Demystifying Contamination in Drinking Water – The Bihar Experience III

This is the third part of the series on experiences from the field in the Hindi heartland.

In one of the early visits to Bihar, some of the senior staff members of AKRSP (India) had set up a meeting with Dr. Ashok Ghosh, Professor, Anugrah Narayan College, Patna. He is renowned for his work on arsenic contamination of ground water along the banks of the Ganges in Bihar. He was all over in the news for a major finding of severe arsenic contamination in the districts of Buxar and Bhojpur in south Bihar. He suggested that we could try beginning with testing the quality of the drinking water in the villages that we intend to work. In yet another visit, we also went knocking at the doors of the Megh Pyne Abhiyaan, a network of civil society organisations working on the issue of flood resilience in north Bihar. They showed us around their work in north Bihar in the district of West Champaran that largely consisted of sensitising the community on revival of wells, as the water from the hand pumps were found to be unfit for consumption owing to presence of iron. We knew from our past experience that an organisation named Appropriate Technology based in Delhi manufactures mobile water testing kits – Jal Tara kits.

If this was information from the external world that informed the programme, there was a specific interaction with the community that triggered us to take a more serious and immediate look. It was one of the first few meetings with the first savings group at Pusa. Apoorva (Chief Executive Officer, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), India) was present and the discussion veered round to the situation of health and hygiene in the tola (Tolas are habitations in Bihar, like falias/mohallas in other North Indian states; typically about 12-15 tolas constitute a village and these are largely constituted by people of a single caste). We were told that four children in the age group of 0 to 3 passed away that year owing to diarrhoea and dysentery. Startled and rattled at hearing this, the decision to act upon assessing the quality of drinking water was taken at once and we procured kits from the source at Delhi and Dr. Ghosh shared with us his arsenic testing equipments. Thus decentralised testing of the quality of drinking water at source debuted as an activity.

Two major contaminants were discovered; iron and e-coli bacteria. Now this was not bad news because limited contamination of water due to the presence of iron does not have adverse effects on humans and bacteriological contamination is primarily due to contamination from the surface and not from below. It meant that the former can be ignored for the time being and the latter needed strong community awareness to be generated. There was a high degree of correlation between badly maintained hand pumps, what with water stagnating all around, acting as a breeding ground for many a water-borne disease and level of bacteriological contamination. Moreover, such ill maintained hand pump sites were common only in the dalit tolas.

Work began with a tola cleanliness drive, where under the aegis of the women’s self help group in the tola, a major cleaning up of the area took place followed by applying bleaching powder around sources of drinking water. This was just a mobilisation drive to get the people hooked on to the issue of water contamination. Construction of pucca platforms around the hand pump attached with a proper drainage outlet for the used water was taken up next for which user groups were formed. Once the people were convinced about the effects of not having maintained the surroundings of a hand pump properly, they readily co-operated by contributing both in cash and through labour in the construction work. This is one activity that has huge potential for scaling up and one that needs to be taken up at a war footing.

Cemented platform with a drainage outlet leading to a nearby farm land | Image Credit: AKRSP (India)

Another phenomenon that we observed in the tolas we visited again pertained to stagnation of water. Raised roads, karanjas (brick laden fair-weather roads) and plinths of houses ensured that the natural drainage of rain water was blocked resulting in its stagnation especially in and around the tolas, more so in the poorer ones. Evaporation seemed be the only process for drying these pools. In some of the tolas where this was noticed, it was also observed that the water from the hand pumps drained out into such pools thereby leading to year round stagnation. A way forward was possible only if there was collective action of the entire tola. A look at the interventions that are being made by us tells us the following:

(1) Agriculture – inputs are at individual level and the results are also accrued individually,

(2) Savings Groups – though a group activity, the saved money lies with the group and benefits again accrue through easy availability of credit again at an individual level,

(3) Education – keenness to see a brighter future of the children, again benefiting individually.

None of these calls for collective action at a tola level and where the contribution as well as the benefits are applicable to all the inhabitants of the tola – the gain of the collective is more than that of the individual; a la classical common property resource. Such an initiative was a first of its kind for the organisation in Bihar.

Das tola, Mohammedpur Koari village, where there are multiple interventions happening simultaneously was chosen. A broken culvert was redone, earth filling completed, a drainage line constructed and over and above that a common sanitation facility erected and all this with the active contribution of the community in cash and kind. While the efforts and the results are commendable, the process followed to achieve those needs special mention. Repeated meetings, allowing the community to be an active participant in the design and execution and above all initiating the work in a tola where other activities have been going on for some time have been the cornerstone for the success achieved. A note of caution is on the longevity of community toilets. These are early days and judgement on them at this point is best reserved for a future date. However, this whole micro-drainage work has the potential to be scaled up in a big way.

Building on the start made here in the Water and Sanitation sector, AKRSP (India) successfully bid for a four and half year € 1 million project titled ‘Water for Good Health and Livelihoods’ in late 2010. While work is under way on its implementation, a full-fledged water testing laboratory is also coming up in Muzaffarpur and Samastipur districts.

The earlier parts of the series are:

Part-I : Introducing a new farming technique in the Gangetic plains

Part-II : It's Easier to Save Now