World Views
12:10 pm
Tue December 17, 2013

Communication, Cooperation Key To Water Issues In Africa And Asia

Villagers gather drinking water in Sof Omer, Ethiopia.
Credit Rod Waddington / Flickr Creative Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Feleke Zewge, Pawan Labhasetwar, and Derek Chitwood

Despite radically different cultures, climate, geography, and levels of government involvement in improving the lives of its citizens, Ethiopia, India, and China all face similar water issues.

KGOU’s World Views host and the Dean of the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies Suzette Grillot recently gathered three engineers together for a conversation about water, sanitation, and hygiene concerns in their respective countries of expertise.

“Access to safe water is very low, particularly in rural parts of the country," says Feleke Zewge, an environmental chemist and engineer from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. “On top of that, we have also limitations in terms of technologies - water supply or water treatment. We have also contaminations from natural geological formation sources, such as fluoride.”

Pawan Labhasetwar is a scientist at India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. He says even though the country with a heavy monsoon season each year receives sufficient rainfall, regional variability means Western and Southern India suffer from water scarcity.

“We [also] have problems like high fluoride, arsenic, nitrate, and iron in our water,” Labhasetwar says. “[And] though we have reached a target of about 60 percent access of the population as far as sanitation is concerned, but there almost 400 million Indians who do not have access to sanitation.”

Derek Chitwood focuses on China and Myanmar with the non-governmental organization Partners In Hope. He says he encounters many rural villages with no latrines.

“So the custom of the people is that they just go up into the forest beyond the village,” Chitwood says. “So when it rains, all that washes down into their springs. Therefore, when they drink that water, they get sick.”

All three scientists and engineers said communication and local government involvement would be key to improving water and sanitation conditions and the quality of life of residents in Ethiopia, India, and China.

“For several years it didn't work, so we have to think how to really empower the communities and how we should be able to make them understand the situation,” Zewge says.

Labhasetwar says their own engineering solutions also didn’t succeed in changing the situation in India. So officials prepared a public relations campaign with Bollywood actors and famous cricketers spreading a message of the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene.

“If you involve them, we're sure the message will reach the community,” Labhasetwar says. “We have to really communicate to the community that unless you use the toilet, there's no use for constructing the toilet.”

Chitwood says one of his biggest challenges is overcoming a cultural perception that if the water is clear, it’s safe to drink.

“We worked with the party secretary of a county who we were providing filters to schools, and they really thought that it was unnecessary,” Chitwood says. “But when we showed them the petrie dishes full of microorganisms from the water that was coming out of their taps, it opened their eyes for the very first time, and they realized they can't just provide water, they have to provide biologically-safe water for these children to drink.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Pawan Labhasetwar on how poor sanitation and water quality are connected

We are seeing that constructing toilets doesn't help people and encourage people to use those toilets, and that's the major work which we are now doing. We have already prepared a communication plan through which we are trying to communicate to the community how critical it is to use the toilets so that not only we can control the feces, but we can keep our water safe. Microbiological qualities are also a major concern, which offers a major disease point, particularly among children.

Derek Chitwood on the challenges of communication

Our NGO makes ceramic water filters, which can remove almost all of the microorganisms, so the water is safe to drink. But getting them to use it while the water is right there, there's a mentality where I work that if it's clear, it's good to drink. And yet there could be thousands of microorganisms there, so how do you change that? So one of the ways that we do it is we try to get students like from Beijing or other influential areas to come and promote a "Well if they use it, we're going to use it" mentality. So the social engineering, the social change of the way people think is far more important than the engineering aspect. You need both.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Feleke Zewge, Pawan Labhasetwar, and Derek Chitwood, thank you so much for joining me today on World Views. Welcome.

ALL: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

GRILLOT: So all of you work in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene. You’ve been visiting our WaTER Center here, and yet you're working in different parts of the world, so I would like to hear a little bit, just very quickly from each of you, about the part of the world that you're working in, and what is the most concerning issue in terms of what you're focusing on? So Feleke, would you like to begin? You do your work in Ethiopia. What is the main water concern that we have in Ethiopia?

