Fellows Friday with Sunita Nadhamuni

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Water and sanitation are among the most crucial issues facing India today, Sunita Nadhamuni notes in her interview with TED. But while these problems are daunting, Sunita says India’s many innovations in managing water can teach the rest of the world a thing or two.

Tell us about your water and sanitation organization. What makes it unique?

Arghyam is an Indian charitable institution working on water. It was set up by leading philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, and we began working on water and sanitation issues in 2005. The vision is safe, sustainable water for all. And our goal as a charitable institution is to support initiatives across India that help people get access to water for basic daily needs in a sustainable manner.

So, what’s different about the things we do? First of all, we’re probably the only Indian foundation that exclusively focuses on water and sanitation. The second thing is we do a really wide range of activities. On one side we are a grant-making organization: we give grants to a bunch of NGOs, we support about 80 projects across the country. But we also do our own R&D work. We set up actual research initiatives that we drive ourselves, we conduct surveys and we take up innovative projects in the urban space. So we do a lot of things apart from being a grant-making organization.

And because we’re young and flexible and independent, we have the ability to absorb risk and therefore take up more innovative work in this space. The other thing that’s kind of unique is a bunch of us in the organization come from very different backgrounds. We have people from the IT/tech sector, people from the NGO development space, people from the government sector and people with civil engineering backgrounds, so we have quite a diverse group right there at work. I think all these different perspectives add to our ability to look at problems in a fresh, innovative way.

Tell us about some of Arghyam’s projects.

Arghyam conducted “A Survey on Household Water and Sanitation” (ASHWAS) across 17,200 households in all the districts of rural Karnataka in 2008 and 2009. It is probably the largest ever such a survey done on water and sanitation in India. People from village level institutions and local citizen groups conducted the survey, and we made sure there were 1 or 2 women — at least 50% representation — in each survey team to discuss gender sensitive issues with women. To catch people’s interest, there were activities such as testing water quality and village group walks and mapping of sources and open defecation areas.

Some results were contrary to both existing data and to people’s perception. Water quality was a bigger problem than had been thought, for example, access to water was high, and people’s access to their local government was good.

One of our rural partners are organizing women groups to revive chaals or traditional earthen storage containers for water in Uttarakhand. Another group in Kerala is working to recharge open wells.

How do you decide which projects are most important for you to support?

There are a bunch of principles that are the foundation of most of the things we take up. One is community participation and community empowerment. Another is decentralization — devolving power, functions and funds all to the lowest level of government. Because we believe that in a democracy that’s what should happen, that’s where the service delivery will be most effective.

We believe in approaching water issues in an integrated manner. That means in both urban and rural water, looking at the entire water cycle loop from source to sink. It means managing the water from start to finish, closing that loop.

We also believe in building awareness and capacity, which goes back to building community participation. If you want people to be a part of decision-making in areas that impact them, then you have to start with building awareness and capacities at the lowest levels.

There’s a lot of push for going for large-scale, technology-heavy or engineering-focused big infrastructure projects, so we believe that they should be balanced and the sustainable alternatives — small scale, local, decentralized alternatives — should be explored and promoted.

These are the kinds of principles you would see in pretty much anything that we take up.

You’ve worked in a number of fields in your effort to give back to the world: education, community volunteering, disaster relief. Why is water so important and what led you to dedicate yourself to this issue?

One of the statistics from the government is that 33 million people in India are not officially covered as having access to drinking water. And the government’s definition is fairly broad: access to a source within half a kilometer. And we’re not talking about 24-hour supply of water, and we’re not talking necessarily about good quality water.

Fluoride is a big water quality problem. About 85% of rural India depends on groundwater for their basic domestic needs. And increasingly fluoride and arsenic and nitrates are becoming big water quality problems. More than 66 million people live in fluoride-affected areas. So they’re drinking water with excess fluoride in it.

More than 30 million people live in arsenic-affected areas, and that number is rapidly growing. It used to be in the Bangladesh/West Bengal area, but now it’s creeping into to other parts of India.

In terms of sanitation the coverage is much, much worse. 60% have access to basic sanitation facilities, but the number of people who have to defecate in the open due to lack of usable toilets or due to lack of understanding of how to use or maintain a toilet or the need to use a toilet … the open defecation numbers are much, much higher.

