Field Trip Part II: I <3 Water

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’ve become a total water and sanitation nerd 🙂  My day visiting projects was basically epic and after being inspired by the people in Panoli, learning about watersheds, as I did in the next village, was almost excitement overload for me!

As we drove toward Sherikoldara, over the bumps in the road and through the dry, brown landscape, I wondered how long the pipe would have to be to bring water to this arid place.  Little did I know that the type of projects WOTR specializes in, require hardly any fancy technology to bring prosperous and lush fields to whole regions. Quite honestly, until Thomas explained it to me that day, I had no clue what “watershed development” really meant, and if you are like me, prepare to be amazed!

First, we pulled over on the side of the road overlooking hillsides covered in long, parallel lines, that Thomas explained to me were stone bunts or rock dams.  From photos I had seen in the office I knew that these trenches had something to do with watershed but then again, I didn’t even know what the word “watershed” really referred to or how it did anything for people needing water in this browning place.  It turns out, the idea behind watershed (think: “shed” as in, to shed tears or, as the dictionary defines it “shed -verb :to emit and let fall”) development and rainwater harvesting is actually quite simple and fascinatingly brilliant!

The concept, as Thomas showed me, is to catch the rainwater where it falls and then control, through these trenches, how fast the water flows down the hill sides and how the soil absorbs the moisture.  When it rains, water speeds down hills leaving no time for the soil to soak up that much moisture and, for it to be used to benefit communities.  In fact, often over the past few years rainfall has decimated crops coming in one week instead of stretched over months and flooding out anything planted.  Through creating rock formations, digging trenches, and  planting sapplings, WOTR attempts to change this pattern by working with communities to completely redevelop their hillsides around their fields and valleys and, “make the water walk.”

These contour lines and simple landscape modifications that seriously require no high-tech or costly appliances slow the water’s run down so instead of speeding down hill with gravity, it sinks slowly into the ground.  Each drop of rain is literally harvested or used like this to reduces runoff and, ultimately, increase the water table.  By ending free grazing and planting saplings, the development encourages natural growth to create vegetative cover and even increase the water holding capacity of the aquifers.

The soil absorbs the moisture, the vegetation cuts out erosion, agriculture flourishes.  Simple as that.  As we wound around the hills to reach the valley, I saw how simply brilliant that method really is.  We emerged from the dusty brown fields to a valley covered in a patchwork quilt of crops and lush green trees similar to what I’m sure the Great Valley from the Land Before Time must have been like!

WOTR’s particular approach has also been so successful because, as Shiwaji, the head of Sherikoldara’s watershed development, explained to me, everyone in his village had to come together and work for months to create the habitat they now benefit so richly from.  Shiwaji told me the whole story about the village’s progress from convincing everyone to develop the land this way, all the way through to the benefits they receive now.  He said that farmers who farm the now plentiful lands will receive 1,000,000 rupees this year for their onion crop!  In a country where the average person earns Rs 36,000 for the whole year (less than $1,000), and drought conditions are making it so hard for farmers to make ends meet that they are actually committing suicide, this number is absolutely phenomenal!

Shiwaji also told me a fantastic story about how, since the approach that WOTR uses requires the whole village to come together uniting the poor and tribal parts of the village with the rich and higher caste members, now a member of the lowest caste, Adavasi, is going to university in Pune and, the whole village even paid for his education!  Shiwaji told me that this young man hopes to finish school and reach the highest government office working for communities to come together over caste barriers.  Amazing.

It was truly incredible to hear all of the success this village, in a flourishing valley and surrounded by thousands of acres of hillsides covered in man-made trenches, is enjoying.  As the sunset over the hillside, I imagined what it would be like, after years of drought, to wake up in the morning after spending months and months digging around in the dirt on hillsides to see the sun pouring over the great valley that I worked with my neighbours to create.  Of course, my imagination could never compare to the reality that the families bagging their onion crop were experiencing, but looking around, it was tangible how watershed development had transformed these people’s lives.  The valley seemed to smile as the sun was setting on it and I was beaming after learning that something so technologically simple could have such vast impacts in every realm of life for a whole community.

