Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy

Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy

October 22, 2019 | Philanthropy

Organised by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and curated by Arghyam, ‘Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy’ was a day-long ecosystem convening held in order to bring together like-minded philanthropists and practitioners to deep-dive into solutions and opportunities for action at scale in water. The event kept in mind a strong solutions focus; with information and interactions that forged a positive bias for action in supporting scalable pathways to the water crisis. It highlighted the work of innovative water solutions, working on the themes of Community and Technology, and Governance and Policy, through three distinct lenses of access, quantity and quality of water.

The following twelve water innovators and practitioners presented their organisation’s solutions at the event through a crisp showcase.

  1. Aga Khan Rural Support Programme India – Video | Presentation
  2. Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation – Video | Presentation
  3. Himalaya Seva Sangh – Video | Presentation
  4. Foundation for Ecological Security – Video | Presentation
  5. PRASARI – Video | Presentation
  6. Goonj – Video | Presentation
  7. Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment – Video | Presentation
  8. Professional Assistance for Development Action – Video | Presentation
  9. Watershed Support Services and Activities Network – Video | Presentation
  10. Drinkwell Systems – Video | Presentation
  11. People’s Science Institute – Video | Presentation
  12. Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination Society – Video | Presentation

A graphical representation of the presentations and the distilled learnings and key insights from them are below:

Arghyam’s presentation and video on “Re-Imagining Capacity Building at Scale”

Ahead of the event, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Arghyam and Sattva curated a report that focuses on water solutions, and the role philanthropy can play in their acceleration. The report features solutions that focus on community empowerment, technology-enablement and effective governance, which are critical levers for achieving scale and sustainability in improved water access, safety and security. It also profiles 24 water innovators and practitioners and can be read here.

IDR has published a conversation with Himanshu Kulkarni and Uma Aslekar of Advanced Centre for Water Resources and Development (ACWADAM) where they discuss our poor understanding of groundwater, which impacts both policy and practice.

पानी की समस्या के समाधान को समाज दिखाए राह

पानी की समस्या के समाधान को समाज दिखाए राह

June 22, 2019 | Water

जिम्मेदारी… पुरानी परंपराओं और नए विचारों का उपयोग कर, सरल तरीकों से पानी का संरक्षण कर सकते हैं

अमेरिका में एक पर्यावरण एनजीओ सिएरा क्लब के संस्थापक जॉन मुइर ने कहा था कि जब हम किसी चीज को दुनिया से अलग करने की कोशिश करते हैं, तो पता चलता है कि वह किसी न किसी रूप में दुनिया की बाकी सभी चीजों से जुड़ा हुआ है। अगर हम पानी की बात करें तो यह भी कुछ ऐसा ही है। जिस भी पानी को हम छूतेे हैं, जो भी पानी हम उपयोग करते हैं, वह संसार में मौजूद हर तरह के पानी से जुड़ा होता है। चूंकि पानी ग्रह पर खुद को रीसाइकल करता रहता है, इसलिए हम वही पानी पी रहे हैं जो लाखों साल पहले डायनासोर पिया करते थे। पानी न घटता है, न बढ़ता है, बस रूप बदलता रहता है।

हम मानसून का उत्सुकता से इंतजार कर रहे हैं, उसे ट्रैक करते हैं, क्योंकि यह हर साल कई तरीकों से हमारे भाग्य का फैसला करता है। भारत में जल संकट अब हमारे भविष्य के लिए सबसे बड़े खतरों में से एक बन चुका है। हालांकि दूसरे देशों की तुलना में भारत एक जल समृद्ध देश है। हमारे यहां औसतन हर साल 4000 बिलियन क्यूबिक मीटर के करीब बारिश होती है। लेकिन एक समस्या यह है कि इसका आधे से कम इस्तेमाल लायक होता है। बाकी हिमालय में बर्फ के रूप में रहता है, या फिर जमीन की गहराई में चला जाता है। दूसरी बात यह है कि हमारी आबादी पिछले 70 वर्षों में 30 करोड़ से बढ़कर 130 करोड़ हो गई है, इसलिए प्रति व्यक्ति का पानी का हिस्सा कम हो गया है। पैमाने के हिसाब से आबादी पानी की कमी का अनुभव तब करती है जब आपूर्ति प्रति व्यक्ति 1000 क्यूबिक मीटर से कम हो जाए। हम जल्द ही यहां तक पहुंच जाएंगे, जबकि कई जिलों में पहले से ही पानी की यह स्थिति बन चुकी है। लेकिन भविष्य उतना डरावना नहीं होना चाहिए। सच तो यह है कि हमारी बहुत सी समस्याएं जल संसाधनों की बेतरतीब शासन प्रणाली की वजह से ही हैं। और हम यह बदल सकते हैं।

