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Thursday, April 21, 2011

India: Clean Water and the Benefits of Flexibility

It’s probably fair to say that our work with Ethiopian families has distinguished HOPE International Development Agency as an organization devoted to the issue of clean water. But while we deal mainly in protecting springs in Ethiopia, that doesn’t mean our methods look the same elsewhere. Where a lack of potable water might be a (frankly astonishingly) common problem in developing world communities, we don’t claim there is one single solution, one single model for delivering clean water to families in need. Among the other hard lessons we have learned over the years: it never pays to be inflexible.

In India, we’re proud to report that we have had great success providing ‘biosand filters’ to both urban and farming families in Madurai. Biosand filters are a relatively simple technology; in fact, versions of it have been used for centuries. Skipping over a great deal of technical detail, the filters basically work by straining water slowly through layers of sand and gravel, removing 90-95% of contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and worms.

Even simple technologies, ones that work with local conditions and cultures, need to be fully accepted by the poor in order to be useful. Just ask Mr. Nagrendran.

Mr. Nagendran lives in a township where the system supplied by the government is not maintained properly and people are regularly sickened by the water. He took it upon himself to organize a community group to research the problem and brainstorm solutions. We connected with them, and supplied biosand filters after they confirmed that the technology would work best.

Mr. Nagendran, of course, received a filter for his own home. But it took his wife some time to warm up to the new addition. She thought it took up too much space and wasn’t totally sold on its benefits, despite her husband’s activism. (Imagine how charmed by her stance he must have been!) After a while, although she wouldn’t drink the water, she succumbed to using some of it to cook rice. To her surprise, the rice turned out whiter and tastier than it had ever been. When she saw that it lasted for many more hours without spoiling than was normal, she finally came around. Now the entire family uses the filter and everyone is quick to sing its praises. So perhaps at this point Mrs. Nagendran shares our view on the virtue of flexibility.

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