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One water: numerous facets

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”-Loren Eiseley -anthropologist and author of The Immense Journey

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”-Loren Eiseley -anthropologist and author of The Immense Journey

Reading about the various issues around water makes one wonder time and again that how one vital resource can provide so many issues to ponder upon.

These issues range from

  • Imagining a world without water,
  • Municipal/city officials usage and management of water,
  • Payment for the ecosystems services (PES) for water
  • Economy of recent loss of the freshwater wetlands worldwide and last but not the least
  • Estimated losses due to the extreme events in the recent past.

Water is the driver of life and with the increasing pace of urbanization and extreme events around the globe, this limited resource is becoming more and more critical. We observed this effect getting magnified in the places like Africa and Asia and developed nations are also not left out.

In Asia, residents in high tech cities like Pune and Bangalore to tier II cities like Meerut  in India, struggle with the issues related to quality, quantity and availability owning to the lack of governance and maintenance of utilities. We live in a time when we must understand the environmental and demographic trends that increase our vulnerability to water and natural resources related issues. High population densities in vulnerable coastal, urban areas and degraded coastal forests and mangroves leave more people exposed to the brunt of water related crisis. Even in developed nations such as the US, states and regions are suffering from severe drought, California being the latest example.

Three key trends that continue to drive global water insecurity in 2014:

  • Governance: One observes that cities in south and south east Asia experience a different kind of wave of water and electricity availability just around the elections. There is incessant supply of water and electricity until the furor around the elections is settled. We observed this trend from India up to Indonesia where problematic governance issues result in once again not benefitting the most vulnerable and poorest but only a handful of the politically empowered and master of working around the processes and procedures. Water the critical resource is not left out in this equation.
  • Population dynamics: The world is projected to add another 82 million people this year, 24 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where total fertility rates continue to outpace the rest of the world. In parts of the Middle East and Asia, changing age structures and ethno-religious demographic shifts will affect the potential for conflict and thus the ability of communities to respond to shocks, both natural and manmade. Here people living in places below sea level, in delta regions (India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand  and others) are the worst effected in times of crisis. In the ganges river delta where the threat of entire landmass getting submerged, a few stand alone/secluded/individual efforts can do only so much to decrease this vulnerability.
  • Climate change impacts: We will continue to experience climate change-related shocks, including quick hits – floods, disease outbreaks, and food price increases – and drought, food price volatility, and environmental degradation. The impacts of these shocks on the poorest and most vulnerable will increase both in intensity and frequency. This year more attention should be paid on how the vulnerability of water resources to climate change can be reduced.
  • The food-water-energy nexus: Today, one in eight people in the world suffer from chronic hunger, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five are undernourished. About 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity. The interconnected global economy means the effects of complex crises will ripple around the world. This nexus is even more evident in places like Asia/India, where people rely on electricity for water supply and food production/agriculture in a major way.

What can be done to make water crisis a thing of the past?

  • Technology is key: We must link innovations in governance, and couple them with the social trends – such as urbanization, educational transformations, and demographic shifts. This might increase our vulnerability but also provide opportunities for solutions. In time we will see new social technologies that will allow us to leapfrog traditional barriers and deepen community strength through effective governance and communications, participatory decision-making, and responsive water resource management. These technological innovations, however, must be accompanied by sincere efforts to build trust and support networks within and across communities especially the poor and vulnerable ones to form a strong foundation.
  • Flexibility is essential: Bureaucratic “stovepipes” plague many of the organizations tasked with preparing for and responding to these all-encompassing crises. We must create more flexible and creative modes of analysis and streams of funding. Greater coordination across humanitarian assistance and development programs, including better and more streamlined coordination among first responders, including the private sector is needed. As observed above power cuts and water shortages are frequent, even in established cities, so the evidence is mounting that critical ecological limits have been passed a long time ago. Effective coordination between the various government departments and utility providers is quintessential for ensuring a water secure future.
  • Acknowledging the grassroots and community efforts: In developing regions of the world like the global south/Asia, traditional knowledge housed within indigenous communities surpasses the technical advancements at times. Also a lot of these crisis are political and not technological. Acknowledging the community based organizations and grassroots movements towards water crisis management will further help reduce the vulnerability during droughts as well as floods.