हम सब जानते हैं कि प्रमुख मुद्दे कृषि नीति से जुड़े हैं। उपलब्ध पानी का करीब 80% से अधिक भोजन और गैर-खाद्य फसल उत्पादन में जाता है, लेकिन हमारी उत्पादकता पानी की प्रति बूंद के हिसाब से कम है। हमें कम जमीन का इस्तेमाल करते हुए पानी की हर बूंद से और ज्यादा फसल उगाने की आवश्यकता है। सिर्फ तीन फसलें, चावल, गेहूं और गन्ना अत्यधिक पानी खींचते हैं। अगर हम खाद्य सुरक्षा से समझौता किए बिना इस मुद्दे को हल करें, तो लोगों के रोजमर्रा के इस्तेमाल, शहरीकरण के लिए, उद्योग और ऊर्जा उत्पादन के लिए बहुत अधिक पानी बचेगा। आम जनता सोचती होगी कि इससे हमारा क्या लेनादेना? यह मामला तो राजनेता, सरकारी अधिकारी और सेक्टर के विशेषज्ञ ही संभाल सकते हैं। लेकिन इसके बावजूद हम नागरिक अपनी ओर से पानी बचाने का प्रयत्न करते रहते हैं। हम पुरानी परंपराओं और नए विचारों का उपयोग करते हुए, सरल तरीके से पानी का संरक्षण कर रहे हैं। हम नहाते वक्त या घर में साफ-सफाई के दौरान पानी बचाने की कोशिश करतेे हैं। आजकल हमने बोतलबंद पानी का उपयोग करने से पहले भी दो बार सोचना शुरू कर दिया है। एेसी हर पहल महत्वपूर्ण है। खासकर, एक ऐसे देश में जो अमीर होता जा रहा है और अधिक खपत कर रहा है। ऐसे में हम अपनी सावधान रहने वाली सांस्कृतिक नैतिकता को खोने का जोखिम नहीं उठा सकते। पुराने मूल्यों को सराहा और संरक्षित किया जाना चाहिए, लेकिन उन्हें और भी नए क्षेत्रों में विस्तारित करने का समय आ गया है। यदि चावल, गेहूं और गन्ना ऐसी फसलें हैं जो अधिकतम पानी लेती हैं, तो हम एक संतुलन को बहाल करने के लिए व्यक्तिगत स्तर पर क्या कर सकते हैं?

पारंपरिक तौर पर जो हमारा खानपान रहा है नए शोध भी उसे सही ठहरा रहे हैं। जैसे प्रोसेस्ड चावल की तुलना में ज्वार-बाजरा ज्यादा बेहतर होता है और कुछ लोगों को गेहूं हजम नहीं होता। जबकि चीनी को तो अब जहर के समान ही माना जाता है। ये अच्छा संयोग है कि हमारे स्वास्थ्य के लिए फायदेमंद फसलें कम पानी में तैयार हो सकती हैं। जो लोग अपने शारीरिक स्वास्थ्य के प्रति बहुत सचेत हैं, वे तीन सफेद चीज, चावल, मैदा और चीनी से पूरी तरह से बचते हैं। उच्च रक्तचाप, मधुमेह और मोटापे जैसी कई बीमारियां इन खाद्य पदार्थों के ज्यादा इस्तेमाल करने से जुड़ी हुई हैं। फिर भी हमारी सरकार सार्वजनिक वितरण प्रणाली के माध्यम से इन तीनों वस्तुओं को अत्यधिक रियायती मूल्य पर बेचती आ रही है। जिन लोगों को राशन का मासिक बजट बहुत सावधानीपूर्वक खर्च करना होता है उनके पास इन चीजों को खरीदने और इनका उपयोग करने के अलावा बहुत कम विकल्प होते हैं। यह गरीबों के साथ बहुत नाइंसाफी है और इसे बदलना ही होगा। कर्नाटक जैसे राज्य राशन की दुकानों में इन अनाजों के साथ-साथ रागी और कांगनी उपलब्ध कराने की कोशिश कर रहे हैं। इस कोशिश को और आगे तक ले जाने की जरूरत है, लोगों के स्वास्थ्य के लिए भी और पानी की भारी बचत के लिए भी। कई परिवार पहले से ही ऐसा करने लगे हैं। रागी, ज्वार और बाजरा से स्वादिष्ट खाना पकाने के लिए प्रतियोगिताएं भी होती हैं जो युवाओं को आकर्षित कर रही हैं। आजकल माएं चाहती हैं कि स्थानीय, मौसमी उत्पाद और सब्जियां सुरक्षित रूप से उगाई जाएं और वे हार्मोन और कीटनाशक मुक्त दूध का उपयोग कर सकें।