When I moved back to India from the U.S. in 2002, it was primarily to make working on development issues my full-time thing. After a couple of years of volunteering at another organization, Rohini invited me to come on board as the CEO of Arghyam. At that time it was still a generic strategic philanthropy organization. But Rohini literally had one inspirational moment where she said, “Let’s just work on water.” After a decade involved in development issues, this came to her as such a crucial area, and it’s going to become more central as we go forward. It was only after we started going deep into the sector that we realized how critical it really is. Now we’re very happy and convinced that we picked something very important to the country.

An Arghyam project trains people in North Bihar to use simple water quality testing kits

What is the biggest obstacle to safe and sustainable water for all?

I would say good governance, because water and sanitation services is the mandate of the government. In India, the state-level government has the responsibility to ensure that all citizens have access to water and sanitation services. A lack of devolution of powers to the lowest levels — either a municipal government in an urban area, or what’s called a gram panchayat in a rural area — the lowest level government doesn’t have the decision making powers or the capacities it needs. The demand in a democracy puts pressure on the elected officials, but the demand is not always strong because of inequities at the lowest level, lack of awareness and lack of education. So broadly, governance, which includes legal issues, institutional issues, platforms for community engagement and awareness issues.

How can a concerned person help?

Just like climate change and other environmental issues, we need to raise the level of awareness. Raise the quality of the debate that’s going on about these issues. Water doesn’t get as much attention as it needs to. Sanitation more so than water, actually. They need to be made much more interesting — I don’t want to use the word “sexy” — but they need to become a lot more catchy and people need to understand the gravity of the situation. As the overall awareness of individuals rises, I think that will lead to better decision making from the people who are in power.

Where can a person go to inform themselves about water issues?

We run something called India Water Portal. We got an invitation from the National Knowledge Commission in India, which was set up by the then-prime minister, and their objective was to see how India as a knowledge economy could use it’s knowledge powers to further develop it. So we started this India Water Portal, and we now run it in two other languages apart from English. We run one specially on sanitation and another one for school teachers and it’s the biggest website in India for water.

What is the good news on water and sanitation?

In India the sanitation coverage I think in the 80s was 2%. So the good news is right there. It’s rapidly gone up.

The drinking water coverage, according to government numbers, is about 95%. It’s very high, the only problem is that water quality problems emerge, which was not even a big issue earlier. Earlier it was just looking at coverage. Now it’s getting more nuanced and we’re looking at improved service and improved quality of water. So there’s been a huge improvement from the last three decades, when the government started giving priority to drinking water and sanitation.

We see enormous hope in so much innovation happening in this space. India is going through a very dynamic phase. We find that people are approaching these issues from so many different perspectives. There are lots of groups of people who are fighting very vocally and who are pushing for reviving traditional systems.

In fact, Anupam Mishra at TEDIndia gave a fantastic talk on the system of desert people in Rajistan. There’s a lot of push in trying to revive traditional wisdom and traditional ways of managing water.

The matka filter: pots of gravel, sand, charcoal and a sieve filter impure water

There’s a lot of work going on in empowerment of women. Which goes back to community empowerment and therefore better governance and better services. So there’s a lot of good work happening in self-help groups and microfinance and empowering women and giving them a voice and giving the poor a voice. All of which will lead back to better quality of services at the local level.

There’s a lot of work going on in using communication and technology to drive data-based decision making. Using those tools to improve service delivery mean a lot of exciting things happening in that space.

And then there are areas of decentralized water management. Looking at cutting-edge research coming from the premiere institutes of the country on how do we deal with the waste in a sustainable manner, that doesn’t require heavy, expensive, unsustainable infrastructure.

Because India is forced to innovate in some of these areas, we are able to look at not necessarily going down the path that the developed world has taken, and which now, in retrospect, seems like maybe it wasn’t quite the right thing to do. Big dams are being dismantled and we know that centralized water supply and sewage systems are not necessarily the best way to approach it, in terms of environmental sustainability. Many of India’s innovations in water and sanitation are going to result in solutions that are will show the rest of the world how to go about it.