By Deepti Mathur, Senior Specialist, Knowledge Management and Sanjay Singh, Project Director, PSI India
According to India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, around 15 million people in India consume drinking water contaminated by arsenic from the Earth’s crust.￼ Arsenic is carcinogenic, and consistent consumption may lead to skin cancer and other health issues. In some cases, it even causes disfigurement. Arsenic contamination cannot be removed through normal water filtration. Instead, r￼everse osmosis (RO) is considered the most effective treatment.
In eight districts of West Bengal, the Indian government has declared the ground water unfit for human consumption due to the presence of arsenic. Ever since, the government has tried to resolve the problem by painting the contaminated pumps red. As a result, many people were left with no option but to purchase expensive water from private vendors, which had not necessarily been treated. Meanwhile, those who could not afford to purchase water continued drinking the contaminated water.
PSI India took on this issue through a Unilever-supported project to provide safe arsenic-free drinking water to villages in the area of North 24 Paranganas. After two and a half years of work, this project now provides quality-assured, arsenic-free drinking water to 10,000 people in 16 villages, at a price four times less than market cost.
Chief-of-Project Sanjay Singh shares the six ingredients that have fueled the success of this project to implement community-based arsenic-free drinking water solutions in West Bengal.
- Identify the Root Cause: To address this problem, communities needed to understand five key facts:
a). that consistent consumption of arsenic-contaminated water causes health problems
b). that arsenic is colorless, odorless, and has no taste
c). that even the water purchased from private vendors is not free from arsenic, and is unsafe
d) That reverse osmosis (RO) treated water is arsenic-free
e). that RO plants were being set up in their own village
- Identify a Partner: PSI partnered with Bandhan Konnagar in this endeavor. This NGO has a strong presence in the North 24 Paranganas district, where the project was being carried out, and could carry out the work locally. It was also chosen because its operated with community involvement, and ultimately for the benefit of the community.
- Amplify the Message: Who could be change agents for this project? PSI identified school children as important change agents and used activities such as a ‘talking doll show’ in schools. It handed out leaflets about the issue and its treatment with the children to share with their parents. Subsequently, regular household visits were made apart from street theatre activities to reinforce the message that RO water is safe to drink and accessible through new treatment plants in the community.
- Create Community Ownership: One of the most crucial steps was convincing the village leaders. This took several meetings to thoroughly explain the model of setting up a community-based RO water treatment plant model and the plan to provide safe water at a subsidized cost.
- Provide Quality Assurance: People were astonished when they were told that even the bottled water that they bought was not always arsenic free, so demonstrating quality assurance measures was immensely important for the project. An independent third party, RV Briggs, was engaged to periodically monitor the critical drinking water quality parameters. In addition, the RO plant manufacturing agency Ion Exchange also monitors the plant every quarter to ensure proper performance. This is in addition to the regular monitoring done by Bandhan Konnagar’s designated staff , which oversees overall operations, quality parameters, and customer relationship management on a weekly basis.“An RO plant in our community is indeed a great gift and blessing for us. In other packaged water, we never know about the quality of the production of treated water and we experience that many packaged water treatment plants were serving chemically treated water in the name of RO treated water…. I hope this plant will continue to provide safe and clean drinking water, as it is our basic need,” said the sarpanch (village head) during the inauguration of two RO plants.
- Build Trust: Keep your word. PSI delivered on the promise to supply cheaper arsenic-free water. Onelitre of arsenic-free water now costs only 50 paise (half a rupee), which is affordable for all. In addition, both the third-party agency certification and manufacturer’s certificate are displayed in the plant. Any village member can visit the actual purification site at any time to observe the water treatment process. Electronic cards are used by Bandhan to maintain the records of the water sold to the community. Consistently meeting deadlines for a timely execution also helped earn this project faith and respect of the community.
Bandhan Konnagar has since initiated two more RO treatment plants for two new areas of North 24 Paranganas. So, while PSI’s formal engagement with this NGO will end by August 2018 however, PSI is assured that Bandhan Konnagar with the community support will continue providing quality drinking water in these villages.
With contributions from Sakti Ghosh, Manager, Communication, PSI India
Banner image © PSI/Kiran Thejaswi