” scheduled caste (SC) families. Governance is done on a local level by the Gram Panchayat, a “democratically” elected body responsible for the basic issues of each village, and on a wider scale by the Gram Sevaks and regional Indian government. The structure of these villages, and of the valley, is as such to provide characteristics unique to the area and threaded throughout India.
Data collection done on the ground by participants in the study group consisted first of surveys coordinated by two partners, Mahindra United World College of India and Gomukh Environmental Trust, and implemented by high-school students of both MUWCI and the valley. Over two hundred responses from nearly all of the villages were collected. A second, preplanned component of the research was a series of focus groups and/or discussions with different types of groups from the valley, including scheduled caste women, school children, and the Block Development Officer (BDO), an official responsible for the government-sponsored water management projects. With one of our goals being to collect information on the same topics related to water availability, water quality, water quantity, and sanitation from different stakeholders, we found it was also wise to interview some member of the Gram Panchayat to get an “official” view of those aspects in each village. This detailed information on where certain wadis get their water, how much they get, and so on proved to be crucial in determining which water sources, or points of distribution, we should test.
Our guiding focus for the Water Quality and Quantity Addendum was originally to determine whether the water in the valley is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment, as well as to collect the supplementary data to establish a need for better water management. One reason for this is to partially substantiate the report produced by the study group; it will be important when we pen the paper to prove there are both socio-political constraints in the region and that the valley has a water problem to begin with. Although much of this type of information should be available from the Indian government, we decided, with more explanation later, to go ahead and do independent testing of the basic indicators of water quality:
- Temperature (C)
- Fecal coliform
- Turbidity (NTU)
- Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
- Total nitrate and nitrite (mg/L)
- Biochemical Oxygen Demand (mg/L)
- Chloride (mg/L)
The tests were done through a variety of means. Dissolved Oxygen, pH, and temperature were all done in the field, as well as total nitrate, nitrite, and chlorine when the Lifewater kits showed up, and we took samples for the rest. On returning to the lab, the water for fecal coliform tests was placed on a culture of McConkey’s Agar for 24 to 48 hours. They were then assessed for growth of lactose and peptone-producing colonies, indicative of E. Coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria potentially harmful to human health. The pros and cons of each testing method will be documented in the full report.
As with working in any foreign country, there were, and still are, many challenges to getting the necessary hard data required for such a report. A significant amount of time, anywhere between one and four hours per village depending on how many cups of chai forced upon the team, was required to do a Village Water Source Worksheet [HTML], the first step towards understanding where we should test. Another timesink was that each one of these worksheets required at least one and sometimes two or three translators. This can easily magnify the amount of time needed as a question must first bounce from person to person and then the answer back the same path. One justification for why these questions have been necessary is that reliable information from the government is notoriously difficult to get, in both time consumed and accuracy. For many complex reasons, very basic data on water quality, quantity, and access sometimes either does not exist or is falsified. On top of that, there is an extraordinary bureaucracy to work through in order to obtain stats. The first person you talk to will pass you on to the next, and so on and so forth.
Regardless of these difficulties, we were still able to test 15 points in 11 villages assessed.
By testing for basic indicators of water quality, and surveying for hard data about the water sources in each village, we will be able to establish far more than just whether the water is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment. For instance, determining whether there is a presence of fecal coliform in the water can validate the accuracy of statements on both how often the water is treated and tested. If the man in charge of treating the water says he puts TCL in every day, but there is bacterial growth in the sample taken, there we will be able to document that there is a disconnect somewhere along the line. Furthermore, if the water source is being tested regularly, and there are indicators that the water is unsuitable for human drinking, then there should be action by the local and regional government to correct the problem. A presence of bacterial growth in the water could indicate some breakdown in the societal mechanisms required to provide safe drinking water. It is in ways like these that the hard data we’ve collected on the ground is proving to be a valuable asset.
With all of that being said, a fair bit of work still needs to be done. The collection of raw data from the Appropriate Technology Study Group is only just now being synthesized for analysis; through this project, we’ve been able to come to the overall conclusion that data collection is a time-consuming process. If it is at all possible, we would like to obtain the official water quality data from the government to see how it compares to our information, as well as use it to describe the long-term trends of the valley. It’s accuracy, of course, would have to be taken with a grain of salt. We made a request for this information to the BDO a couple of weeks back, and promised we could get it, but it has yet to come. It will also be important to continue tracking down the appropriate climate and water availability information to be able to compare how much water villagers perceive there to be compared to how much there actually is in each season, in addition to being used to depict the characteristics of the valley. Furthermore, it could be interesting to get hard data on how much water is being used for what, including what quantity is diverted away from the valley for use in Pune. The other data required to support certain arguments in the report will likely arise as we continue to figure out which specific dynamics in the Kolwan Valley inhibit access to clean and reliable drinking water.