August 20th, 2018
Written by: Charlotte de Vaulx
How are people in India improving their access to safe water? IGEL tackles this question in conversation with faculty member Arun Deb PhD, PE DEE, who has been working towards this mission his whole life.
With a professional background in water management at Western Solutions, Arun Deb has been actively involved in American Water Works Association’s volunteer organization, Water for People, since it’s 1993 inception. Working to improve access to safe water for drinking, cooking, and sanitation, Deb has found incredible success with his spearheaded arsenic removal and water access sanitation and hygiene projects. As he shares what motivates his volunteer work, Arun Deb highlights the importance of WASH projects in India as well as what it takes for them to be a success. Through his work, Arun hopes to help rural community members improve their social and economic opportunities.
Q: Arun, what first sparked your intense involvement volunteering for water and sanitation?
A:A life member of American Water Works Association (AWWA), immediately I became involved in Water For People (WFP) activities, particularly in the Pennsylvania Section of WFP. In 1995, I went to India and saw a newspaper article on severe arsenic in drinking water in the rural areas of West Bengal. After discussions with professors in the Civil Engineering Department of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (BESU) of Kolkata, I proposed a study to WFP to develop an appropriate technology suitable for villages in Bengal to remove arsenic from their water. By January 1996, we had raised $10,000 for this study and sent it to BESU to come up with an appropriate technology, including working without electricity. Thanks to BESU (now IIEST), now more than 200 villages of West Bengal have sustainable arsenic removal plants. The arsenic removal project has been internationally recognized and has received many prestigious awards from all over the world, including the American Academy of Engineers and American Society of Civil Engineers.
Q: How do integrated water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects such as your arsenic project help address water issues in India?
A:The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #6 of “clean water and sanitation for all” is a huge goal to achieve by 2030. In 1997, we started to build prototype arsenic plants in two villages. Going to villages and talking with many villagers, two issues came to mind: drinking water system sustainability, and sanitation and hygiene. In India, the concept of sustainability was almost absent, but it is very difficult to achieve sustainability without the help of communities and ownership. It involves communication, fellow feeling, and involvement of the community in the development of a village from the very beginning of a project. And for a long-term successful WASH program, the most important factors are sustainable health programs and education.
In our project areas involving many villages, the SDG #6 goal regarding clean water was already nearing completion – waterborne diseases are absent in these villages. However, the sanitation aspect of the goal was still far behind. Without good sanitation and hygiene practices in place, water safety cannot be guaranteed, as collected safe water gets contaminated. In partnership with the villagers, we formed a Users’ Association responsible for educating villagers on the dangers of arsenic in drinking water. These democratically-elected associations ran collection of users’ fees for proper operations, maintenance, management, education and communication. When I initially proposed the concept of a users’ fee to both local government and villagers, both groups were hesitant, believing that safe water supply is a government responsibility and should be free. After much convincing and a convened meeting, the villagers accepted our insistence that project ownership by the users is very important for project sustainability.
Community participation, local government support, and business involvement are all important in implementing successful WASH projects in India. In the villages, women were trained on various water borne diseases and how water contamination can be avoided with good sanitation and hygiene practices. These trained women then educated other women of the villages on the importance of sanitation and hygiene. 15 years ago our project also started to educate women to build latrines at individual homes with an ‘affordable loan to women’ program, but the problem’s scope proved too large. Over the last 3-4 years, the Indian government developed a very large-scale program to achieve SDG #6. Under this plan, the government subsidizes 90% of the cost building a latrine at each home, and the program is now nearing 80 to 90% achievement. Meanwhile, regarding business, in India there is a law that all industries above a certain size must spend 2% of its net profit in community improvement projects. As a result, companies are hiring local NGOs to implement school and community WASH projects.
Overall, WASH is key for full development of a community, and it would be very difficult to achieve the other SDGs without achieving SDG #6.
Q: Over the years, how have you come to measure the successfulness of a project?
A:In my professional life of more than 40 years, as a civil and environmental engineer, I used to think proper engineering is the key for success of a project. After working in these WASH projects in these villages, I learned that for a successful and sustainable project, contribution of engineering is about 20% and the remaining 80% is social, education, communication and understanding aspirations of the villagers. It is necessary to involve villagers from the very beginning of any project. If villagers do not want the project, it will not be successful. It is necessary to listen and understand their concerns and need to resolve their issues amicably. Villagers need to share the cost of the project for them to feel a sense of ownership, while selection of good local NGOs are essential for project success.
