Editor’s Note: This post is authored by Sanjay Banka, Director at Banka BioLoo, an Indian company that manufactures and promotes biodigester toilets for use in parts of the country where the lack of infrastructure prevents the use of more conventional sanitation facilities. In the piece, Sanjay discusses the development of the biotechnology used in the toilets and describes the successes and challenges that the company has experienced while working to improve sanitation in India.
Sanitation facilities in India are alarmingly poor with over 600 million people (half of India's population) having no access to toilets. This lack of access, coupled with other inadequacies in waste disposal, such as the Indian Railways’s open-chute toilet system wherein human waste drops on the rail tracks, poses health hazards, raises environmental concerns, and leads to water contamination.
To address India’s sanitation problems, the government, NGOs, non-profit organizations, donor agencies, development bodies, and the private sector have been working in their own way, often with very little concerted effort. The partnership between India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Banka BioLoo, however, provides one example of how cross-sector collaboration can work to provide sanitation solutions. Using technology developed and licensed by the DRDO, the R&D arm of the Indian Ministry of Defence, Banka BioLoo is working to meet the need for basic, easy-to-install and hygienic human waste disposal mechanisms in areas without sewerage and other sanitation infrastructure.
The DRDO had been grappling with the challenge of managing and treating the fecal matter of its defence personnel. After several years of research, the Organization developed a set of bacteria that “eat away” at human waste. Having successfully used these bacteria to treat the night soil of soldiers guarding the Indian borders, in 2010, the DRDO decided to extend the benefits of the technology to the civilian population by licensing the bio-technology to commercial firms. A host of businesses, including Banka BioLoo, signed the transfer of technology. Since then, Banka BioLoo has developed the necessary infrastructure to inoculate the bacteria and has built a business model that positions bio-toilets as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly sanitation solution.
Bio-digester technology treats human waste at the source. A collection of anaerobic bacteria that has been adapted to work at temperatures as low as -5°C and as high as 50°C act as inocula (seed material) to the bio-digesters and convert the organic human waste into water, methane, and carbon-dioxide. The anaerobic process inactivates the pathogens responsible for water-borne diseases and treats the fecal matter without the use of an external energy source.
The only by-products of the waste treatment process are pathogen-free water, which is good for gardening, and biogas, which can be used for cooking. Bio-toilets do not require sewage connectivity and because the process is self-contained, bio-toilets are also maintenance-free. While we explain the functioning of the system to users, no specific training is required.
Banka BioLoo employs a for-profit model in distributing its bio-toilets. This approach is consistent with the thinking that came up in discussion recently at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum in Amsterdam, where it was recognized that many households are able and willing to pay for good quality sanitation services. Unfortunately, many are being offered cheap and possibly sub-standard systems. As solution providers, we need to be wary of poor quality “solutions” and instead appeal to the aesthetic and aspirational needs of society. While affordability is certainly an issue, it should not come at the cost of developing a sub-par product.
While we strongly believe in the for-profit model to help ensure sustainability, we are also looking for alternate financing options for households that are unable to pay for the toilet outright. We are in discussion with government agencies and microfinance institutions to develop programs that would provide subsidies or microloans to consumers.
Banka BioLoo has also worked with charities and other development organizations to provide bio-toilets in underserved areas. In March 2013, some members of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), studying in Gitam University, decided to undertake a project to help provide sanitation facilities in Rudraram village, at the outskirts of Hyderabad in southern India. Using a combination of student efforts, input from family members, sponsored funds, and contributions from user families, Banka BioLoo, in partnership with EWB, installed five bio-toilets. In 2014, the project provided bio-toilets to 20 additional families. The student community is keen to develop a 10-kilometer radius around the university as an open defecation free area.
One remaining challenge in promoting the use of the toilets involves the perception among some Indians that sanitation is not worth paying for. Many are comfortable with defecating in the open. In promoting the bio-toilets, we explain the negative effects on the health and well-being of society -- particularly women and children -- that are associated with open defecation. As this understanding continues to develop in India, the demand for sanitation products, such as the bio-toilets, will grow. We are actively working in this direction, trying to provide economical and eco-friendly sanitation systems for all -- from the most marginalized populations to large institutions and corporations across various states in India -- while building up the good reputation of the latrine.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and India's Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council have announced the winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge: India.