जब हम फूड स्मार्ट होते हैं, तो हम अक्सर वॉटर स्मार्ट भी होते हैं। हां, हम सभी कभी-कभार पिज्जा, समोसा और फ़िज़ी ड्रिंक पसंद करते हैं, लेकिन मध्यम वर्ग ने थोड़ा बदलाव करना शुरू कर दिया है। लाखों लोगों द्वारा किए गए छोटे परिवर्तन मिलजुलकर बहुत बड़ा प्रभाव डाल सकते हैं। कौन जाने कृषि नीति को राजनेता और अधिकारियों के एक्शन के लिए कितना इंतजार करना होगा। तब तक हम खुद भी कुछ कर सकते हैं। यही सही वक्त है। खुद को सुरक्षित और पर्याप्त पानी मुहैया कराने की जिम्मेदारी लेने का।
जैसा मुईर ने कहा था, हर कुछ, सबकुछ से जुड़ा हुआ है। हमारी व्यक्तिगत जीवन शैली और भोजन के विकल्प जल संकट पर व्यापक रूप से प्रभाव डाल सकते हैं। कभी-कभी हम नागरिकों को पहल करनी होती है, रास्ता दिखाना होता है। और फिर कई बार सरकार और बाजार को भी इसी रास्ते पर चलना पड़ता है।

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The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

May 10, 2019 | Environment

For its entire 124 kilometres, this jewel of a river flows free. It is probably as old as the Western Ghats, older than the Himalayan range. Though not especially long, this west flowing river has a volume of water equal to the bigger Kali or Sharavathi rivers nearby. It originates in Shankara Honda in the town of Sirsi and meanders clean and clear through gorges, unique swamps, ancient forests and agricultural fields, till it flows to the Arabian Sea at Kumta, in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. Its forest floors are carpeted by bioluminescence, its estuary is rich with bivalves, crabs and mangroves harbouring dozens of varieties of fish.

Because of its gradient, it is the site of many spectacular waterfalls, like the Unchalli Falls, near which, on a full moon night in winter, you might even glimpse a moonbow – a rainbow generated from the moonlight. This is the river Aghanashini – ‘the cleanser of sins’.

This peninsular river is unique, because it is free flowing, unpolluted and retains its millennia old natural course. Most rivers in India are not free; they are dammed, or forced into channels. Others have just given up because their catchments have been destroyed; their drainage paths encroached upon. Most of our rivers do not even reach the sea anymore. Yet the hydrological cycle and the monsoon depends on rivers flowing to the ocean. A prevalent hydro schizophrenia refuses to acknowledge this reality, and we continue to build infrastructure along our rivers.

For the lakhs living along its banks, the Aghanashini has given people life and livelihoods. Even today, around 2 lakh households are directly dependent on the estuary, famed for its protein rich bivalve, crab and shrimp harvest. For the thousands of pilgrims that come to its many sacred spots, the river offers spiritual solace. For the growing number of tourists and researchers, the Aghanashini tract offers unique sights. Its sacred groves where trees have never been felled, its dense mangroves, its endangered lion-tailed macaque that came 5 million years ago, its tribal populations like the Halakkis that keep the Yakshagana art form alive; its appemidi wild mangoes that make the best pickles; its salt and pest resistant kagga rice – the list is endless.

Periodically, infrastructure is planned along this free flowing river of peninsular India. Once, industrial salt production was tried and abandoned. Then came a hydroelectric project, a thermal power plant, a port and a scheme to divert the river water for faraway towns.

People poured out in strong and sustained protests; people from every walk of life – ecologists, spiritual leaders, and fisher folk. The plans were shelved. The river ran free.
Now, a mega all weather port is once again imagined at its estuary, as part of Sagarmala. This port, which will expand the existing small Tadri port, will be built at an expense of about Rs 40,000 crore.

Karnataka already has 13 ports along its 300 km coastline, out of which one, Mangaluru, is a major port handling the bulk of shipments to and from the state. It is not clear on what basis the state expects Tadri port to be viable when nearby ports remain underutilised.

Just 25 km north is the Belekeri port, which was used to export iron ore and import coal before the industry collapsed. Just 25 km south is the Honnavar port, with a recorded maritime history going back centuries. Both these are well connected through the Konkan railway line and NH-17.