I learned so much and was incredibly inspired both from meeting the women and families in Panoli and seeing such excellent innovation and land usage to create new opportunities in people’s lives.  As in my day spent with the hydrogeologists and talking to Joe Madiath, my knowledge base of water and development was expanded tenfold through this field trip and, as dorky as it may sound, I love water and sanitation 🙂  Now off to see some toilets in Mumbai!!

Field Trip Part I: Girl Power

Yesterday I finally got to visit one of the BPR-funded water projects!  After months of tireless work with the Youth Board in Boulder a few years back, I finally got to meet the people who benefited from the projects that the awesome young people I had the pleasure of working with had helped to fundraise for!  Also, as has been rather typical for almost my entire volunteer experience with PWX, I learned an infinite amount about water and innovations working in the developing world, all the while sipping sweet chai and meeting some of the most wonderful people!  One of the WOTR employees, Thomas, (who actually began one of the watershed development projects we would visit) showed me around the region and taught me so many incredible things about the work of WOTR and the world of water.

Our first destination of the day was Panoli, a village of 1,200 people in Mahrashtra, India where WOTR helped facilitate a drinking water project with BPF funds.  On the way there, we picked up a passenger, Tukaram, who grew up in this village and recently moved to the city to work for an NGO that implements water projects in other villages.  Thomas and Tukaram gave me some background on the area where we were heading and we drove along the (newly-paved!) highway into the countryside.  An hour or so later, we turned down a dirt road to a big body of water on our right and just down the hill on the left, the well and pump house.  Thomas pointed out the area where the trench was dug that connected the village, located four kilometers from the well, to the water.  Thomas explained to me how there used to be a project here, but the pipe that brought the water from the well to the village was leaky so it took over nine hours to fill the tank in town and was basically useless for the people.  Then, with the BPR funds, the women organized their village to build a new pipeline and install a faster pump.  Even when he said, “the women organized their village,” I didn’t totally know what that involvement meant until we got to Panoli.

After arriving in the village and meeting a group of high school girls eager to practice their English, we walked up to the school where several taps had been installed in the school yard.  Three kids came up to the taps to demonstrate drinking out of them and lead us through a neat little garden that was fed with waste water.  At the entrance to the garden, a little stage was set up in front of the school where all of the students were practicing for a Republic Day Performance for the next day.

After a few excellent performances, some of the village members led us to a little room where village governance matters are taken care of and I met the head of the village – a WOMAN!  I was so very excited to see a woman occupying the Sarpanch seat at the table because it showed how truly powerful and active women have become in the village.  From something as simple and basic as drinking water, Mrs. Anita Gaikwad and a group of other women united their village for this cause and gained respect and confidence as women!

Before the women took initiative to fix the drinking water problem in their community, there actually was a well, pump, and pipeline that, in theory, brought water to Panoli.  All of these devices were installed over ten years ago and even at that point, the pump didn’t have enough horsepower to pump enough water, fast enough to supply the village with water for the day.  Because of the faulty devices, women still had to walk to get water, especially during power cuts and summer months and, over time, the pipeline started to leak so that any water that was being delivered was arriving more slowly than ever.

These women then rallied their communities to raise their portion of the funds and begin working with WOTR.  After this initial stage, all of the village members worked for a whole year to dig the trench with the new pipeline so that they could improve their society.  I was so impressed by these powerful and inspirational women doing such great things for their community and they were so proud to tell me about all of their accomplishments.

Then, with Thomas translating, I told them about the Youth Board and how young people in the US were working to raise the funds for drinking water projects and I think they were equally as impressed.  One man stood up to say how amazed he was by this because he always thought the donor funds came from business people but, hearing that kids in schools are working so hard for the cause was really inspirational as well.  It was a really motivational meeting to see great work being done and people really acting on needs for their community!  I loved the pride and eagerness emanating from the village and I was really blown away by the unity and confidence that Anita and the other women on the water board in Panoli had achieved.  When I left, I was practically flying I felt so inspired by the good work being done by organizations like WOTR, the awesome Youth Board students, and the wonderful women and families of Panoli!