More objectively, success of a project can be measured by sustainability of the project even 5 or 10 years after completion. We can measure success with performance indicators such as a sustainability index, reduction of incidences of waterborne diseases, improvement of school attendances, improvement of health of the community and users’ complaints. In addition, there are many intangible signals. Once when I visited a village, one woman told me she pays 30 rupees per month for water while saving more than 300 rupees per month of doctor and medicine costs. Another woman told me that she now takes water from the village with her whenever she goes farther from home.
Overall, during the last 15 years there has been tremendous change in the health and hygiene of rural West Bengal, India. About 15 years back, only a few schools had proper WASH systems and very few individual houses had latrines. Now almost all houses have their own latrines and most of the high schools have their WASH systems. In some schools with good leadership, water conservation, and green technologies have been introduced in school curriculums on campuses. Nonetheless, there are still problems of sustainability and behavioral change of proper use of latrines and hand washing, especially since India has such as large population.
Q: Education has always seemed to underly much of your focus in your WASH projects, and now you are working specifically to provide educational opportunities to young girls. What does your current work involve, and how has it evolved out of your past projects?
A:In my opinion, health and education are the keys to success of any country, with human resources the best resource a country can have. If we invest in building good education and health systems, developing countries will prosper automatically and will improve quality of life. With this philosophy in mind, our team decided to push harder for health and education programming. It is true that if a mother is educated her children will also be automatically educated. If we can educate one girl, generation after generation of girls will be educated. Through women empowerment programs, I have personally seen the impacts of better health and education of young girls – it creates a better society, and these villages have changed their social outlook and economic development.
In about 2003, I met an NGO named NISHTHA run by a few dedicated women working to place women at the forefront of community issues. They formed a women’s group and an adolescent girls’ group in each village, and they worked to educate these groups on women issues while providing help starting small businesses so they could start earning their own incomes. Quite successful, the NGO now has around 30,000 women involved from over 300 villages which are very poor. In 2006, inspired by NISHTHA and with the help of three U.S. friends, I started a program to educate young girls in the four poorest villages. Most residents are illiterates and sending their daughters to school was very low priority, but as I started to visit and talk to some mothers, I found they were very eager to send their daughters to school.
We started funding education costs for all girls in these villages. While tuition costs are free up to 8th grade, other costs included books, pencils, uniforms and tutoring. Health of the children was checked annually, a library was developed, and extra-curricular activities such as music, dance and sports facilities were provided. NISHTHA workers went and conducted monthly meetings with mothers, and when the mothers saw that their children were doing well in school, they started to convince other family members of to support the program. As the project continued, all the mothers also promised to me that they would not allow their daughters to marry before finishing high school. This was important as early marriages are common, and they prevent girls from continuing their education.
Now after 10 years of running the program, 100% of boys and girls of these villages are going to school, 100% households have latrine in their houses and 100% of villagers have access to safe water for drinking and cooking. As a result, there is a significant increase in overall development in these villages. Now, about 30-37 girls each year are going to college after high school graduation. This has been an unprecedented achievement, and mothers are very proud of their children. Now these girls are contributing to the community and are on their way to becoming successful women and leaders in their villages.
Q: It is indeed an achievement that now 30 women per year from this rural community in West Bengal, India are pursuing higher education. As students here at the University of Pennsylvania work towards the same goal, how have you helped them engage with global water and sanitation issues?
At the University of Pennsylvania, Arun is on the board of the Global Water Alliance (GWA), an international NGO dedicated to addressing water sanitation and hygiene issues in developing countries.
A:Last year in January 2017, the 10thGWA annual conference was hosted in Kolkata, India. Among 175 participants from six countries, ten Penn students were in attendance, spending two days in the field visiting arsenic and WASH projects and two days in conference presentations and discussions. Beyond the conference, these students spent one week studying existing school WASH projects and then made recommendations for sustainability improvement. They completed independent studies, capstone projects, and presented for the conference.
In the future, students can participate in several projects. I am now preparing a list of projects GWA will be coordinating with the Penn MES program to develop students engagement projects in India. The following are the areas students can engage in water issues in India: school WASH projects, community WASH projects. women empowerment through water sanitation health and education project impacts on community economy and health, a study of the Kolkata Wetlands and its sustainability.
Arun, thank you for sharing your story and encouraging our university community to get involved. Your dedication to water issues has led you to some incredible work in health and sanitation, education, women empowerment, and more. Thank you for your insight regardinghow interdependent and complex these issues are, as well as how important sustainability and sense of ownership are for successful WASH projects.