Six organizations were awarded grants totaling $2 million to develop innovative "next-generation toilets" that can deliver safe, affordable, and sustainable sanitation solutions in India. A collaboration between the Gates Foundation, BIRAC, and the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology, the competition is funded by investments of $1 million each from the Gates Foundation and the ministry's Department of Biotechnology.
Announced at the "Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India" in New Delhi, the grant recipients are Eram Scientific Solutions, which, in partnership with the University of South Florida, will field test a solar-powered modular electronic toilet that is integrated with a mixed-waste processing unit; the Amrita School of Biotechnology, which will test the use of viral agents to kill pathogens and odor-producing bacteria in fecal waste; Pradin Technologies, which will test the viability of using ultrasound to reduce water use in toilets; the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, which, in partnership with Fresh Rooms Life Sciences, will develop a single-household container that uses human feces to incubate black soldier fly larvae, which can be processed into marketable products; the Institute of Chemical Technology, which will evaluate the concept of using fine sand-like material and an air blower to create a water-free toilet interface free of odor and flies; and BITS Pilani K.K. Birla Goa Campus, which, in partnership with Ghent University and Sustainable Biosolutions, will design a septic tank that uses electrochemistry to reduce organic pollutants and improve the quality of discharged effluent.
"Effective and comprehensive sanitation seems an impossible dream for India," said BIRAC chair K. Vijay Raghavan. "Yet today we see a congruence of new and applicable science and technology, its affordability, and sustainable implementation. This congruence is a great opportunity, which we cannot afford to let slip. By implementing effective solutions in each kind of social context, big problems can be dealt with in small units and be catalysts for scaling up."
The Gates Foundation also announced a partnership with South Africa's Department of Science and Technology to field test technologies developed as part of the global Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The foundation and DST will invest $1 million and approximately $2.76 million (30 million rand), respectively, in the effort.
"By applying creative thinking and new approaches to sanitation challenges, we can improve people's lives. And we have no doubt that these new partnerships with India and South Africa will help us achieve this," said Brian Arbogast, director of the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team at the Gates Foundation. "We believe that with governmental leadership, new business models, and innovation, we can dramatically increase the progress made in tackling this global sanitation crisis."
"Indian Researchers Selected to Develop Next Generation Toilets." Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Press Release 03/22/2014.
To that end, Water For People and One Drop will invest $5.8 million and $5 million, respectively, over five years to increase the scale and impact of their work. Those efforts, which are expected to reach more than 650,000 people by 2018, will leverage One Drop's expertise in sustainable program delivery with Water For People's local connections and experience in providing market-based solutions, comprehensive hygiene education, and district-wide water coverage.
"We share the belief that sustainability and economic empowerment are the foundation of international development," said One Drop CEO Catherine B. Bachand. "This partnership will demonstrate ways the water sector can collaborate to increase the return on investment of funding and, ultimately, achieve the mutual goal of delivering sustainable solutions at scale."
"ONE DROP and Water for People Join Forces to Develop Sustainable Programming to End Water and Sanitation Poverty." One Drop Press Release 02/27/2014.
Editor’s Note: This guest blog is authored by Chitra Choudhury, Manager for Natural Resources at Gram Vikas, an NGO based in India that works on a variety of development issues, including water and sanitation. In the piece, Chitra describes Gram Vikas’ model for WASH, which depends on 100% community participation, irrespective of caste or gender, and discusses how this approach is key to the sustainability of the organization’s programs.
The detrimental effects of poor water quality and hygiene practices not only on people’s health, but also on their productivity and economic life are undeniable. Designing and implementing sustainable WASH solutions has thus formed one of our main focuses here at Gram Vikas. Our organisation predominantly operates in the eastern Indian state of Orissa and since its inception in 1979, we have continuously refined our approach, taking into account the experiences made and lessons learned in the field to ensure that our interventions address the basic needs of the community in an adequate, sustainable and people-centred manner.
The result of these accumulated experiences is our ‘MANTRA’ model (Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Areas), an integrated development model that is based on the core principles of inclusion and social equity. We typically use water and sanitation concerns as an entry point before we branch out our development efforts to other areas, such as education, health, livelihoods and infrastructure. Strengthening and empowering the communities we work with to ensure long-term sustainability and maximum community involvement is also integral to MANTRA.
