Wednesday, 20 February 2013

"Water is life"

After an inspiring second day, the cultural experience did not finish until 2.30am. This was not intentional though - far from it! I returned to my room last night at 11pm to find a huge wedding celebration going on outside my room. The colours and music were vibrant and lively with flowers and rugs covering a staged area with people dancing and singing. Now whilst this was quite something to witness, after being awake 21 hours I just wanted to sleep! After a 3 hour power nap, I woke to an alarm, a knock on the door from Jackie and a phone call from Bex - better safe than sorry...

Once again we boarded the mini-bus, this time to make our way to the village of Jonhar in the Datia District of Madhya Pradesh. The journey we were informed would be a little bumpy - this was in fact a bit of an understatement! The Government had approved work to go ahead (I'm not sure when but looked to have been several years ago) and a contractor had stripped the road surface off. Due to the amount of rainfall and time which has passed this has caused the road to be full of potholes... And when I say potholes I mean casums! Imagine the biggest potholes you've seen and then make a motorway out of them!

So the journey was quite uncomfortable but very entertaining. We saw overturned lorries on the side of the road, a tractor towing a trailer so overloaded with produce in white sacks it had run a lorry off the road and into the verge and of course just about everything you could imagine walking down the middle of the road. After about an hour we stopped at a hotel for a short comfort break. Far enough out of the city now, the Indian landscape unfolded in incredible beauty. The hotel sat risen on the edge of a lake overlooking the surrounding area for miles. Opposite the hotel was a mountain with a large fort perched on top of it.

When we finally arrived in the village of Jonhar, we were once again greeted like royalty before taking a seat in the village square underneath a large tree. The village has a population of 1100, though it is a 1km walk to the nearby well to collect water for them. Coupled with this is an extremely poor sanitation status with sanitation not being a priority for the majority of the community - open defecation equates to 100% of the populace. The purpose of the WaterAid intervention here was to analyse water quality and security in the village and liaise with the Public Health Department to promote investment in a new, more secure water source.

Today it was my turn along with two others to be filmed by the WaterAid film crew experiencing first hand what water means to a family in the village. Dharmanda (29) was the man of the household we visited. He lived with his wife Sonam (22) their child Ayush (1) and 11 others in their house. Their livelihood consisted of four hectares of land which the family farmed for wheat, rice, grain and pulses. In addition they had a cow and buffalo. When we asked about the water source they use and how often they collect water, Dharmanda said they collect water 4 to 5 times a day. We followed by asking who collected the water, to which he replied "Sonham, it is her responsibility to collect water".

I took this opportunity to ask Sonham some questions. This was going to prove difficult though as time and time again the men of the family would try to speak on her behalf. Eventually, the questions were directed only to Sonham and the other people in the house were kindly asked to let her speak. I asked Sonham what the water is like and whether she felt the well was safe; "the well is there and so I assume the water is good, it is never tested". I then asked whether the well was always accessible; "yes, all year round". Sonham had been married for 5 years to Dharmanda, and when asking him what he does when Sonham collects water he stated he would stay at home and look after the children.

We continued to ask what life would be like for Sonham if there was a new nearer water source; "I would save time which can be used for working on the farm and spend more time with my family". As we had already been informed that Sonham collects all the water for the family, I asked her whether anyone had ever been sick because of the water; "for four months of the year there are various diseases - during the rainy season". I continued to ask her how she felt about having to give her child Ayush this water; "sometimes I feel very afraid".

I found Sonham's reply difficult to hear. As she continued to explain that everyone would get sick with fever, stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhoea it is hard to comprehend how she must feel as a mother to have no option other than Ayush water from this source. We finished by asking how much difference Sonham would find with a new source; "collecting water is tiring, I would save 5 hours in a day. I would feel very good with you more time and be less tired".

Sonham's last answer, to me, goes to show how water and sanitation education is so important here. The link between minimising and hopefully preventing sickness in her family did not seem to be made with the new source, possibly due to knowing no different but mainly I feel due to a lack of understanding of why the water was making them ill and what could be done to avoid this. We took this as an opportune time to ask Sonham if we could collect water with her and so were led down to the well about a kilometre away.

I wasn't quite expecting what confronted us when we got there. The well itself had a metre tall platform around it which, when stood on top looked down a 5m drop to the water. On the internal walls of the wells were bird and other wildlife as well as vegetation growing up the wall face. To collect water, you have to stand on one of the 6 ledges which precariously overhang the edge of the well and lower down a 15 litre stainless steel container on a rope. So we thought we'd give it a go. To stand on top of the well, you must first remove your shoes and socks - making the platform very slippery to walk on. Whilst doing this, I asked if anyone had ever fallen in - "one women yes".

To enable the media team to get some footage, we proceeded to lower and lift water from the well. Physically this wasn't easy as you have to counterbalance your own weight as well as the 15kg on the rope. After we had filled the containers we all tried to lift the two containers Sonham normally carries back and forth - this was about 35kg, the weight of which seems to ground your feet fixed to a position. The thought of walking a km with it seemed extremely difficult. Yet Sonham seemed to be able to with incredible grace and ease, putting the 3 of us to shame! Whilst down at the well we each shot an interview describing what we had seen that morning.