While it is unclear whether this port will ever be economically viable, environmental clearances have speeded up, with the usual contestations over what the reports left out in terms of the natural wealth of the region, and what would be lost through the creation of this port.

Meanwhile, the economic and future proofing opportunities created by the river and its catchments have not been properly documented. With its extreme natural beauty, just the potential of eco-tourism, if properly handled, could yield substantial revenue. The Western Ghats together with the sand and mangroves at the estuary are also effective carbon sinks. They provide untold ecosystem services in the region, including flood and erosion prevention.

If the port is built, it will require extensive dredging, as the current water depth is hardly two metres at the estuary. For ships to dock, it will have to be dredged up to almost 20 metres, releasing a vast amount of carbon rich soil and sand. Who will benefit? We often destroy ecology-based livelihoods in the name of employment creation. Who will be accountable when the marine production drops, as has been the experience at ports close by?

Economic discipline requires an ecological discipline as well. If we go ahead with each and every port designed for the Sagarmala project, we may create stranded assets and waste billions of dollars in underutilised infrastructure. Exactly the same result is visible in the Himalayas where dam after dam was built without making a holistic, scientific assessment of the total impact on the land and the economy.

In this great nation of saints and poets, public administrators and ingenious architects, has our national and local imagination shrunk so much that we cannot leave the last major free flowing river of peninsular India alone, for future generations to explore, enjoy and benefit from? Let the Aghanashini flow with Aviral, Nirmal Dhara.

Times of India

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Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

February 9, 2019 | Uncategorized

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk, but water is in some parts of India today more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting. NIITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. Where do we stand? How can water sharing disputes like the Cauvery problem be really overcome? Where can we go from here? How can communities, technologies or business models solve the problem or not? How can corporate, policymakers, NGOs and individuals contribute constructively.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Mihir Shah at Knowledge Factory, 2019 held in Bangalore.

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk. But in some parts of India today, water is more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting, and NIITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. So how do communities, policymakers, and corporates create constructive solutions to this problem?

The Relationship Between Rivers and Cities

When we talk about reforming policy or making a change which would actually impact people positively on the ground, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, which Dr. Shah, with his experience on the planning commission and his work in Samaj Pragati Sahyog, puts succinctly. The first is to be in a position to reform government systems and processes, because we cannot solve problems like water without involving the government. While drafting the 12th Five Year Plan for India’s water policy, Dr. Shah was able to appoint experts from outside the government to head the working groups in the Planning Commission, such as Tushar Shah and Sunita Narayan.

This is one sort of model if we are to re-imagine the relationship of rivers and our urban settlements, where we create working groups, bringing together elements of the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. You cannot solve complex societal issues without reducing the friction to collaborate between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, and this example shows us the way forward. We know that the Bazaar has a lot of innovation, including technological innovations to offer the water sector and I think we’ve not deployed enough of those. From the Samaaj side, sometimes there has been a resistance to using technologies but I think the time has come when we seriously need to look at many new technologies which need the Bazaar’s active involvement to put them out into the world, with policy support from the state.
With these working groups that were set up under the Planning Commission, there was a paradigm shift in water management governance as well. As Dr. Shah points out, we applaud higher rates of growth, but do not realise that these cannot be sustained unless we also take care of the larger ecosystem, the ecology that is sustaining this process of economic growth.

For example, if we look at the relationship between cities and rivers, there is an engineering cliché, that rivers which flow into the sea are a waste and they should be dammed to bring water to the cities around it. But if we remember the lessons on the hydrological cycle that we learnt at school, we would know that it doesn’t make any sense not to allow rivers to flow into the sea. Many of our rivers today are not reaching the sea and that’s going to have serious consequences on the hydrological cycle and the monsoon patterns over time. To say that we are wasting water when we let it go into the ocean is ignoring very basic science that we learnt in third grade.

Instead we are redirecting rivers to our cities, encroaching on the drainage lines which means encroaching on the channels through which these rivers are flowing themselves. If the water is not allowed to flow through its natural course, when heavy rainfall or climate change events arise, we then face problems of urban flooding. Life and livelihood on the subcontinent could be deeply threatened. So if we don’t understand ecology and how to sustain our rivers, then we are already dooming ourselves, and our cities.

A Problem of Imagination

The situation in Bangalore is particularly interesting because we bring water from the Kaveri at great expense and at a great energy cost. We actually pump up the water from a great distance, but so many of us in the city take the Kaveri for granted. We don’t think about who is being deprived of that water by this relocation, and instead we use it, pollute it, fail to treat it, and then we send it off, creating a lot of negative downstream impact because of that.

