Friday, 11 December 2015

When I arrived in Ahmedabad, India in the early Fall of 2015 to work at Sarvajal  I was by no means a WASH expert. WASH is development speak for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene and, according to the World Water Development Report (WWDR), “problems of poverty are, on most occasions, inextricably linked with those of water – its availability, its proximity, its quantity, and its quality.” However, beyond single-mindedly connecting it with my passion for women and girls’ development, I didn’t know much about the role of safe water in development at all.

I had accepted a job at Piramal Sarvajal, a mission-driven social enterprise that designs and executes innovative safe drinking water solutions. Sarvajal manages a network of community-level drinking water purification installations and works with local entrepreneurs to bring safe water to underserved communities in rural and urban areas. 
A Sarvajal employee as a part of community awareness program speaking with a local community member

Freshly thrust onto the scene after starting, I thirstily lapped up (forgive the pun) as much information as I could about WASH as a public health tool and about the current water management landscape in India. Elbow deep in UN studies, government reports, competitor analyses and Sarvajal’s own company records, I became a safe-water convert. 
Worldwide, more than 1 billion people don’t have reliable access to a clean water source. This is particularly a problem in developing countries, where waterborne  ailments account for 80% of disease and deaths. This causes an estimated 2% drag on developing countries’ GDP. Staggering right?
Two girls collecting water in rural India

The WHO’s Safe Water, Better Health Report in 2008 suggested that 780,000 deaths in India are directly a result of poor water and sanitation. It is estimated that 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases annually and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne disease each year.
The World Bank’s 2015 report Water Security for All: The Next Wave of Tools speculates that while 1.6 billion people currently live in countries and regions with absolute water scarcity, that number is expected to rise to 2.8 billion people by 2025 thanks to climate change. Yikes – cue more regional instability over a Mad Max-like struggle for basic existence!
But this is 2015! And this is by no means a new issue. Surely we have a sustainable solution already being implemented? To be fair, progress is being made: The Millennium Development Goals target for safe drinking water was met in 2010, and, on paper, over 90 per cent of the world’s population now has access to improved sources of drinking water. That caveat, “on paper,” is because several studies have shown this estimation to be overly optimistic; the reliability and consistent quality of these improved drinking water sources are sometimes diminished over time or even questionable  to begin with.
That is why it is dangerous to assume that the water problem has already been adequately addressed, or that investment here should take a back seat in light of other avenues; sanitation and hygiene, the other half of the WASH acronym have been the “trendy” areas to talk about of late and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boldly put sanitation and hygiene central to his governance agenda. This is very noble and necessary, to be sure, but should not come at the cost of safe water investment. (Water, sanitation and hygiene usually share a budget.)
  Indian women waiting to collect tanker water, which comes irregularly and at unpredictable times

Plus, investing in reliably safe drinking water isn’t just a matter of providing a basic public utility. Providing a conveniently located source of water saves women and children from the daily labor of fetching household water for several hours per day. With that time freed up, the children can attend school and the women can pursue other livelihood activities, earning a little extra income for the family to invest in education and savings. Drinking safe water means the family isn’t sick as often. As a result, less money is spent on emergency health care and fewer days are missed from work and school. In the long term, the nutritional and health benefits mean the community invests in the health and productivity of future generations. Pretty good bang for your buck, huh?

Alessandra with Sarvajal Water ATM

I’m still passionate about women and girls’ development. However, as a safe water convert, I passionately defend and promote investing in drinking water as one of the most straightforward, vital and resounding development investments. My work at Sarvajal is not separate from my work on women and girls’ development. It is through Sarvajal that I am helping girls stay in school and women invest in their families. (Stay posted for the second and third blog installments where I will illustrate just how tangible that impact is from my visit to several Sarvajal field sites!)

So now I’m on a mission to preach the gospel of clean water.  With a convert’s conviction  I’m crusading from within a pioneering organization that is making a difference in the lives of over a billion people each year.
----Alessandra Kortenhorst

[Alessandra is a Business Development Associate Fellow at Piramal Sarvajal. Find out more about us at Sarvajal]