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Matt Kirk
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WaterAid Supporters Trip - India
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Indian Inspiration

So I should probably start by explaining an omission or two. Firstly, my final paragraph of yesterday's blog was wrong - we did not visit the village of Jonhar, that's tomorrow! Also I need to give a very big thank you to my beautiful wife Bex. If it wasn't for her staying up to ring me to ask why I hadn't rung yet given I had promised to when I was due to wake up at half 5, I would not have realised I was over an hour late and probably have missed the bus! It would seem therefore that I begin to fall apart a bit when I've been awake 33 hours straight! The good news was I wasn't the latest. Having missed breakfast we were straight on the mini-bus to set out for Nayagaon.

Along the way, I began to see more and more clear examples of the risks to water security and quality. Hand pumps are the means by which 90% of the population access water sources. These are quite a primitive version of the boreholes we use in the UK but ultimately use the same principle. As the bores are drilled through a hard rock, the first 25m are lined. The hand lever then moves a submerged cylinder to feed water up an internal pipe and out of a large tap. The concern I had about what I was seeing along the journey was some of these were either next to stagnant rainwater and sewage, or actually submerged beneath it. I took the opportunity to talk to Asad Umar, WaterAid India programme officer, about the risk of contamination here. Asad is great - he has a deep passion about the provision of safe water and sanitation, which, coupled with a PHD in hydro-geology and a warm and friendly smile, means you could tell he is making a difference here. I explained that a hand pump being submerged would almost certainly cause a back-siphon of this water back into the aquifer and that as there were many hand pumps in close succession, all could be at risk. He completely agreed, and explained to me his role in aiding the Government and local districts understanding of the need for drinking water security plans which involve lining the bores to mitigate infiltration of nearby waters and to raise the bores higher and cap them to avoid the risk of flooding submitting these bores.

En route, we took a brief break to visit a local WaterAid partner office. After a quick loo stop, we were each generously handed a box of sweets each which was the produce of the local community. This gave me a further chance to speak with Asad. He explained that 90% of Indians water is sourced from groundwater yet irrigation rivals this figure as farmers can readily access submersible pumps to undertake flood irrigation as opposed to the more efficient sprinkle irrigation found in the West. The other factor of course here is surface run off which risks rivers becoming contaminated with pesticides. I was surprised how much Asad could describe things such as 'catchment management plans' and 'Water Security Plans' and how similar this was to the UK. Asad described how he met with the Public Health Engineering Department last week and state officials who had approached him and WaterAid to pledge their willingness to keep investing. Money and construction resources are not an issue in India, it is the knowledge of how to make Water and Sanitation Hygiene sustainable so that communities can become self sufficient. It is this which WaterAid deliver. WaterAid attract attention to the most marginalised communities to allow them to "come alive" to the Government so that they invest.

When we arrived at the village of Nayagaon what awaited us was completely unexpected, but deeply humbling. The entire village of around 200 had queued up to greet and welcome us. As we walked into the village the men in our party were asked to queue on the left and ladies on the right. We were then formally greeted by the respective men and women of the village by having our heads marked with red paint and rice with a necklace of colourful flowers put around our necks. At this point the village broke out into celebration with people dancing to drums and music as we were led to the village school. The reception we received felt as if we were celebrities!! Sat around a long table, the entire village sat in the playground whilst a speech was read from the WaterAid India Regional Manager Matthew, and was met with rapturous applause. In return, our party leader spoke, thanking the village for their hospitality and explaining who we are and how we all fundraise to support the work WaterAid does. As part of our introduction to the villagers we then each marked a shrine to their God followed by signing a banner listing the supporters of WaterAid.

Just before we went off in our groups to spend time in the homes of the villagers, the school children sang the Indian national anthem for us. The idea of the small groups we were separated into was to allow us to speak openly with the family who lived in the village. The family I visited openly invited us in and brought out their only rug for us to sit on. Their hospitality and generosity immediately struck me as they had dressed in their best clothes yet proceeded to sit on the dirt floor so that we could sit on the rug. We all invited them to sit on the rug with us as we felt this was only right in their home.

The family consisted of Ramuchenan, his wife Ramu and 12 year old son Buda. Ramu sat and spoke with us about the hardship she and her son endure every day. The nearest water source is a 1km walk away across hard terrain. They have to visit this 4-5 times a day. When the water dries up however, which it does 7 months of the year, they have to travel to the next nearest source, some 3km walk. Ramu gets up at 4.30am to start cleaning her house before she and her son collect water. Afterwards, Ramu collects firewood in the nearest forest, about 5km away. This she collects every other day so that she can sell it on the days in between. But as it costs 30 rupee to travel to the market and back, and she can only hope to make 150 rupee from the wood, her only concern is survival in terms of nutrition.

As Ramu's house was directly opposite the school, a large crowd had formed immediately around us. I felt at times this made Ramu reserved as often others were jumping in to answer for her. When I asked her what she thought to the water in that it was contaminated, she simply replied; “we have no choice, just one source. Livestock wash in it and people, it tastes ok but is not clean". I carried on to ask her whether she or anyone else had ever been ill as a result of the water. Interestingly, she responded by saying people get sick and get disease but it is difficult to tell if this is from the water or elsewhere. Ramu's house was approx 6x4m and comprised of a single room to house 4. She spoke openly about her eldest son who was now 20 and worked in Delhi and when asked about her hopes for Buda said she hoped he would reach Second Standard (educated until he was 17). I asked Buda whether he enjoyed school, he responded as any child would "sometimes".