ATREE, an organisation that I support, has been doing a lot of work on the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – two rivers that were tributaries of Kaveri, that were flowing through our city. Vrishabhavathi originates from the bull-temple itself, and the Dakshina Pinakini is not far from the city, originating in the Nandi Hills. There are lot of people trying to understand how can we revive these rivers and drive back the Kaveri because Bangalore does have enough rain and lakes, and we would also have rivers if we are able to rejuvenate them. We really don’t need to bring Kaveri water to feed this thirsty city. But as of now, the Vrishabhavathi is nothing but a drain. The imagination of citizens with their rivers is destroyed, so we have no relationship with the idea of a river anymore. Nobody remembers a healthy flowing river in this city anymore, which is a real pity. But imagine if we could bring back these three rivers, the Dakshina Pinakini, the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – that would mean so much.

Some of the research that conducted at ATREE showed that one of the reasons why the Arkavati is not flowing anymore is because there has been so much groundwater pumping in an unrestricted fashion, which is affecting the base flow of rivers. In India we have un-channelled groundwater regime, and so our river flows are getting seriously affected because people are sucking groundwater from anywhere, without any regulation. Usually, after the monsoon, these rivers gain water from the groundwater basin. However, since groundwater has been extracted, deeper and deeper, the water now flows from the river into the ground, which results in them losing water and eventually drying up.

As Dr. Shah notes, we need policy changes as well as a people’s movement to protect our water. This work cannot be achieved by the government alone, citizens also need to understand the management of groundwater. As of now, the government has initiated the Atal Bhujal Yojana as part of the 12th Five Year Plan, with six thousand crores (three given by the World Bank). However, along with cooperation from bureaucrats and hydrogeologists, we need the citizens, who are the primary stakeholders, to come together. The dissemination of this information to people who are actually using this groundwater will ensure that they use it sustainably. This kind of an interdependent solution will not only save cities the expense of pumping water from other rivers like Kaveri, but will also revive their own rivers and lakes. Without this kind of cooperation and shift in thinking, we will continue to make the same mistakes.

So we need to focus on local solutions which are reviving lakes, roof-water harvesting, managing the groundwater more sustainably, and using waste water more creatively. Waste water is another problem, as Dr. Shah mentions, because water quality is becoming a very serious issue in India. Unless we are able to recycle water and make it of the requisite quality, we are causing a great deal of ecological damage. Our cities only imagine treatment plants at the ends of its bounds, but actually they need to be throughout the city so that clean water is being returned to the storm water drains. We can see successful examples of this in Jakkur and small towns where, instead of making the same outmoded mistakes, we are able to bring in 21st century technologies to treat waste water. So it’s a question of breaking down the pure engineering paradigm, understanding the power of decentralisation, and keeping an interdisciplinary, ecology-based, landscape-oriented design.

We Need to Work Together

If we look at urban governance in India, we can see clearly that our current model does both our cities and rivers a disservice. Even in a powerful place like Delhi, the Yamuna is nothing but a drain. It’s the most polluted stretch of river imaginable, which is surprising when you consider that there is no lack of money, and that our nation’s capital should be setting an example of how to look after our rivers. But unfortunately, we have not empowered our cities at all, in terms of how they are run, who elects the mayors, how long the mayors are empowered to do their job, or how they can raise financing to do intra-city projects. It’s these things that also allow citizens to be directly in contact with a responsive and accountable administration. I think Bangalore is also suffering for the same reasons, because we do not have the right governance institution for urban management.
Many countries in Europe show how a decentralised, accountable governance model actually has the capacity to raise capital for things like this. A lot of us take hope from the situation of the River Thames. In the ‘60s, it was a biologically dead river, but the city got its act together and today the River Thames in London is the cleanest river in Europe. There are 125 species of fish in it now, and we can see how rivers and biodiversity ecosystems are so inextricably linked. It’s a question of imagination as well. Can we imagine Bangalore with two rivers flowing, with clean, treated water feeding those rivers? I want to imagine our lakes being revived because we collectively did the work of reviving them. I think we should strive for that imagination.

When I went to Uttarakhand with Ravi Chopra of People Science Institute, we visited 16 river valleys, and it was heart-breaking to see how the dams were built back-to-back and to serve far away cities. Rivers that were so full of life became slowly choked, until you reach Delhi. We need to realise that we cannot afford this. As Dr. Shah said, the economy rests on the base of the ecology and if we forget that connection, we’re not going to be able to have the sustainable growth that is necessary to lift the remaining 300 million people out of poverty in this country. We need to view water in a multi-disciplinary manner, in a cross-disciplinary manner and with multiple stakeholders all coming together, sitting across the table with mutual respect for each other.