In India, caste-based discrimination remains a sad reality for many and accumulates in a strictly hierarchical society, where individual rights become subject to class, caste and gender affiliation. Access to water in particular is used as a means of reinforcing the caste system and perpetuating social exclusion. Members of lower castes are not allowed to use the same water as higher caste people, and often have to settle for distant water sources of poorer quality. As a result of such century-old oppression, these marginalised groups have internalised fatalistic worldviews and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness prevail among them. Even though caste discrimination is legally prohibited in India, it remains widely practised, especially among rural populations. Development efforts therefore easily get fragmented, reaching those of higher social status while the poorest of the poor – as so often in their lives – are left out.
It was under these considerations, that Gram Vikas conceived the 100% inclusion policy as a core aspect of the MANTRA programme. The principle is simple: we only begin our work in a village once all its members have agreed on certain prerequisites. Firstly, every household has to be covered – irrespective of caste, gender and economic status – and receive the same quality of service: a toilet, a bathing room and 24-hour piped water through three taps – one in the toilet, bathroom, and one in the kitchen. The water comes from a single common water tank, for which water is transported either through a gravity-flow water system or from open dug wells, depending on the local surroundings.
Additionally, all community members have to be represented at the village governance level. For the purpose of overseeing the construction process and implementation of the programme, a Village Executive Committee, comprising 50% women and representing all castes and economic classes proportionally, is elected. Inclusive of all voices in the community, this body becomes the democratic platform for joint village decision-making and endures even after Gram Vikas withdraws.
All community members further contribute towards the cost of the programme via monetary contributions to a village corpus fund and active participation in the construction works. For instance, 60% of the cost of the sanitation infrastructure is covered by the villagers, while the accumulated interest gained from the common village fund is used to link future households to the established WASH network as well as for the maintenance of the facilities.
In light of the deeply-engrained caste mentality, the process of getting everyone to overcome their differences and agree to these inclusive conditions is not always easy or fast; indeed, it once took Gram Vikas 13 years to achieve full village agreement.
Nevertheless, the strategy of using water and sanitation as an entry point and mechanism to unify the villagers, thus challenging the established social hierarchies, has paid off.
Since the inception of our water and sanitation programme, the incidence of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea and scabies, has reduced by 85%. School attendance has increased, particularly among girls. Women, who often had to spend hours fetching water from distant sources, are now able to invest their time in more productive activities. The positive impact of self-government and inclusive institutions at the local village level can also be felt: women and lower-caste members have often taken up positions of key responsibilities and leadership roles in the Village Committees; and through the process of experiential learning, villagers have realised the benefits and potential of their collective action, encouraging them to extend their efforts and continue to assert their rights.
Importantly, we feel that understanding the local context and incorporating insights gained by our staff in the field has been key to this success; and it will continue to play a fundamental role in the extension of the Gram Vikas initiative and our design of future WASH solutions.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has announced a search for a senior program officer for its International Program/Safe Water Initiative. The person selected for this position will provide leadership in international grantmaking activities and projects and will have primary responsibility for the Foundation’s Safe Water initiative. This person is a key member of the international program team and reports to the director, International Programs.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation works to improve the well-being of the ultra poor in targeted developing countries by supporting sustainable access to safe water. The Foundation focuses its grantmaking on the rural poor in regions of Africa, Mexico, and India with low water access and high incidence of water-related diseases. Over the past two decades the Foundation has delivered more than $90 million in grant funds to provide more than 2 million people with WASH services in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and water-stressed regions of India and Mexico.
Candidate requirements include:
- graduate degree in public health, public policy, social welfare, or a related field;
- demonstrated expertise and work experience in international water-related issues at program, research, and public policy levels;
- familiarity with water, sanitation, and hygiene policy at global, federal, state, and local levels;
- experience in strategic planning and implementation, and in coordinating public/private efforts for long-term, systemic social impact; and
- a minimum of 10 years of relevant experience in grantmaking and/or program development/management.
A passion for, and a commitment to, the Foundation's mission and international program priority areas are essential. Candidates must be legally authorized to work in the United States.
Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by David Winder, CEO of WaterAid America. In it, David discusses WaterAid’s work with communities in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and India to help them improve water and sanitation conditions in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. A version of the story originally appeared here.
The ongoing sustainability of the world's water usage is a hot topic. Not a week goes by without headlines announcing water wars, falling water tables or droughts. Water is a commodity in high demand by competing sectors (industry, agriculture and drinking water) and many people are seeking answers to how we might survive with a finite pool of it.
The ten percent of people worldwide who already live without safe drinking water don't need headlines to know that life without water is near impossible — every day they struggle for survival without access to this most basic of human rights. More often than not, they are without basic sanitation facilities, also causing disease and death.