For water security, we need a clear path in the face of climate change, population growth, political instability, ineffective governance, departmental silos and increased energy and electricity demands. We need to link our technology to emerging social trends, be flexible when designing research and funding programs, defining processes and procedures and improving basic accessibility for the poor and underserved. Without this a narrowed down vision will make our task for achieving a water secure future for all only uphill.

Necessity is the mother of invention..

WaterWheel user in India

Wheel of change: a WaterWheel user in India. Photograph: Wello

I read someone exclaim that “Omigod if men had been carrying 50 litres of water on their heads everyday for a lifetime, they’d have had handles on these containers 800 years ago”. So true! I couldn’t agree anymore.  So obvious that this is indeed the costliest water in the world  http://theflipsideofdevelopment.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/worlds-costliest-water/

 Alas someone had the brainstorm to come up with this ingenious contraption to alleviate womens’ daily drudgery of carrying water on their heads.

Girls and women carrying plastic jerry cans of water on their heads is a common sight in rural areas of poor countries. The WaterWheel eases that burden by storing water in a round 50-litre container that doubles as a wheel.

Designed after consultations with villagers in the dry northern Indian state of Rajasthan, the WaterWheel is made from high-quality plastic that can withstand rough terrain. It will sell for $25-$30, compared with $75-$100 for similar products. “Our goal is to distribute on a large scale, on small margins to 10,000-20,000 customers a year,” says Cynthia Koenig, founder and chief executive of Wello, a US social venture working on ways to deliver clean water in poor countries. Wello won a $100,000 Grand Challenges Canada prize to develop the WaterWheel.

The idea came from an exploratory trip to India in 2010 to ask what people thought of the idea of rolling water, instead of carrying it. “We were pleasantly surprised,” Koenig says. “We returned a year later, worked in close collaboration with villages in Rajasthan, and kept coming back to the idea of rolling water. We were surprised the idea had so much traction – we never thought it would work in India.” The designers played around with different sizes – 10-20 litres – before agreeing on 50 litres. While the WaterWheel was created with women in mind, as they tend to collect water, Koenig says Wello has been surprised by its popularity among men.

“One of most exciting things is that men love using it, they see it as a tool,” she adds. “Men take on the primary role so the women are freed up to do other things. Or the role is split so men use it four days a week and the women use it two days. It has reduced the burden on women. A nurse told me she is not late for work anymore because the husband collects the water.”

The device, to be constructed Ahmedabad city in Gujarat, also saves time, at least an hour in many cases. It is also being used for irrigation and to bring water to animals.

Wello plans to sell the WaterWheel in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat states, as well as explore opportunities for water purification.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian.com. To read more about waterwheel by Wello and the author please click here.

2013 in review

 

Happy New Year to all! ©Wordpress.com

Happy New Year to all! ©Wordpress.com

Lots of posts until July, 2013 and then the professional life took a full 360 degree turn for better.

First ever full time assignment at the NoVo Foundation in NYC proved to have opened vistas of professional opportunities.  What a work experience!

Will be updating on my most recent/latest assignment soon. Please stay tuned.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank all my readers and well wishers :)

Hope that everyone is having a peaceful end to 2013.

Wishing all a very happy new year and looking forward to working together in 2014!

 

Creative (and successful) ways towards potable water accessibility for the urban poor

Solar Powered water ATMs in Ahmedabad, India ©URB.im

Solar Powered water ATMs in Ahmedabad, India ©URB.im

I read about five successful and creative initiatives to bring clean water to the urban poor this morning and jumped with joy, yet again.

The author of the article, Josephine d’Allant writes that “In India, women are forced to orient their entire day around collecting expensive and unsafe water”. I cannot emphasize this fact enough. I have written about this issues time and again on my blog. The readers  know very well. Women and water is one of the closest issues to my heart. If any or every effort goes to alleviate the women and water related drudgeries, then I am the first person to cheer for it.