So we need to create a citizen movement, to put pressure on our politicians. Without water, there is no life. Our urban economy suffers and we can already see that in parts of Bangalore where there is water scarcity. Some people think that the city will see mass relocation, if we are not able to manage our water properly, and we cannot afford to let that happen. We need to start thinking about re-engaging with our city’s water future, because that can make the difference between whether our cities are going to thrive or have to face a serious crisis.

Making invisible water visible

Making invisible water visible

August 10, 2018 | Governance

“The capricious nature of groundwater has resulted in so much exploitation and overuse that we now have a consistent crisis. Presenting a roadmap for groundwater governance and information transparency using technology.”

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The people’s struggle to find solutions to water challenges

The people’s struggle to find solutions to water challenges

March 22, 2018 | Water

With the summer looming, water comes more easily to the urban mind. Even for those who had been reasonably secure all year long, it is an uncertain time. Maybe it is time to build a sump, to invest in a rainwater harvesting system, or to try, again, to dig a private borewell.

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Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

February 9, 2018 | Water

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai

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This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centres in Mumbai. Their discussed the state of the water crisis in India and how philanthropists can help address this issue.

Although I had started Arghyam in 2001, when I was still learning the ropes of philanthropy, it was really in 2004 that I came into a really sizeable amount of money through the sale of our Infosys shares. I didn’t need that kind of money personally, so I decided to give it to the foundation. However, it’s actually not easy to give money strategically and effectively, unless you have a real grasp on the issues at hand and how to come at them. I hired Sunita Nadhamuni as my CEO and we both got to work researching what issue directly affects the life of every single citizen in this country. We were thinking about working in the field of healthcare at the time, but I remember being in the shower one day and stopping to realise, “Wait, it’s water that you should work on.” That’s when it clicked for me.

So we started looking into the state of the water sector, whether philanthropic money was being invested there and whether it was having any impact. This is when we realised there’s no single Indian philanthropic foundation devoted to water, at a time when we were only just beginning to understand the magnitude of the water crisis in this country.
It was a shocking wake-up call and we decided that we had to try and improve the situation in some way. In our 12 years working in the sector, it’s been a sharp learning curve for us, because we didn’t know very much going in, so we were experimenting, trying, failing, and learning from our mistakes. We have grown from smaller projects and campaigns, to programmes and partnerships that enable us to affect change on a much larger scale.

Of course, there’s a lot to learn from other countries that have managed their water better. However, it’s also true that no country’s faced the kind of challenges that India
has, at a time of a global crisis, when we can no longer dump our waste somewhere else, and when climate change is already upon us. How do we re-think water management in that context? We have to become an innovation lab ourselves, and be able to experiment and create solutions for water management that are decentralized, flexible, and resilient structures.

Many corporations are now also investing in water, because it is such an obvious crisis today. We also have the India Philanthropy Initiative where a lot of the wealthy citizens who want to engage in discussions on philanthropy come together, and identify opportunities for investing philanthropy within different sectors. There is also collaboration and learning happening between CSR teams and philanthropists, so people are building networks of trust and figuring out strategies that are successful for them. We’ve been able to pull in a lot of CSR and other philanthropy funding in our projects by taking those initial risks, and being the first in that space, so that other people can easily follow.

As a foundation, however, Arghyam would not have been able to have the reach it does without our partners. We are a funding organisation, but we also come with a passion and commitment, and we try to help all our partners strategize and be more effective. Since I put up the 150 crores from my personal wealth into Arghyam over 12 years ago, we have been able to disperse 145 crores into 145 projects, across 22 states and directly affecting 50 lakh people. Through our journey, we’ve also come to focus much more on groundwater specifically.

The Invisible Issue

It’s estimated that the government has spent 400,000 crores over the last several decades on surface water, however India is also losing an alarming amount of its groundwater. Through working with our partner across the drier regions of this country, we realised how dire this situation really is. While most government concerns centre around the rivers and setting up irrigation infrastructure for surface water, there are 35 million bore wells spread across the country that people are drawing water from. But because it is invisible, or less visible than the issue of surface water, there’s no method to use it sustainably or equitably, and that is where the problem lies. India is drawing more groundwater than either America or China, and when seen from satellite maps, the depleted groundwater levels are truly shocking. One aim of Arghyam is to use science, data, and innovation to make this invisible problem visible, and to enable us to manage our groundwater better. Otherwise Cape Town’s Day Zero declaration will pale in comparison to the crisis that India will face, in terms of the sheer number of people that will be affected.