But sparks of entrepreneurial spirit are shining brightly through the doom and gloom surrounding the global water and sanitation crisis, even in the most remote corners of the planet. Some of the world's poorest communities are inspiring us with their willingness and commitment to develop low-cost, innovative solutions to their water and sanitation problems. In many cases, these same solutions are bringing about even wider benefits for the communities involved, including improved health, agricultural and business opportunities.
Human waste can be a massive health risk — without proper sanitation facilities, diarrheal diseases such as typhoid and cholera are prevalent. In fact 2,000 children die every day from water-related diseases. But WaterAid is finding success working with communities willing to experiment with turning their human waste into a source of income and increased crop yields.
Urban slums are notorious for a lack of garbage disposal and sewerage systems, leaving residents vulnerable to poor health. But in the slums just outside of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, a women's collective is transforming the health and well-being of their community. With a little help and encouragement from WaterAid, this group of enterprising women runs a café, selling food cooked with biogas that is fueled by methane from human and other waste. In addition to offering healthy meals, community members are encouraged to take advantage of the café's toilets and shower facilities, which customers can use for a small fee. The café offers vital sanitation services for the community, and provides the women with a source of income and social standing.
The café has also spurred on other entrepreneurial activity. Twenty-four year-old Tigist started up her own garbage removal service, which has not only cleaned up her area and helps prevent disease, but empowered her to demand wages equal to those paid to men in her community. She's now earning ten times more than she was before, and is hiring four staff to help her collect the garbage. The garbage is then given to the café to use to help produce the biogas to fuel the kitchen.
In Niassa province in Mozambique, WaterAid is working with communities to turn their human waste into safe, renewable and highly effective compost. This compost is proving invaluable to otherwise poor farmers, who are now reaping the benefits of more robust harvests — and incomes. Known as ecological sanitation (EcoSan) or composting latrines, each toilet has twin pits. While one is in use, the other is sealed, and the contents, which are mixed with dirt and ash, decompose into rich compost that can then be dug out and used on fields.
Trials have shown that the composting latrines are significantly boosting crop yields. In one district in Niassa, the community saw unusually high rainfall, causing traditionally planted crops to rot. However, crops planted in soil mixed with the contents of EcoSan toilets thrived. The difference was startling. In fact, the maize plants grown with compost from the latrines towered over neighboring plants and fruit trees planted with the compost were the only ones laden with fruit. In another area of the province facing drought, farmers harvested a huge tobacco crop from a field planted with EcoSan compost, while nearby fields failed to sprout.
Similar innovations are revolutionizing poor people's access to water and helping them to earn a living. In India, where many water pumps lie disused due to ill-repair, WaterAid and local partner organizations have helped budding entrepreneurs to start pump and well repair businesses. These businesses ensure the sustainability of water supplies, while at the same time providing jobs to community members.
The mechanic training program in the district of Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh is a perfect example of this. In an area where 4,000 water pumps lie broken, WaterAid has worked with local people to set up a storefront and buy tools, bikes and water quality testing equipment. After training people from the community to become mechanics, including seven women, they started repairing pumps for any village willing to pay.
It worked. The mechanics have fixed over 300 pumps: pumps that help prevent disease, and that supply 30,000 people with fresh, clean water. What's more, the female mechanics have earned the respect of community members and feel empowered.
Such entrepreneurship is driving improvements in women's rights, prosperity, health and nutrition. Although small, these innovative water and sanitation projects are inspiring. In the face of adversity, communities are showing that a little creativity and the determined will to work hard to control their own destiny go a long way in helping escape the grips of poverty and providing a more secure future for their children.
Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Wherever the Need, a UK-based charity that develops and builds eco-toilets, discusses its Sanitation First project in Tamil Nadu, India. A version of the piece originally appeared here.
Tamil Nadu, on the Southeast coast of India, is considered to be one of the wealthiest states in the country, but behind the economic and industrial growth lies another story — one of acute poverty.
We have started to work with six of the poorest villages in rural Tamil Nadu. Not a single family in these communities has access to a toilet, which means that the local environment and water sources are polluted, spreading illness and disease. Diarrhoea remains one of the biggest killers of children in the region.
So what are we doing?
We are putting Sanitation First, and working to make sure every person in all six villages has access to good sanitation facilities. We are building ecosan (composting) toilets for each and every family within the villages.
Why is this innovative?
