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It was tough to convince rural people to buy water: Safe Water Network

Jul 07, 2016

Safe Water Network (SWN) is a not-for-profit working towards sustainable and economically-viable solutions to bring safe drinking water to the quality-affected regions in rural India and Ghana. Ravindra Sewak and Poonam Sewak, anchors of SWN, talk to OneWorld South Asia about the need of providing quality water with a certain price tag. Excerpts from the interview:

Ravindra Sewak

OneWorld South Asia: What are the core communities you focus on for providing safe drinking water?

Ravindra Sewak: We are a non-profit, so our focus is on poor communities, the ones facing water quality challenges. We initiate after the communities express willingness to pay a small charge of Rs 5 for 20 litres of purified water.

Ours is a demand based model and the willingness of the local community to operate and sustain is our prerequisite. We initiate once the Sarpanch of a village signs a Gram Panchayat resolution seeking intervention by SWN in their village.

Essentially, there is a tripartite agreement between the Sarpanch, an entrepreneur and the SWN. The entrepreneur is approved by the local committee or the Sarpanch.

OWSA: How is the community’s role different from that of an entrepreneur in running a plant?

Ravindra Sewak: The entrepreneur brings in the land for building the plant and fixed infrastructure like a water source. We provide them with equipment, capacity building and the maintenance.

Even a five or six year old plant works with less than two percent downtime. It means in a span of 365 days, the plant is operational for more than 360 days on an average across the 140 stations operated by us. We have a tracking system to ensure that the plants are regularly serviced.

Entrepreneur is a local person who wants to work. Initially, when we started in 2010, 66% of our installations were with community based systems. Today 90% of them are entrepreneur based systems. That’s because they come forward more willingly and they are more interested in making it work sustainably because there is some skill in the game and a person can make his living.

OWSA: How do these plants create sustainable livelihoods?

Ravindra Sewak: We are currently operating around 140 water stations in three states of Telangana, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. For 140 villages, we have created more than 530 livelihoods which translates to jobs for around 4-5 people.

The jobs are created for an entrepreneur, an operator, a distributor, a cleaner and repair or the maintenance staff. The sustainability of a water plant is strengthened by the people earning their livelihoods out of it.

We are grateful to donors like Honeywell, Ratan Tata Trust and USAID for supporting us in our endeavours of providing quality drinking water.

Out of the 530 people working at our stations, there are about 60 women working in different capacities. After the installation of water stations only 25% women are coming out, unlike earlier when 90% of women were collecting water.

OWSA: So, how easy it is to convince communities to pay for water?

Poonam Sewak: In 2010, I would go to 20 villages before two villages eventually agreed. That time the price was Rs 4 for 20 litres. In the interim, there was 60% inflation and but we raised the price from Rs 4 to only Rs 5 over a span of six years.

But in those times nobody was willing to pay. However, today we have a wait list of at least 20 villages at any given point of time.

In 2009, we mapped the whole country. In Telangana, the region plagued with water challenges, we found higher willingness of people to pay. Our model requires a reasonably large community of at least 500 households.

In the beginning, we commissioned a GIS based survey about 3 years ago for a village ecosystem of three villages. We found that drinking water is a very small portion of village ecology constituting just 0.3% of total water consumption.

We sensitize the village towards the need of clean drinking water. We tell them how to do water budgeting. We have developed and conducted sensitisation studies or training programmes for about 90 community leaders till date.

OWSA: What efforts have been undertaken for capacity building of people for maintaining the water quality?

Poonam Sewak: Working with the Government of Telangana we have trained more than 200 PHED engineers, chemists, microbiologists along with the Sarpanches in two districts of Warangal and Karim Nagar.

We train the local operator or entrepreneur for ensuring water quality. We provide them with instruments to take basic quality measures. Certifications from qualified labs are also demonstrated at the water stations.

We have also engaged key opinion leaders including the Sarpanch, Asha, Aanganwadi workers, teachers and doctors apart from the local community. Initially, we did flip charts in all the languages and then we converted them into tablet based programmes.

Our efforts have been recognised in the form of many awards including the Rural Marketing Award and the Classy Award. We have also showcased our work at International Stockholm World Water Week.

OWSA: Are you making any use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)?

Ravindra Sewak: ICTs are extremely critical for remote monitoring of plant functioning. We have also provided options for communities to pay through a smart card.

All the training programmes and data collection are digitised. Monthly financials for all the stations for the last 6 years are available in a digital form. It is with the help of ICTs that we are able to manage 140 stations with staff strength of less than 25.

SWN has also created digital tools which are open source tools related to water safety and monitoring quality at these stations.

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