According to a 2016 estimate, 300 million people in our country live in drought affected conditions and 80% of our water is contaminated due to untreated sewage. This reality is starting to affect people across economic classes as well, so complacency will not be an option soon. I remember when my family first moved to Bangalore, the tanker would come and women and children would come running out with buckets, fighting to get the day’s water. Today, the situation hasn’t changed for a lot of people. The issue of groundwater depletion also brings to the forefront the struggle between the urban and the rural. People living in urban centres like Mumbai or Delhi have access to water, but are also part of the cycle of depletion, whether they are aware of it or not.

The consumption of water also means waste being added to it, and we don’t have any effective means of examining the repercussions of this. Initiatives to build more toilets will not make a difference if they don’t also address where those waste streams go or how to treat them, and that actually causes a larger health issue than the lack of toilets. In areas where so-called sustainable open defecation used to happen, communities used to have social protocols that dictated where to go, so that contamination was somewhat avoided. However, our research shows that now toilet waste streams are going back into the groundwater tables, directly contaminating the groundwater that people then pull up to drink. Through our work, we’ve seen places where hundreds of toilets have been set up next to wells, so nitrate contamination is also a huge issue in those areas.

Educating Ourselves, Encouraging Research

One of the ways in which Arghyam wanted to address this was through spreading knowledge and awareness. When the National Knowledge Commission was setting up portals for the whole country, meant to serve as knowledge resources in different sectors, Arghyam offered to start and fund the India Water Portal. It’s been 10 years since we set it up, and it’s been a great resource for the research community, taking up many ideological battles around water and reaching out to citizens. However, it was born in an era when digital technologies hadn’t yet converged as they have done today, so it’s not the kind of one-stop shop where citizens can easily learn how to manage water. If the India Water Portal was born today, it would have a very different sort of imagination. So we are trying to see in Arghyam a version for how we can make that a little more exciting and accessible to use. As it exists today, it continues to serve its purpose as an open knowledge platform that can be used to help the government serve communities better.

Through our partners, we’ve also been able to develop a platform called the Participatory Groundwater Management Program. I think this idea of local participation is critical to solving this problem because water distribution is always going to be a local, political issue. If you don’t have participation from the community itself, you’re immediately going to get into issues of water not being distributed equally, and a lack of regulation. India is one of the most poorly regulated groundwater regimes in the world, because of a British law from 1882 called the Easement Act, which essentially grants people ownership of any water on their land. So technically, I can dig a hole and suck up a whole aquifer and sell it – legally there is no framework to stop me from doing this. But since groundwater is a common resource, you have to create participatory mechanisms to manage it sustainably. Since we don’t have effective regulation, or institutional structures to manage groundwater, there is no other alternative.

In the absence of effective policy and regulation, we have to involve the local community and create a de facto, if not de jour model way of managing groundwater.

Participation was a very key part of our philosophy, so we named this platform the Participatory Groundwater Management Programme. Through this initiative, we have sent our hydrogeological experts to around 500 communities facing these problems. Using data practices and science, these experts help locals understand and budget for the groundwater. They learn methods for crop rotation or better crop management, and bore wells are segregated for lifeline water. After two years, communities realise that by sharing the finite resource under their feet, they can see their incomes increasing, because they are being scientific about what crops they are harvesting and how to use the water effectively. We are really encouraged by the feedback we’ve gotten, and are now trying to affect change at the policy level as well. The Atal Bhujal Yojana, where millions of dollars will be going into groundwater management, was mentioned in the budget, so I hope some of these principles that our partners have been working on for eight years will get embedded and scaled.

Participatory Governance and Indigenous Knowledge

There’s no getting around the fact that we are a deeply hierarchical society, so it takes a lot of work to create real, participatory processes. To include women’s voices, Dalit voices, and the voices of other marginalised communities in the discussion around water equity will require active work on our part. Sometimes, when NGOs leave a community, they fall back to those old power structures that are so deeply ingrained in how we govern ourselves. That is the reason why participatory processes are such a powerful idea. We have seen that people do try to keep them going because they see the results in equitable access for everyone.

Spring water in India was another issue that we tried to tackle at Arghyam. No one has accurate data on the number of springs in India, but they’re critical to many people’s livelihoods. Due to land use change, pipe water supply, and other factors, they have been neglected, but in the mountain regions many communities depend on spring water. However, springs weren’t considered as groundwater by the government until only recently. It took a lot of effort of us and our partners to actually educate people about the fact that springs are groundwater that is simply located within discharge zones. We decided to take up this neglected issue of reviving springs, and through working with our partners in about 12 states, we have so far been able to rejuvenate 7,000 springs. Six states are now working with us to map and revive all their streams, in the Northeast and Western regions of India, and hopefully we can keep going and scale this program.