When I returned to the village I was invited to see the other well which is in use in the village. The second well was even worse. Whilst water is collected in the same manner, the drinking well was surrounded on one side by a small area of grass which had been flooded for a length of time, therefore retaining stagnant water. Just to the side of this area, was where all the animal faeces had been collected and dumped. A very shallow channel around the well is used by the villagers to wash their pots and clothes. The stagnant water in this trough was putrid to smell, with Matthew explaining this would be rife with disease, including Malaria.

As we had a bit more time in the village, I chatted with Asad and some of the villagers about the water quality. Asad explained the water was particularly hard in this area and saline. So far WaterAid and the local partner had carried out situational surveys of the village, the next step was to start promoting WASH (Water And Sanitation Hygiene) awareness and education. The education in its most basic description is to educate the villagers that water stagnation and livestock drinking from the same wells are risks to their water supply and to promote the use of toilets and a composting pit.

I drilled a little deeper with regards to water quality and asked Asad if the water supply had been tested for feacal coliforms. He said it had been and had tested positive. Unfortunately, a field test kit can only provide an indication and not quantifiable analysis, but my opinion would be this would be very high and even higher during the rainy season. The water test kit had been provided by the Government to the village with a person from the village having been trained in how to use it. Once a year a chemical analysis is carried out and twice yearly a bacteriological test. Asad wanted this to be increased to three times a year. This is a far cry from the advanced monitoring and sampling we have in the UK, but the most important thing which struck me was when I realised that they still had to drink this despite the tests results. I therefore asked Asad what happened when this tested positive? Asad explained that once this occurred it would be reported to the Public Health Department to get them to act on it. The other factors which prompt escalation in this way are if the water source is unprotected, if it is next to or exposed to feacal contamination or if there is nearby stagnation. Despite this though, the people of the community will still have to drink it.

WaterAid provide awareness in the village to try to reduce risks through risk assessing each source. The promotion of awareness and education for WASH is a deliberate and effective strategy; "investment in people - that's why government projects are not sustained - they are just investing in hardware, they're interested in the figures". Part of the problem is that the lowest tier of government are completely overwhelmed and therefore not resourced to make lasting change in this way. Asad told me how he had spoken with a health minister about WaterAid. The minister had asked him how many villages do WaterAid work in, he said four to five hundred, and hence asked how many villages in Madhya Pradesh - 1.5 to 2 million.

After a very thought provoking morning we set of for a post-intervention village called Kamhar. I was particularly looking forward to this visit as the post-intervention village we had seen the day before we had arrived at late for so didn't get to see it in the daylight. After another bumpy hour we pulled into the village, where the same amazing welcome was provided. Gathered in the village square, we heard the head of the village Water and Sanitation Committee describe how the project had run for 3 years of which the last year this had been run independently by the committee. The head of the village described how overwhelmed and happy he was that people had come from overseas to see them. He spoke about some pictures which had been displayed to form a timeline on the wall. The pictures showed what the village was like before the intervention, and the transformation afterwards.

Before the intervention there had been rubbish everywhere and no drainage system. The head of the committee explained how this had made dirty water come from the hand pump. He said "gradually people understood what they (WaterAid) were talking about and began to clear up the village by starting to collect rubbish from around the village with a team of volunteers who also disposed of it in a pit". "Children were taken out of the village and taught about sanitation and hand washing.  We also continuously train mechanics, and to have behavioural change, train women and children and youths".

The village can afford to train people now, as each household pays 50 rupee a month into a bank account owned and managed collectively by the Water and Sanitation Committee who's funds are used to further promote and advance water and sanitation in the community. The original well which was used to supply the village would dry up regularly or in the rainy season flood, allowing animals to graze and contaminate the supply. So with investment from the government and guidance from WaterAid to ensure a safe and secure supply, a new hand pump has been installed as well as a borehole drilled which could pump up the hill to a storage tank which would then gravitate
down into the village for an hour a day for the household to be able to draw water from a small external tap. Further interventions included installation of private latrines - 70% of the community now had their own latrine, with the Water and Sanitation Committee continuing to invest, and maybe the most interesting part for me, had built a small dam and spillway on an area of low lying land to produce a small impounding reservoir. This land belonged to a man in the village who had donated it to the community to provide a supply for livestock separate from drinking water and to protect crops from flooding by creating capacity for rainwater storage. Lastly, rainwater harvesting had been installed on every household to allow groundwater recharge.

The benefits to the village were clearly visible. The implementation programme which focuses on water conservation, provision of clean water, water monitoring and building community awareness had allowed the villagers to save time and live with a better standard of sanitation. I was pleased to hear how the community had supported the projects by volunteering their labour for construction in laying pipes and building the dam. Speaking with Matthew he told me how it was expected the village would contribute in this way for two reasons; firstly to reduce costs and secondly, but most importantly, so that they would naturally assume ongoing ownership to become self-sufficient. With the Water and Sanitation Committee now working effectively and having their own funds, ongoing operations and maintenance are paid for and organised by the committee.

I am coming to learn how powerful education can be, but maybe how removed from logic it is if you can never compare what you have to anything else. You could see today just how much the work WaterAid does changes people's lives for the better. The people we have met have been so very generous, but do not seem to have any expectation. They are simply very appreciative people have travelled thousands of miles to see and hear there stories so that this good work can enable these communities to help themselves as well;

"Thank you, Water is life, with water we can work" (boy in Kamhar)

Ps sorry this has been posted a little later than usual - had a few wifi problems

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