What’s new and exciting is that we are providing a sanitation service to maintain the programme. We are employing a care-taking team to empty the toilets and make sure the facilities are well-maintained and clean.
How do we pay for this?
This is the great bit — there is money to be made from poo! We store and compost the waste collected from the toilets, and sell it to generate income. This means that the programme is not just ecologically sustainable, but financially sustainable too.
Using this model we can support a cluster of 5-6 villages in one area. In due course we hope to roll out the programme to new areas and communities.
Initial trials have been so successful that our work has come to the attention of both local and central government in India. The Tamil Nadu State government is so impressed that they are subsidising the programme, providing 35% funding for every family ecosan toilet that we build.
Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, former country coordinator for WASHCost India, shares her insights into life-cycle costing, working with communities to collect WASH data, and other learnings from the WASHCost India project in response to our questions.
1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?
A critical issue standing in the way of successful community-based management of WASH services is the lack of technical, human, financial, and other resources in local communities to properly manage the water supply systems — even when governments do hand these over for community management. This lack of adequate operation and maintenance (including capital maintenance) reduces the life spans of these systems, and as a result doubles the investments required. This not only increases the costs of water service delivery (essential also for sanitation and hygiene) — especially in countries that can hardly afford to make such investment — but also affects the poor and the marginalized disproportionately.
The belief that local communities can manage on their own has only been validated by a few exceptions — islands of success created by NGOs or pilot projects, which have not been sustained when scaled up. Local communities do require timely and long-term support, both technically and financially, if they are to manage the WASH issues on their own.
2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.
As part of the WASHCost India project, we adopted a learning alliance approach where key sector stakeholders — especially policy decision-makers at the Water Supply and Sanitation Department in India’s Andhra Pradesh State — were involved in designing and implementing a five-year research project that aimed to embed research results for lasting policy influence. Since these key stakeholders provided the data on investments made and the research findings on services delivered, it was relatively easy for them to realize that skewed investments do not deliver equitable services. What I mean by skewed investments is the higher percentage of investments on hardware versus the lower percentage on O&M and direct support (i.e., costs for awareness generation and capacity building). Furthermore, investments were skewed towards providing infrastructure to benefit rich households with less of a focus on poor households. It was also relatively easier for stakeholders to understand the need to adopt a Life Cycle Costing Approach (LCCA) for resources allocation — with each cost component getting appropriate allocations so that the water supply systems delivered services as per design. We thus learnt that:
- Ownership by the key stakeholders in the research process (from design to results) is critical
- Quick dissemination of findings is essential
- Perhaps most importantly, this process requires time and champions
- Impact is slow but percolates into the system more effectively than the conventional research process of simply ‘presenting findings’ to decision-makers
3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?
It was a challenge in the WASHCost project to collect village-level data on costs and services, especially without written records. But the work in pilot villages to collect data through maps, graphs, and participatory methods (e.g., focus group discussions) — and to discuss possible solutions using geo-referenced maps — helped greatly. Villagers understood, perhaps for the first time, the importance of collecting data and using data to understand the relationship between the costs and services, and how using data can help them understand their village-level problems and possible solutions. Collecting cost and service data and discussing O&M-related WASH issues triggered community action in some villages to address these issues (although in some other villages there was only a passive reception!). Thus, while the process continued, it certainly built a sense of ownership and we hope it will be sustained.
4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?
Mapping water points and monitoring the functionality and service delivery of these systems by using smart phones are really exiting and can bring lots of improvement to the sector. The piloting done in the WASHCost project using these technologies to develop water security plans provided many insights into how many bore wells were drilled in the last ten years, how deep they were, and what impact they had on drinking water availability. I do accept, however, that while water point mapping and functionality mapping with advanced technological devices and gadgets are helpful, there has to be a support system to address queries and doubts and to resolve emerging problems quickly.
5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?
The IMIS database, created by the Indian government’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation to monitor and report on the drinking water and sanitation across the entire country of 1 billion people, is certainly an impressive achievement (even if the reliability of the data will need cross-verification in some cases). The India Water Portal and the India Sanitation Portal are of great use for people working on these issues as they cover all relevant national news on water and sanitation, from legislations and the latest research reports to tested solutions and case studies from the field. The WaterSoft system developed by the National Informatics Centre for the Department of Rural Water Supply in the state of Andhra Pradesh is also a stupendous achievement, containing detailed cost and technical information on the water supply infrastructure in all 76,000 villages across the entire state (which is 275,000 sq. km — larger than Ghana).
Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s technology, tools, and services, along with learning from successful pilot projects among Blue Planet Network’s global WASH members. It was authored by Silke Knebel, development director of Blue Planet Network.
SMS texting is today’s most widely used mobile data service, especially in some of the most rural and marginalized communities around the world. SMS traffic reached 7.8 trillion messages in 2011 globally. As text messaging has grown ubiquitous, so too has its potential as a simple, inexpensive way for NGOs to reach rural communities and address the global water crisis.
Professionals in the WASH sector understand that there are more mobile phones in the global South than toilets. The need for utilizing mobile technologies in designing sustainable water and sanitation systems is clear.
Blue Planet Network created its SMS-based reporting tool to scale the global efforts of its members. Operating across 27 countries, we connect NGOs, funders, academics, and community members to plan, implement, monitor, and collaborate on safe drinking water projects. We do this through our online technology platform, SMS reporting services, and peer review process. Our technology solutions empower NGOs to increase the impact, efficiency, and sustainability of their water projects.
Earlier this year, Blue Planet Network began a pilot of its simple SMS-based monitoring system in India. India’s population of 1.2 billion is made up of 929 million mobile phone users — a colossal 77% of the population. Blue Planet Network’s service enables communities, and our NGO member organizations equipped with cell phones, to monitor and report on safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, our network members can provide immediate assistance in the form of expert advice to remedy a challenge. Since deployment, 5 of our members: Ekoventure, Gram Vikas, Palmyra, Project Well and Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) have utilized the tool to increase the impact and sustainability of more than 13 water and sanitation projects across India.
Blue Planet Network CEO Lisa Nash explains that, “The challenge in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is that a great deal of attention is paid to project implementation — the new ecosan toilet, the new hand-washing station, or the new arsenic-free well. But unfortunately up to half of these projects can fail within the first five years — not because of poor implementation, but because there wasn’t enough thought about sustainability at the outset.”
Palmyra, a WASH implementer in the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu, India, has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2010 and uses our platform and SMS mobile texting services to improve their water program monitoring and analysis. Palmyra’s program managers send in weekly field status project reports via SMS texting. These messages are captured and uploaded onto our platform for peers, funders, and WASH implementers to view and monitor project effectiveness and impact.
Blue Planet Network has dedicated a staff person to work with each SMS pilot participant. We have learned that reinforcing communication has to be ongoing or it’s easy to see a decline in participation. We also had to ensure that our service could be viewed in English (so the entire network could learn) and in the local language (so that field staff and community members can add value and input).
“The power of SMS is the power to let anyone participate,” says Lisa. “We've already seen text messaging in fundraising, but now we’re seeing how it is enabling communities to take charge of the sustainability of projects and increase transparency across the sector. And this can happen anywhere in the world. Simplicity is power.”
Our SMS-based reporting tool will soon be deployed in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where arsenic and pesticide-laden drinking water threatens the health of migrant workers.
One million people in California lack reliable access to clean water; and 1 out of every 10 people living in California's agricultural areas is at risk of exposure to harmful levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a report released in March 2012 by the University of California, Davis.
In partnership with our member, Community Water Center, we seek to create a community-driven water solution to mitigate the threat of high levels of nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. The program will provide alternative water filtration solutions, sustainable support, and financing for low-income communities in San Joaquin Valley.
The San Joaquin communities receiving access to clean water through this program will utilize our SMS-based mobile texting service to ensure that their clean water system is delivered and used accurately, and is sustainable and economic to operate. When this program is implemented, over a thousand low-income San Joaquin families will be able to send in text messages about the status of their safe drinking water, a service never before provided in the region. We are thrilled to provide a simple, yet powerful service that could drastically change how communities engage in their water solution.
Blue Planet Network’s SMS-based texting service empowers communities to take charge of their water systems and allows entire organizations to learn and share efficiently. SMS reporting is scaling our efforts to impact greater numbers of communities with measurable need. We have much to learn to make this service even more valuable. In the next few years, we hope to launch our SMS texting service in all 27 countries so that all of our members can increase the long-term impact of their water programs.
Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Urvashi Prasad, program officer of microfinance and health at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Prasad highlights the intersections between microfinance and WASH, and discusses the baseline issues that must first be addressed for this kind of cross-sector work to succeed. A version of this story originally appeared on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog.