A Volunteer’s Adventures Part Three: A Day in the Life

In addition to learning thousands of things about water and sanitation, I am also having the greatest time learning about Indian office life and sipping chai about six times a day! I usually wake up around seven to the lovely sound of water buffalo and goats cruising along on the road outside my window. I cart the water for a bucket bath from a tap in the center of campus back to my room- barely understanding the burden of hauling it from miles away and increasingly more impressed at how so many Indian women can carry these vessels all those miles on their heads while also gracefully holding up saris! Even though my task is so small, I am keenly aware that this is something I would have never had to do back home and it is giving me the slightest insight into life for so much of the world.
My room in the guest house is about ten minutes from the main office and dining hall. Breakfast is served by the wonderful cook we call, Na Na, around 8:30 – usually puri or idlly, but sometimes my favorite, opma or the odd choice, chowmein with ketchup (this is something most people back home would really never eat in combination let alone for breakfast!). The work day then officially starts at nine. I somehow scored a great little office on the second floor overlooking the courtyard in the center of the main building. There is even a little pond in the center with a turtle swimming around.
Everyday at ten, the lovely office employee, Joyo, brings little cups of chai to all of us at our desks and consequently ten might be my favorite time of morning!

When I’m not drinking tea, I am poking around the PWX site, exploring the different features, thinking of ways to make things easier or more understandable, and sorting out what Gram Vikas already has uploaded to the site and what else needs to be. Much of my time has been devoted to talking to different people in the office trying to locate records on different computers or actual hard copies of information for various projects on the site. I’ve been focusing on getting my hands on some interviews, videos, and photos to try to bring the sites alive and show the life of villages with or without water and sanitation. Collecting all of this information has proven a bit tricky since it isn’t always centrally located or accessible, and so my goal is to use PWX to add another element of organization and a fuller picture of projects for a non-profit that has really done some amazing work and has a lot to showcase to the world.
In addition to updating the Gram Vikas projects on the site and the welcome interruptions of chai, I spent a few days working on a water award application for Gram Vikas. Again throughout the project I learned more and more about this organization’s practices and other WASH systems for rural development, but I was also introduced to a British/Indian form of English quite unlike my native American English. For an English major with a mother who is a professional proofreader, this was quite a task! Words like “whomsoever” and “alongwith” seemed as foreign to me as the little chili peppers I picked out of my meals. Naturally I had to edit for British spellings throughout as well – in American English we write, “feces” while in British English the same word is spelled “faeces.” There are little sayings too that still confuse me: “fill up an application,” “go to office,” and “I’ve been in my home,” – those tricky prepositions always switching with different forms of the confusing English language! Many other parts from grammatical intricacies to crores and commas were different as well so in addition to picking up bits of Oriya, I’m really happy to have discovered this new form of English.

Besides punctuation and pronunciation differences, there are many office customs here that differ from the American offices I’ve worked in. There are, of course, the 10am and 4pm daily chai breaks which I have already explained my new love for, but other office practices are taking some getting used to for me. For instance, as an American woman shaking hands is always a little confusing for me, sometimes in certain offices we wear shoes and sometimes it is customary to leave them by the door, and here people always take lunch breaks whereas back home lunch usually meant shoving something down in front of your computer screen – these are just some of the quirky little differences in the day-to-day functions of an office in a new place. Then there are the power outages that remind me again that I am indeed out here in a village! They happen several times throughout the work day, and now I’m so used to them that when the power flicks off I just keep working away until the internet cuts out and then I read for a minute until it all comes flashing back on and we can start the whole process again!
Everyone stops for an hour lunch break at one and the work day is officially over at 5:45. In the evenings I have often continued working just trying to finish up these projects but sometimes I play cards with new friends or read until dinner which happens at 8:30 in the evening. Since we usually eat at 6 or 7 back in America, this late night meal is definitely a transition too! All of the curries and dals and pakoras have been delicious at the mess and all of the staff I have met through Gram Vikas have been so welcoming and wonderful! Only a few weeks left in my new home, but I have really enjoyed the learning experience – about water, but also about culture.