Another issue with local communities is being able to respect and value their indigenous knowledge and belief systems surrounding water sources. With our presence in these areas, we do see those practices getting a little disrupted, especially because there is not enough continuity of model leadership. So the challenge we’re facing now is how to re-imagine this sacredness. How do you value water in 2018? How do you create a new grammar of sacredness for water? This is the learning curve for some of our partners.

The Need for Good Data and Research

With Arghyam, I think we see ourselves as long-term players in this sector – we are not going away anytime soon. To be able to provide research, we need to have projects and campaigns happening on the ground. On the other hand, if we’re not able to connect the dots, our physical projects aren’t going to be successful. In a long term study, you need good data, you need academicians to come in and stay the course to build real, usable knowledge. So through the foundation, we have been supporting research in various ways. We tend to have bias towards action-based research, so a lot of our work centres around collecting knowledge from fieldwork and try out different strategies. It’s an ethos of enacting action, think through the results, and finally produce the data.

With the kind of progress we’ve seen over these 12 years, I think if we continue like this, we will do incremental things, achieve success, and impact real people’s lives in a positive way. But when you look at the bigger picture, and the sheer scale at which we need to think about solutions, our work just feels like a drop in the ocean. It’s not simply a question of how much philanthropic capital we can put in, we also need to create the pipelines for which this money can be used in the water sector in a smart and sufficient way. Right now we are hoping to scale up in how we operate, moving from partnerships to platforms. The aim is to design a digital platform, a shareable infrastructure for lots of actors to be able to utilize it in a way that is effective for them. We hope that with this platform, we can scale on a larger level, rather than for Arghyam to try and go to new locations physically.

This idea was born out of my experiences working with Pratham Books, where we created an open-source platform for people to write, read, publish, print, share, and illustrate literature. Through this platform, we’ve been able to reach millions of kids. The initial idea was to create something that is designed for scale, that is open, shareable, and that allows for creation and collaboration on top of it. Nandan and I also utilised this idea in EkStep, a digital learning platform for young children that we started two and a half years ago. Our goal is to reach 200 million children in the next five years. We wanted to provide access to learning opportunities, for which this framework is incredibly effective. We decided to call this idea Societal Platforms, and we are hoping to build that out in Arghyam as well, during the next two years.

The requests we heard a lot from our partners was the need for better data and research. They need to be able to train people quickly and efficiently, and to make scare training resources easily available. So how do you design for that? This is where Arghyam wants to take on the responsibility and bring in technology, to build a platform that’s useful for data and research, for capacity building and training, and for providing deployment tools. Rather than researchers and academics working in isolation at universities, their knowledge can be pooled and accessible to others – aggregating knowledge for the public as well as for others to build off of.

Creating Solutions Together

Nowadays, it’s getting difficult for the super-wealthy to be complacent and not give back to society. You can’t have a Ferrari without owning a foundation. With the CSR law, a lot of businesses are also getting involved in the philanthropy sector. But I think, with all this influx of capital, people are also realising the challenges inherent in giving. The first thing you learn as a philanthropist is that you have to have trust. The markets operate in a very different way from the samaaj sector, so trust becomes a very important thing. You need to trust that the people who you’re giving money to have the same goal as you, and that they will do the work required.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this kind of work is not often quantifiable. The work our partners have done is to enable communities to say, “We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” But how do you measure that? How do you measure the self-esteem that people feel from examining a problem deeply and trying to find solutions for themselves? Of course, we can collect data on wells, on how much water people get, etc. but it is that kind of unquantifiable feedback that gives us some sense of success.

At Arghyam, we are invested in our partners and try to work with them on creating solutions, rather than dictating orders. That relationship is crucial, because these are people who are working at the grassroots level and who understand the specific issues within an area or community. So we aim to work with them, keeping cooperation in mind for any kind of design. We value the feedback they bring to us as well, because it enables us to come together and innovate better solutions. So listening and cooperating with your partners is also incredibly important.

INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From starting Infosys to saving water

INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From starting Infosys to saving water

January 4, 2017 | Water

Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani talks to Lakshmi Pratury about setting up Infosys in the early 90’s, her attempt to encourage children to read more books and about her Foundation Arghyam, which works with water and sanitation issues.

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