Spreading the Word On Clean Water In Rural India

By Dee DePass

NEW DELHI – In the small town of Arugolanu, 900 miles southeast of here, a young barefoot woman has become an evangelist for clean water.

To Manu Anand, an engineer who has been involved in water purification for much of his life, the woman symbolizes his work in trying to improve sanitation and health in rural India, the world’s second most populous country after China with 1.2 billion people.

Mr. Anand does not know the barefoot woman’s name. But he knows the story of how clean water changed her life and how she is now helping others in Arugolanu to understand that they no longer need to be resigned to recurring illness because of the water they drink.

The woman carries a booklet to tell others how water from their wells and the town’s lake can be harmful, Mr. Anand said. She tells about the sickness she and her family endured for years and how that has changed. “Now she is healthy,” Mr. Anand said.

Getting clean water for drinking and cooking is a worldwide problem, especially in the poorest areas.  According to the World Bank, 1.1 billion people around the world have no access to safe water, and 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation. In rural India and many other parts of the developing world, dysentery and diarrhea are frequent visitors. Around the world, about 1.6 million die from water-borne diseases each year, most of them children.

The young woman and her neighbors in Arugolanu, just outside Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh,  have access to clean water because of efforts by Mr. Anand, a former executive of Pentair Inc., an American manufacturer of pumps and water purifiers in Golden Valley, Minn. and Sudesh Menon, the chief executive of WaterHealth India, a division of WaterHealth International, an American company in Lake Forest, Calif.  

During separate interviews from New Delhi and Hyderabad, the two men explained how they played leading roles in bringing water purifiers to Arugolanu and 200 other towns and villages in the south central state of Andhra Pradesh. 

The nearly three-year-old project has made significant progress but still has a long way to go. Andhra Pradesh is one of 29 states in India and it alone has 15,000 villages, many of them in need of water purifiers.

Mr. Menon and WaterHealth India, helped Arugolanu and its 6,000 people find financing for the project with the help of an Indian bank.  The town leaders agreed to pay for the purifier and its maintenance by charging villagers an initial down payment and a fee of two rupees or four cents for five gallons of purified water. In all, annual fees average about $20 per person, Mr. Menon said.  That may not sound like much. But in a country where the average annual income is about $550, the pennies add up.

Some environmental groups criticize these payment arrangements. According to the India Water Portal, an informational website set up by the nonprofit Arghyam Trust in Bangalore, researchers involved in one project involving 80 villages in the state of Gujarat,  found cost to be the crippling complaint against similar water purification projects.  Some villagers told the trust they would have preferred help in obtaining equipment to catch and store rain water – a less expensive approach than purifying contaminated water.

But Pentair and WaterHealth International say they are providing equipment, upgrades and administrative services at a nominal cost and with huge health benefits.  The cost is not exorbitant, they say, and is provided only with the endorsement of village leaders.

“More than 70 to 80 percent of our hospitals are filled with people who suffer from water borne diseases,” Mr. Menon said in a telephone conversation from his office in the bustling city of Hyderbad.  “What we are doing is having a direct impact on the quality of life of the people.”  The transformation in the health of rural villagers after the purifiers arrive, he said,  is “very rewarding to witness.”
In Arugolanu, water buffalo and sacred cows still wade into the murky, algae-laden town lake to soak themselves in the afternoon sun. After the purifier was installed, the young barefoot woman only drank from the WaterHealth spigot. And soon she felt better, stronger. Her diarrhea stopped. Her family became healthier too. And so she began her trek to try to convince her neighbors of the value of clean water from the purifier, Mr. Anand said.  “She tells them what a water-born disease can do,” he said. “She tells them it can kill.”

The people of Arugolanu treat the water purifier with respect.  Entering the building, they remove their shoes as though they were visiting a temple.

“When we first started there was a scramble,” Mr. Anand said. “People said, ‘I want it first! No, I want it first,’They thought the clean water would be finished if they were last in line.”
Now there is restrained patience, he said, as people with jugs and bottles wait their turn.

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