The author goes on to cite examples from world’s five fastest growing cities

  1. Ahmedabad, India
  2. Mexico City, Mexico
  3. Rio De Janeiro, Brazil 
  4. Lagos, Nigeria and
  5. Jakarta, Indonesia

I am slightly disappointed upon noticing that once again the northern Indian states and cities have lagged behind in implementing such strategies or techniques to benefit the urban poor. With nation’s capital’s poor struggling for potable water supply and fast emerging cities in the National Capital Region of Delhi, it’s imperative to implement such techniques sooner than later.

The author also cites an interesting item for potable water’s availability in the form of plastic pouches or sachets as shown below.

Who is buying this? ©URB.im

Who is buying this? ©URB.im

Anybody and everybody reading this blog can identify this water packet being sold unabated on buses en route Delhi to Meerut as well as other cities. Having witnessed the “hygienic” conditions under which these (and other bottled water) are being packed in my hometown, I have been always wary of seeing people buy them to quench their thirst.  I saw this trend continuously throughout my career spanning around a decade in India while working on various water related issues.

As seen elsewhere, the author also goes to demonstrate, through examples, that these schemes are managed by the local communities benefitting from them. This shall help ensure the longevity of such schemes.

The author concludes the article by saying “Although not perfect, these solutions are important steps in expanding access to clean water in some of the cities in the Global South.”

I see this as a positive and sustainable step towards providing relief to women and young girls, whose lives otherwise revolve around collecting and providing potable water for their family and themselves.

Visit URB.im to read more about these innovative approaches and discuss other projects you may know about.

 

 

Women and young girls centered water programs are imperative

©water.org

©water.org

Last year I mentioned about the world’s costliest water in one of my previous blog posts. The issues of gender and water keep coming to fore every now and then in most online articles that I read.

Having observed the burnt being born by women and young girls in developing countries for a very long time, I understand how imperative it is to keep them at the center of all water crisis solutions.

Recently, I came across this very interesting info-graph from water. org. I would urge you all to go ahead and take a close look at this one. The article also goes on to state that

Glass ceilings aside, millions of women are prohibited from accomplishing little more than survival. Not because of a lack of ambition, or ability, but because of a lack of safe water and adequate sanitation. Millions of women and children in the developing world spend untold hours daily, collecting water from distant, often polluted sources, then return to their villages carrying their filled 40 pound jerry cans on their backs.

I won’t go in to the details and statistics as they are adequately elaborated in the info-graph.

One point this info-graph certainly proves is how this is world’s costliest water. Countless hours being spent in bringing water from point sources to their homes everyday by women. More than 2 billion people are without safe drinking water across the world. These are only a few of the startling facts facing us today in terms of water crisis.

I also watched a very interesting TEDX talk yesterday on how we can solve the global water crisis.

I have heard some people argue that if they take shorter showers in the US (or any developed country), it doesn’t help a woman in say Africa or Asia to get water easily to her home. For all of them, I would like to share another advert-graph that a luxury bath accessories company has recently made public.

Unless we do not realize and acknowledge the value that women and young girls add to an economy, it shall be a challenge to address the water crisis issue in the longer run.

To be continued.

A decade later: progression or regression

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Caption: If there is a single prominent symbol for India’s resource-draining, energy-wasting, treasury-tilting farm policies, it is the electric water pump. The agriculture sector makes up 19 percent of India’s electricity consumption, most of it to power India’s 20 million electric pumps that pull water from deep in the ground.

I recently read an article titled “Choke Point: India — The Leopard in the Well” about the grim situation of water-energy nexus in northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab (primarily in terms of irrigation, agriculture, produce, food security and so on) and the energy crisis facing our nation as a whole. The author has used the title as a metaphor for modern India as the story of the leopard in the well is especially apt. India is a 66-year-old democracy, touched by boundless energy and driven by endless ambition. But it also is a nation trapped by seemingly inescapable walls of resource waste, management disarray, and cultural divides of its own making. The Green Revolution that catalyzed grain production in the mid-1960s ended India’s fear of famine. But achieving food abundance is overwhelming India’s mammoth and unwieldy bureaucracy, draining its freshwater reserves, and straining the energy sector and electrical grid.

