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Water for sustainable development: The role of Live-in-Labs® in Indian villages

Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

Rural communities of India face overwhelming challenges of water scarcity and water impurity due to changes in rainfall patterns leading to prolonged summers, long distances that women have to travel to fetch water for household purposes due to lack of accessible water distribution, traditional water sources that have dried up due to the impact of climate change, and the fact that the water distribution systems implemented by the government are not properly designed. Barriers to solving the problem include: The remoteness of the communities; Defining the problem from the community perspective; Villagers’ unfamiliarity with rain-water harvesting, water recycling, and waste management, and water quality monitoring technology; Unstable electricity Illiteracy limits the complexity of project design; Lack of financial resources in the villages to implement solutions. Hygiene and sanitation are severely impacted as the villagers are forced to practice open defecation even after toilets were built. Health and school attendance are compromised due to water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, hepatitis, etc. As people are more likely to fall ill and incur medical costs, they cannot work and become economically disadvantaged. Limited water for traditional irrigation means no agriculture in summer. Urban migration from the villages is another major impact.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

Through our Live-in-LabsⓇ program, modular water distribution systems were built in the villages of Rajasthan, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, and Kerala. The goal is to expand this program to 5,000 villages and provide clean drinking water to over 10 million people throughout India. A momentum of change was made possible because of the involvement of the stakeholders in every aspect of the challenge identification and intervention design process. Through the Live-in-LabsⓇ program, initiated by Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a Human-Centered Design approach was incorporated in every phase of the project through the multi-phases of challenge identification, ideation, co-design of the solutions, and co-evaluation of the interventions. The change champions in the villages were identified and encouraged to join the process. This helped the team analyze the challenge more accurately and understand the community requirements. Each technological intervention differed from village to village as the local community requirements and needs vary with different regions and cultural practices. Technologies, successful community engagement models, and adoption models followed globally were considered. This laid the inspiration for the research teams to devise new models or modify existing models to rightly suit the community requirement. Apart from community requirements, it was ensured that the interventions enhanced the environment and certainly brought no harm to the ecology. Technology transfer included subsequent maintenance and repair training. Many projects related to rainwater harvesting, smart irrigation methods, mapping of the availability of groundwater, and effective methods for water quality assessment are in progress.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

Reduced rainfall, flooding, and prolonged summer months negatively affect water accessibility. This situation has had a profound impact on agrarian communities that are completely dependent on rainfall for their livelihood. 66% of the population of India resides in rural areas. Water-related challenges negatively impact the income of these farmers as well as food availability for the entire country. Introducing innovative sustainable technologies to enable rainwater harvesting, efficient irrigation based on crop water requirements and sustainable energy sources, groundwater utilization, reuse and recycling of greywater, and ground water analysis builds resilience to climate change and ensures the health and economic independence of the farming communities. For instance, in a village in Andhra Pradesh where severe water scarcity was the norm and where the yearly water waste was estimated to be over 3 million gallons, our IOT enabled water distribution system provided sufficient water with no water wasted.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

We have brought together major stakeholders in each community related to drinking water such as the local panchayath governments, officials of the water authority, doctors of local Public Health Centers, health workers, school teachers, parents of school students, etc. Through participatory contributions, they developed an understanding that water is a precious resource and how to access and use it judiciously. Women and children also had a voice in the technology design and learned how to set it up, maintain it, and repair it. Thus, we designed a pathway for empowering the tribal communities to engage in developing cost-effective, inclusive and sustainable solutions using community-level water quality classification, feasibility assessment, community-level mapping, co-design of solution using a participatory approach, development and deployment of the solution, capacity building and technology transfer, and a business model. The goal was equity distribution of water for everyone, irrespective of caste or economic status. As a result, during the Fani cyclone 2019, one of the villages where our technology is installed was severely affected. Because the villagers had been involved in the design and implementation of the technology, they knew how to dismantle and reassemble the entire system, thus mitigating the risk of the cyclone.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

Creation of a robust change model required many conversations to understand what the villagers knew and what wisdom we needed to share, the creation of an encouraging atmosphere where the villagers realized their participation would positively affect the outcome, and development of a partnership with each village for ongoing intervention. The remoteness of the villages was a challenge that directly affected the procurement of raw materials and local expertise. Another obstacle was accommodation and food for the implementation team including their adaptation to the culture of each village. Several examples allude to the complexity of each intervention. In Orissa, road expansion plans forced a change in the network design. In the village of Uttarakhand, the lower caste people received less water than the upper caste people. The upper caste group was unwilling to settle for less water, so the team was forced to look for additional sources of water rather than rearranging the distribution. This added to the cost, time, and effort. The challenges were insignificant compared with the joy felt by the villagers and the participating researchers when a village actually was able to co-design a solution that gave them access to water for drinking, hygiene, and farming.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

We are confident that the impact of our initiatives will make permanent changes to the lifestyle of the communities because of our human-centric participatory approach. As a result, the intervention was designed and accepted by the users themselves. Since they were involved in the entire process of designing, implementation, training, transfer of technology, post-implementation sessions, etc., the community considers the intervention as a solution designed by them and for them. From a lifetime of water scarcity creating an unhygienic and poverty-driven scenario, the community members created access to clean water 365 days a year which improves their health and economic standing. They now have a sense of ownership and self-reliance. They no longer need to depend on anyone else for their livelihood. Accessibility to water is valuable as gold. It ensures life itself. Our involvement with each village is an ongoing process that will ensure the longevity of the changes.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

A pathway to sustainable water access for rural communities is collaboration and innovation through the Live-in-LabsⓇ methodology of E4Life (embrace, experience, empower, and engage). The participative approach involves not only the users, but also local government, stakeholders from our university, and representatives from our NGO. Reiteration of training and awareness programs are needed on an ongoing basis. Repeated exposure to sustainable practices is the key to gradually abandoning old practices. An environmentally sustainable solution only can be considered as a long term solution. Hence, ensuring that technology is based on renewable energy sources is of utmost importance. Since most of the projects are field-based, experiential learning was one of the key factors that helped us to understand, analyse, and learn from our mistakes. Research and publications were also referred to for an in-depth understanding of sustainable water management and existing technologies that effectively utilize and manage water resources.