A recent CGAP blog post highlights an often unrecognized role microfinance can play in the lives of the poor: enabling access to critical infrastructure services like water and sanitation. As the post explains, the idea is simple. By providing people with low cost loans, microfinance institutions (MFIs) “grow water and sanitation assets and infrastructure at the city, community and household levels.” The approach works, notes the post, by “tackling one problem (access to safe water and sanitation)” through “a related yet critical bottleneck elsewhere (access to finance).”
At the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we view this work as vital, and we’ve supported efforts to link microfinance with water and sanitation infrastructure in urban areas across India. But our own experience in the field has taught us an enormous amount — not just about the potential of such projects to change lives, but also about the non-financial and non-technical complexities of successful implementation — and about the challenges of successfully encouraging people to integrate new habits into their daily routines.
What we’ve found is that to advance this work, organizations must be prepared to navigate and resolve at least three major baseline issues:
1. Lack of demand among community residents
From the outside, it’s easy to assume that communities that lack access to water and sanitation must be clamoring for it. Ready access to clean water would mean healthier kids and families, better attendance at school, less time wasted waiting for water. But that assumption is frequently incorrect. Even in urban areas where people are generally more aware of the importance of water and sanitation, our experience suggests that awareness does not necessarily (or easily) translate into willingness to pay for access to facilities. Why? Because although people who are not sick are able to work more (or if they’re children, attend school more often) and earn more as a result, there is no obvious, short-term income benefit connected to having clean water or a toilet. And among the poor, who face a struggle to meet an endless number of immediate needs, clean water and sanitation are often added to a long list of nice-to-haves.
Even when access is in place, behavior change often remains elusive. In fact “persuading the villagers to drink, and pay for, clean water,” might be the biggest obstacle to change, as noted in one recent article in the New York Times. The key to success of water and sanitation efforts is thus working with communities to create real demand for the services. Moreover, organizations must also monitor functionality and usage after infrastructure is installed. Clearly, health and other outcomes like productivity will only improve if people actually use the facilities on a regular basis.
The good news is that, if the work of building community demand is done upfront, slum families are willing and able to make the upfront capital investment — especially if it is payable in easy installments through loans from microfinance institutions. Better yet, engaging individual households in contributing to the costs of the infrastructure helps build a sense of ownership, which, in turn, mitigates maintenance issues.
2. Significant barriers to entry
Unlike traditional microloans, loans for water and sanitation must be offered in conjunction with a much broader set of services. These include not only demand creation, but also:
- Assisting communities with technical aspects of construction
- Liaising with the government for approval of household connections
- Ensuring appropriate end-use of the loan
- Monitoring functionality and usage of the infrastructure
Putting together a complete package to handle each of these elements can be quite daunting even for the most socially-oriented MFI. MFIs seeking to offer water sanitation loans should actively seek out a model that works within the constraints of their own operating environments. They might opt to build the capabilities in-house, actively collaborate with community-based organizations or otherwise offload some of these activities to a trusted partner. Grameen Financial Services Pvt. Ltd, for instance, has established partner NGO entities to handle crucial, non-financial activities.
3. Government support and subsidy
If the goal is to provide 100 percent of households in a particular slum with basic services, government programs that subsidize the costs of household level infrastructure are critical. The Slum Networking Project in Ahmedabad, which provided entire slums with a suite of basic services, is a case in point. The project required households to contribute a subsidized amount towards the infrastructure. The model depended on both household contribution (a key factor in instilling a feeling of ownership and responsibility for newly built toilets, taps and infrastructure) and subsidies, which eased the financial burden and enabled the participation of a large number of families.
Fifty percent reduction in water-related diseases
Given the complexities involved, is the effort to link microloans to water and sanitation work worth pursuing? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The cost of doing nothing is too high. Dirty water causes a host of diseases, and kills thousands of children annually. And with deliberate planning and a clear eye on managing through the intricacies at every stage, success is possible. In Ahmedabad, customer satisfaction surveys conducted by some of our partner organizations suggest that usage of infrastructure continues to be high (more than 80 percent) a few years after the facilities were constructed. An impact study (which included a different sample set than the survey) showed that incidence of water-related diseases, including typhoid, jaundice, diarrhea, cholera and malaria, as well as other stomach problems, had decreased by more than 50 percent in slums where households received both water and sewage connections.
Read the CGAP blog post that sparked this post “Microfinance for water and sanitation: An example of client-focused innovation.” Learn more about our work in water and sanitation.