Conscious that the crowd which had gathered around us in front of Ramu's house, we asked if we could see where she collected water from and asked if we could help. We set off down a narrow path which stopped just outside the village, with the next kilometre consisting of very uneven arable land with many protruding rocks and trip hazards. As we walked down, children and women passed us in the opposite direction carrying 10-20 litres of water balanced on their heads. After we walked the kilometre we made our way down to a mostly dried up stream - this was the moment the extremities of poverty I have so often heard of or seen on tv became a reality. The water was immediately downstream of some animals drinking and washing and was so dried up the water seemed what most would describe as a large puddle. In the water, algae and debris were clearly visible. Across the stream from the side we had entered was a semi-structure which had been carved into the rock with a small 1m square hole which had been cut out. As a group, the girls and women of the village then collectively collected water from inside this cavity with the smallest girl clambering several feet in with a small stainless steel bowl which she then poured into a large 6 litre stainless steel bucket. I asked Asad why she was using such a small bowl to fill the bucket, to which be explained it was the only thing which would fit down the small access inside the cavity to the water. Whilst the first girl was filling the first bucket, Ramu, Buda and another girl swirled stones from the river bed in the buckets to clean them before passing the empty buckets forward whilst the full buckets were passed back down the chain to fill even larger 10 and 20 litre stainless steel containers. The whole process was relatively quick and after 5-10 minutes Ramu was stood upright with two 10 litre containers perfectly balanced on her head, lightly being guided by her left hand. Next to her stood Buda with two 5 litre containers balanced on his.

As the other groups followed us down with an increasing number of people massing in the stream bed, we were asked to stand to one side for the media team to grab the very important footage and photography of another family collecting water. As we were now in the way and, given Ramu had what I approximate to be nearly 35kg on her head, we suggested we head back. This instinctively did not feel right to me which, coupled with an eagerness to understand just what it is like to collect water in this way, asked Asad to offer my assistance. Asad spoke to Ramu who in turn gestured for one of the containers on Buda's head to be lifted off and given to me. Asad handed me the container so I could feel how heavy it was and I would guess it was 7-8kg. I was asked if I was okay to carry it which I of course answered yes, but said I would like to carry it on my head too. Looking at Ramu, she had a small circular support between her head and the first container. I asked Asad if I could have one and he quickly put a makeshift one together from a scarf. Precariously he placed the container on my head which at first did not feel to heavy. When I looked down and smiled at Buda though I noticed he hadn't such support, with just the containers directly on his head.

Now the weight was one thing, but coupled with the mid-day heat, hard, rocky and uneven terrain travelling up hill, the weight and strain placed on the neck builds. The difficulty is keeping it level so that none is spilt. When you have to imagine a child of 12 carrying that weight back and forth as many as 5 times a day, and that when in the summer and the river dries up this journey becomes a 6km round trip - that is when I fully appreciated just how precious water is - every single drop. Sadly though, my personal triumph of being able to say I have experienced collecting water in this way doesn't change its cleanliness or wholesomeness. The water will still be contaminated. The cost of collecting water therefore means Ramu has less time to collect firewood to sell to make money to eat, and Buda spends less time at school. As the water makes them ill from time to time, money is spent on medicine and even more time is lost to either earn a living or gain not education.

Leaving the village of Nayagaon we travelled to Mahatma Gandhi Sewa Ashram to briefly meet another WaterAid local partner who had invited us for tea before visiting a post-intervention village called Mahadev Pura in the Morena District. This certainly seemed to be the theme of the day though - people generously sharing what little they had with us.

We arrived 500m away from the village where we then had to transfer into 4x4s as the rain had caused the roads to be impassable. When we finally got into the village, we were once again greeted like royalty. A similar introduction ensued outside the village school. Various men from the village stood up and spoke about their now self-sufficient village, yet it was a women who was the head of the Women's group who gave an unforgettable speech. Bearing in mind this was being translated, so there was one considerable delay, she spoke about how when 30 WaterAid people arrived in 2004 they did not believe all the talk about water and sanitation. But in time they came to learn and understand what they were being taught and agreed to make the changes. With implementing partner Dharti 3 new hand pumps, 30 toilets and a school sanitation block were installed. She went on to describe how her husband and tried to fill in their toilet but she told him he was a 'crazy person's. To much laughter she described that she made her husband treat their toilet seat like a God and that way he should always visit it to go for a shit!

This empowered, clearly very intelligent and charismatic women, showed how a community can unite for a common cause. WaterAid work here was clearly one of education and providing a voice to the most influential members of the community - the women and children. Since the intervention, WaterAid pulled out in 2008 allowing the villagers to become completely self-sufficient through setting up village committees who manage water and sanitation and ongoing maintenance funded through village tariffs. Due to the intervention, people seemed healthier, the land seemed more usable and the village was beginning to prosper.

A truly inspiring day,

Matt
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