A Volunteer’s Adventures Part Two: Hydrogeology and Golpapur

Not only is the campus absolutely gorgeous, but all of the staff and volunteers I’ve met working for and with Gram Vikas are incredible as well! In addition to the 500 or so employees of Gram Vikas, various contacts from all kinds of organizations come through Mohuda all the time. For a traveler exploring the developing world, meeting people from all over the globe working on various projects in the villages is basically a dream come true!

Two such new friends, Marijn and Roelof, are hydrogeologists staying here for about two weeks to train people in the villages to test water quality. From the Netherlands, Marijn and Roelof have taught me so many things, one of which is a culinary tip from their hometown: how to turn every Indian dish into something sweet by adding jam or sugar! Besides amusing the dining hall with our strange creations, they invited another intern and me to go on an explorer mission with them last Sunday!

They explained to us the adventure they were planning: GoogleMaps shows the earth in this part of Orissa as being darker in a western part and lighter in an eastern part, pretty much separated by a distinct line that they imagined was a different kind of rock or deposit from a river or the ocean. Armed with a large print out of the area, a jeep and driver from GV, and a GPS system we were going to figure out why. They tried to play it off as though it sounded boring, but I thought they were essentially proposing an exploration mission that would rival that of Christopher Columbus!

So with excitement in the air and our explorer’s gear in hand, we climbed into the Qualis around ten in the morning ready for a day of real, live exploring! The four of us and our driver, Babolo took up all of the seats in the jeep so it was a little crammed especially as we wound around the dogs and people in the streets. Mixed with lots of trying to explain to our driver where we wanted to go, Marijn explained to me so much about water projects and systems of all kinds, the science and engineering about how water actually arrives to most of the taps, and ground water. I was ecstatic all day long! I have been working around water- fundraising with BPR and now here, for a few years, but something about seeing the projects and hearing about the processes from my new Dutch friends really illuminated the world of water to me.

Throughout the morning, we stopped at a few sites where holes had been dug in the ground for random purposes and surveyed the soil. Marijn and Rudolph showed us how and why certain parts of the earth were red and others gray. We took pictures of the rocks and my specific job was to make GPS readings at each site so we could make a more accurate map to compare with the google image. Everywhere we went a crowd of confused Indians huddled around us really baffled as to why four foreigners were maneuvering around piles of poop to pick up dirt and take pictures of holes!

We stopped at one of the GV village water towers and in addition to surveying the area, picked up about four new members to our team who were to help us navigate the tricky roads in that part of the region. So, for the next hour or so, nine of us crammed into the jeep and looked for differences in water sources and rock and earth colors. Most of the time we were going a different direction than we had planned because of road blocks and communication barriers but the adventure didn’t disappoint in showing us great new things like long-tailed, kangaroo-like monkeys and all kinds of mountainous and rocky terrain from rock quarries to brackish water bodies. It was wild and fun and fascinating!

After some photos and marking a few more points we returned to drop off the extra people at their car. The villagers were waiting for us with sodas and tons of kids crowding around the jeep looking at us. Even though our communication with the kids was limited to, “How are you,” and “What’s your name,” they were thrilled to hear us try to speak to them. Most of the 20 minutes we sat with them was just us smiling really big at the kids and them returning the gesture! It was such a fun morning!

The next few hours continued with much of the same, convincing our driver to take us down certain roads to spots we thought would lead us to a point on the map, making some notes and pictures, and then continuing on. From the highway our driver turned down a tiny narrow street totally covered in foliage which eventually led us to a huge lake. It was amazing that he could ever know that that tiny road from the busy highway could lead to the lake!