Pardon me for getting a little soapy here, however whenever I read about the issues of water-energy-agriculture, especially in the context of north Indian states, I get a little nostalgic. I have to give the credit to the author for keeping the article very informative and authentic. You see being an observer from another country helps in situations like these.

The article states that unlike China, Australia, the United States, and Qatar, in particular, India’s ever-fiercer competition for water by the agriculture and energy sectors is not the result of battling for scarce resources because of the following reasons

  • Water reserves are ample.
  • Soil is fertile.
  • Reserves of coal are among the world’s largest.

The article mostly reflects on the policies of providing subsidized coal generated electricity-to draw groundwater-through tubewells-for irrigation. So you see where this is going.

I have observed this nexus so closely during the entire course of my career in India that I am almost compelled to say out loud “tell me about it”. In this blog post, I am not going to dwell upon the data and statistics (2003-13), as those facts have been adequately elaborated in the original article. This article only reflects my observations throughout the course of my career spanning a decade as a development professional in my home country.

A decade earlier:

I remember my very first assignment vividly, working at Janhit Foundation in Meerut towards the promotion of sustainable/organic agriculture practices.

When I started working at the grassroots level in 2003, I was astounded to observe how incessantly the tubewells used to run on electricity or more expensive diesel powered generators in the agricultural fields in and around Meerut district. We, Meerut residents, boast ourselves to be able to live in the Doab (region between two river, Ganga and Yamuna basins) in western Uttar Pradesh. As emphasized in the article, it has always been presumed that groundwater reserves are a plenty, soil very fertile and reserve of soil minerals adequate to grow all the water intensive cash crops such as sugarcane, wheat and paddy. However, over the decades following the green revolution the condition has deteriorated owing to the following reasons:

  • Mono-cropping prevalence throughout the region
  • Extensive use of chemicals in farming
  • Abandoning of traditional seeds and methods in farming
  • Diminished livestock usage in practicing agriculture
  • Increasing abandoning of agriculture by farmers’ next generations
  • Declining cost benefit involved in farming
  • Climate change

The list is not exhaustive. This trend continued until the time when I left WWF-India’s Living Ganga Program in 2011. WWF India also undertook an interesting study to observe the water-energy nexus in irrigation at a pilot site in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

In 2003, besides watching the exploitation of energy and water resources in the rural areas, I also witnessed the crisis in the city. It was a pain to start working in the afternoon everyday because there was no electricity supply  in the morning. We used to dread the time to use the diesel powered generator for an emergency. It was such a loss of productivity that looking back I cannot even calculate the man hours we wasted during the morning hours waiting for the electricity to come back on.

Even way before that, I remember that my parents had to buy expensive power back up (called ‘inverter’ in India) because of my high school exams. This was because of the unannounced unending power cuts in the electricity supply in late 90s.

A typical inverter for domestic use in India

A typical inverter battery for domestic use in India

That trend continued during my time in Janhit Foundation up to WWF-India and continues till date in Meerut city. It is quite ironical as my parents keep updating me proudly how real state is coming up in a major way in my home town and also because Meerut falls in the NCR (National Capital Region).

Now here we are in 2013:

A decade later, spending a large chunk of my professional life trying to support initiatives so as to alleviate all these crises, it’s heart breaking to see the situation has only got worse. We proudly claim that India is an emerging economy  and at the same time there are power cuts lasting over weeks in almost half of nation as we saw in the recent past. This incidence put India on the world map for a completely regressive reason. We all know that India still has a long way to go to fulfill the growing population’s  energy and water needs. Professionals criticize that the developed nations’ quench for/addiction to fossil fuels is being fed by different developing and developed countries rich in the same.  Given this scenario, India’s incapability to utilize the available resources in the best possible manner elevates the crises to whole other level. There exists a struggle to get water to the fields and homes; energy for the domestic and commercial usage, rural electrification and so on. We also see that the immense potential of wind and solar energy goes untapped in a tropical nation such as ours.

