Sustainable use of water never taken seriously, says expert
August 7, 2017

Availability of water for drinking, agriculture and sanitation is a worldwide problem today and some experts say it could be the cause of the next war as regions fight with each other due to its depleting supply, unless plans are made with a long view. Ranjita Biswas sent us this piece after talking to Gourisankar Ghosh who has had long years of experience working in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene in India and abroad

The Government of India declared last year that April 14, the birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, would be observed as Water Day, recognising the importance of the vital area in national life. Ambedkar is regarded as a pioneer in the field of developing multi-purpose projects in independent India. Sadly, in a list of 122 countries rated on the quality of potable water, India stands second last at 120.

Gourisankar Ghosh is currently chairman of Water Life, an organisation that provides tech-nical and community solutions on treatment of water for drinking. Earlier, he gave lead to the Water Technology Mission in 1986, now called the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission. He also launched the WASH campaign in the United Nations in 2000 when he was the executive director of Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Yet, at the recent Tenth Annual Global Water Alliance Conference held in Kolkata, he said half-jokingly in his keynote address on ‘In search of sustainability: In water management and sanitation’ that he was “still looking for an answer in the last 35 years on the subject.”

Which, in a way, might not have been said light-heartedly. For, water, sanitation and hygiene are serious issues and Ghosh believes measures to make sustainable use of water has not been taken up by policy-makers with due seriousness or in-depth analysis. He feels that the lessons learned over the years have never been taken into consideration to design new programmes and projects and same mistakes have been repeated again and again over the years. Here is his response to some of the questions I asked him:

Availability of water and its sustainability can be an area of conflict, isn’t it?
Yes, different organisations fight over the same area. They play what can better be termed ‘hydropolitics’. There’s a lack of coordination and lack of vision to achieve the goal.

In India, there’s a proposal from some quarters to introduce a river grid system to supply water from surplus areas to deficit areas.
That’ll be disastrous. River is a dynamic entity. You can’t just plan to draw water from one source to another, as if pouring water from one bucket to another. It can be an area of conflict between regions or in states in India. Look at the Cauvery water dispute. Even some dams already built, like the Farakka Dam, for example, have been a bone of contention between India and Bangladesh. Instead one should study the river basin, its character, and plan water use accordingly. I am not totally overruling the surplus water transfer but for that we need very close monitoring and demand supply management mechanism installed in each river basin which is nonexistent today in India.

Can global warming add to the problem of water availability in India?
The glaciers in upper Himalayas are shrinking due to global warming. They are the main source of our rivers. There’s an urgent need to plan ahead on water use. We have a billion-plus population and indiscriminate urbanisation, especially in vulnerable areas like hills and arid zones, is escalating use of water in sanitation, home use, etc. Without long planning, it can aggravate even further the already existing water shortage problems in the country.

Why do you say present communication about sanitation is a mismatched message?
If you want to reach out to the common man on sanitation, it must be designed to reach out with a message that affects him or her at the personal level. Otherwise, behavioural change won’t happen. Merely talking about a need about Swachch Bharat may remain a campaign unless he or she understands how it affects them personally.

And it should be region specific?
Absolutely. What works in Africa or Latin America may not work in Asia. Even within India, the message should be region-, behaviour- and culture-specific. For example, in Rajasthan, a toilet used by men folk in an extended family where elderly male relatives also live, the women may not use. It’s a socio-cultural issue. Hence, the message for sanitation and the project proposal have to be designed accordingly. We hear that many toilets built in rural areas in India remain unused. The Swachch Bharat Mission is a basically unilateral toilet building campaign but we see only the VIP with a long broom or the spectacle symbol of Gandhiji. How these are interconnected?
In Zimbabwe, we saw that toilets built on designs conceived in a Western country, though well-intentioned, didn’t work because it was not in tandem with local culture and need. Later it was modified into what’s called Modified Improved Pit Latrine, and it worked.

Water, sanitation and hygiene, in short WASH, is called the Holy Trinity in the health sector…
Actually, the term was used by Nelson Mandela at the 2002 at the instance of minister Ronnie Kasrils of South Africa, who was the pioneer of WASH campaign glo-bally and in the WSSD conference in Johannesburg. Initially, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which focused on five key areas didn’t even include this crucial area of sanitation. It was only with continued efforts by experts working on water and sanitation that it was included in Sustainable Development Goals. Late Mandela immediately under-stood the importance of WASH and called it the “holy trinity” while inaugurating the 2002 conference.

After Africa, Bangladesh was the pioneer in South Asia and agreed to host the South Asia Conference on Sanitation and it started the chain of SACOSAN in all the countries of SAARC.

You say hygiene was the neglected element in the Trinity?
True. Hygiene was always the neglected but most vital component of the Trinity. The sequence is around hygiene education first, followed by sanitation and water afterwards. Here in the Indian campaign, there is the same mad rush to construct toilets or hardware first and then to forget about the same. No revisit of the project takes place to see the impact and usage of the toilets. It is just promoting more corruption as more and more functionaries in rural administrations are becoming contractors.

Why do you say that sanitation can be good business?
It has the potential to become a huge field for economic activities in rural areas in a country like ours. I feel it’s the solution, a public-private partnership, to fill the gap in the shortcomings in the sanitation programme. Train the local youth on manufacturing the toilet with part subsidy and cheap capital to start the business of toilet components instead of giving subsidy directly to the beneficiary, a term I dislike. This will be an incentive, generate income for the unemployed and people will get the equipment nearer home. And why not encourage the youths to sell the product in, say the local haat, and promote and market the concept?

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.)

July – September 2017