There we took a water quality reading. It was tricky to find a part of the lake where someone wasn’t bathing or doing laundry to be able to take a sample, but eventually we found a fenced in area that would be as clean as it would get. We tested the PH as well as the levels of carbonate hardness, nitride, and iron among other things and learned which pollutants may cause some of the levels to be higher- again I was learning just how important the link is between water and sanitation, but this time with chemical numbers to back this up!

Our last stop was Golpapur. In the spring Golpapur is known for giant sea turtles mating and laying eggs on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Here we ate at a delicious Indian restaurant. We had my favorite, Paneer Butter Masala and another mushroom dish with hot, puffy naan. I also tasted the best sweet/salty lime soda! After a late lunch and a walk along the beach, we drove the hour-long return back to campus. The day was filled with exciting adventures and sightseeing. I felt like a sponge soaking up all of the knowledge my new friends could teach me and I was exhausted as I returned to my room. In perfect Indian style, my wonderful neighbor heard my return and knocked at the door with a steaming cup of chai. Oh, how I love India!

Adventures in Volunteering

Okay. I know, the little white suburban girl learns about a real-world issue firsthand – it’s kind of clichĂ©d by now, made into movies and books and blogs galore, but here I am, in the middle of India, fresh out of university with a padded humanities degree and all of the fluff in my head trying to find a path into the world of development and getting a good dose of reality along with it!

I first worked with the Blue Planet Run Youth Board for two years working with incredibly creative and motivated young people to raise awareness among their peers of the world’s drinking water crisis. The experience was wonderful, and when I graduated and wanted to spend a year traveling and volunteering, I contacted Rajesh – head of the BPR water network, Peer Water Exchange, to see if he knew of anything. And boy, did he! Now I’m knee-deep in PWX and loving every single second of it!

I’ll first hail back to my BPR days though (even just a year ago). One of the many activities we created to raise awareness was a viral video where I, along with another youth board coordinator, explained the statistics on a video for other youth – 1.1 billion people, women walking hours, blah, blah, blah. And not that the statistics aren’t important – they are incredibly astonishing and worthwhile, but my point is that while I knew the statistics forward and back, I know now that I did not know the problem until I got to Gram Vikas.

I arrived to the sunny haven that is the main office campus of Gram Vikas in little Mohuda Village, Orissa after a grueling 20-some-hour train journey. Butterflies pranced in the palm tree-shaded path as I carried my backpack to my new room in the beautifully crafted intern guesthouse.

On the way here, I had no idea what the area would be like. In fact, in my ignorance, I was pretty much expecting dry, uninhabitable lands with unbearable conditions. Orissa is, after all, one of the poorest states in India where less than 4% of the population has access to piped drinking water. To make matters worse, I had been reading in the paper leading up to my visit to Gram Vikas that farmers across the state where killing themselves because of the terrible drought conditions slamming the lands. Walking in this lush enclave was not at all what I had imagined. Again, I knew the stats about the area, but I was blown away by the mountainous region covered in green trees and jungle fauna.

Since then, I have visited five projects in the area and researched pretty much every single one of the 701 water and sanitation projects initiated by Gram Vikas and the great Joe Madiath. In many parts, conditions are indeed terrible, but what I have learned from Joe – both through the books about him and his wonderful patience in explaining everything to me – is that the statistics about water that I have so fervently memorized and preached for all these years are very important, but still, only half the problem or less. Why is the water unsafe and unclean? Because people poop in it, bathe in it, and wash in it. Because flies land on feces, which sticks to their feet, which then contaminates the food they land on. Because animals loiter around the water sources pooping at will and carrying feces on their hooves and mouths as they drink from the well. Sitting in Joe’s office while he spelled it out for me was one of those “duh” moments. The numbers are meaningless without understanding the meat behind the issue. And in this case, it took me coming all the way here to begin to really grasp the water crisis.

Since then, I have delved into everything WatSan (one of the many acronyms I’ve learned for water and sanitation). My official business here is to help Gram Vikas get all of their projects organized onto PWX, but in that process, I have helped with a few other things around the office and in every ounce of my free time, soaked up all of the knowledge I can on water and sanitation – no pun intended! More on my adventures in water to follow!