The writer of the original article goes on elaborating the following key issues facing our nation today:

  • Internal Indecision
  • Food Production: Government’s policy of wastage
  • Coal and electricity shortage: Endemic blackouts
  • Solutions are difficult

Way forward:

After reading the article and reflecting upon my own experience, I really felt heart broken and complained out loud that I feel like a wrong doer for having left my country. However, on second thought, I believe that maybe this is my way of protesting that I do not agree with the existing policies by which our county is being run right now. I lamented about the same to a friend, saying that I do not expect to read a similar report on regression of India in 2023, to which she reacted saying, who knows it could be progression, right? As of now, I can only say amen to that.

 

Think.Save.Eat

Most items are locally bought

Most items are locally made and bought

For all those who think that this blog post might be about a sequel of the Julia Robert’s movie Eat.Pray.Love, please click here.

For others please read on to know what this means to us as individuals/consumers.

I am pleasantly surprised to know that this year’s World Environment Day theme is Think.Save.Eat. I am going to elaborate a little on my story here, so please bear with me.

How it was like growing up in a vegetarian family in India?

Upon spotting the plums during our last trip to the local market, my husband exclaimed and asked whether I knew how to pick the right ones. Of course, was my answer. I aced the job and his joy had no bounds upon biting into the ripe and juicy plums, when we got home . He even mentioned (sadly) that growing up, he never ate as many fruits as he does now i.e. after my arrival in the US. This made me think, how differently both of us were brought up, despite being from the same country.

Our family being vegetarian (because of religious reasons) ate fresh and prevented a lot of food wastage in our daily routine. We bought only the amount of fruits and vegetables that were consumable over the course of a few days. My grandfather was even against the idea of refrigerating the fresh produce and used to make daily trips to our neighborhood market for buying the fresh produce. I remember those trips till date including his bargaining with the fruits’ and vegetables’ vendors, who used to address him as ‘Uncle’, out of affection.

How  it is relevant today

Now we know that according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted! This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.

Growing up in a country like India, I have witnessed food being wasted (mostly in the cities) and people not getting to eat even one meal (both in the cities and villages) very closely. This year’s theme is more than welcome for a sustainability professional like me. However, the following key findings by the environmental action group Natural Resources Defense Council are a wake up call for all those who think that we are living in a food secured environment

  • 40% of the food never gets eaten and a lot of money is spent on the same.
  • Tossing one hamburger wastes water needed for a 90 minute shower.
  • Americans waste 10 times more than an average person in SE Asia.
  • 1/4th of the water in the US is used to grow food that is never eaten.
  • Food waste is the largest type of waste entering the landfills.
  • 10% of food in supermarkets is thrown out. This costs those supermarkets 50 billion dollars each year.
  • Americans throw away 25 lbs of food per person/per month. It is the equivalent of throwing away $170.00
  • We are wasting 50% more than in the 1970s.
  • The average cookie is 4 times bigger.
  • 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure.

These findings are startling given the magnitude of chid hunger and food insecurity faced by the country and the world as a whole today.

What can we do at a personal level?

Since the day I can remember, my mother taught us to buy locally and never wasted even a single food item in our household.  She used to fret over the spoiled milk and made Indian cottage cheese (paneer) out of it by using this neat trick. This is very common in most Indian households. When we had some leftovers (curried and others), she used to reuse them to create innovative Indian dishes (stuffed or kneaded chapatis/ paranthas, and so on). I continue to do the same now at my home here.

As individuals, there are a few simple measures that we can adopt in our everyday lives to address this problem:

  • Shop locally as long as possible
  • Do try to visit your local farmer’s market every other day
  • Try to connect with the local food bank and donate in kind (or in the form of goods) there if possible
  • Join a community garden and adopt a patch of land or land a hand there
  • Monitor your weekly consumption of food at home and then buy accordingly to avoid the wastage
  • Explore your neighborhood shops and ask where the produce is being sourced from to make more informed choices
  • Help the local businesses connect with the food banks in your area by spreading the information, facilitating the relationship building and other similar initiatives
  • Try to inculcate the concept of ‘waste not want not’ in your kids from the beginning.

I recently came across this great effort being undertaken in Mumbai, India to provide food to the underprivileged kids by the Dabbawala Foundation.

Efforts like these and many others shall go a long way in paving the path towards sustainable food sourcing, alleviating hunger and ensuring food security.

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