ZEWGE: Ethiopia is one of the least countries in terms of water supply and sanitation coverage in the world. Basically, microbial contamination of our water sources and coverage is very low. Access to safe water is very low, particularly in rural parts of the country, and on top of that, we have also limitations in terms of technologies - water supply or water treatment technologies. In addition to that we have also contaminations from natural geological formation sources, such as fluoride...

GRILLOT: So fluoride, yeah, some of the work you've been doing.

ZEWGE: ...these are the major issues in Ethiopia.

GRILLOT: Okay, well Pawan, what about your work in India?

LABHASETWAR: Yeah. Let's see, we are the second-most-populous country in the world, with a population of around 1.24 billion. Though we have sufficient rainfall, there is a regional variability in rainfall, so part of India now suffers from water scarcity, particularly the Western part and Southern peninsula. In addition, we have problems with water quality also. We have problems like high fluoride, arsenic, nitrate, and iron in our water. And third is sanitation and hygiene. Though we have reached a target of about 60 percent access of the population as far as sanitation is concerned, but there almost 400 million Indians who do not have access to sanitation. So we're trying to improve that, and these are the major problems. And then we're trying our very best to address these issues in India.

GRILLOT: And Derek, how about in China? You work in China and Myanmar, both, right? Or somewhere on the border?

CHITWOOD: Predominantly in China. I've been in China for the last 12 years, and working there. Predominantly our concern is water that has a lot of microorganisms. We've seen a lot of places where the microbial count is just really off the scale. And because of this, we're looking predominantly at that. There are a few places where there are also some heavy metals such as fluoride or arsenic, but 99 percent of the places where we work just have a lot of microorganisms in the water. Because of that, children are getting sick, people are dying early.

GRILLOT: So clearly the connection between problems with the water and health crises, and therefore development. Being able to develop in each of your countries as developing nations. So it sounds like you have a lot of similarities here, but I'd like to ask, would you say that the issue is less one about access to water or the supply of water, but the supply of clean water or drinkable water, or water that has too many bacterial agents or something in the water that makes it undrinkable, or sanitation issues? Of being able to have proper toilets and disposal of waste?

CHITWOOD: All three are key where I work. There are a lot of places where there are no latrines. So the custom of the people is that they just go up into the forest beyond the village. So when it rains, all that washes down into their springs. Therefore, when they drink that water, they get sick. Then there are other places where they have also no water, and so they're actually carrying the water from a long distance, but even that source is a river, which is not a safe place for getting water. So we really have all three aspects. We have to build more latrines so people have a place to properly store and dispose of their waste products, but also we need to get water for people and then we need to make sure that it is safe for them to be drinking.

LABHASETWAR: Yeah, there seems to be interconnectivity between poor sanitation and water quality. We are seeing that constructing toilets doesn't help people and encourage people to use those toilets, and that's the major work which we are now doing. We have already prepared a communication plan through which we are trying to communicate to the community how critical it is to use the toilets so that not only we can control the feces, but we can keep our water safe. Microbiological qualities are also a major concern, which offers a major disease point, particularly among children.

ZEWGE: Yeah, I think it's the same also in Ethiopia. The access is very low, which means that if there is no access, then you can't think of sanitation.

GRILLOT: So the supply even. It's not just that you don't have clean water; you don't have water at all.

ZEWGE: Yeah. So it's difficult to really achieve those targets.

GRILLOT: Well I'm curious about...each of you are working in areas where perhaps it’s difficult to overcome some cultural practices regarding water and sanitation and how these things are communicated to the community. Could you tell us a little bit about that? There's the issue of engineering filtration and all that work to clean the water, but then there's that social side of it. Of communicating it to the public and ensuring that they know what to do and how to use these products and change their practices. To not go off into the forest as they've always done before, but to use the latrine for example.

LABHASETWAR: Yeah, it's a very interesting question. Where we earlier had tried engineering solutions to the problem, and it really didn't work. Then, as I told you, we have prepared a communication plan, and then in India we have Bollywood actors and cricketers, who are very famous, so we are trying to involved these Bollywood actors and cricketers so they can communicate with the community. Because if you involve them, we're sure the message will reach the community. So we decided it's not only an engineering problem, but we have to really communicate to the community that unless you use the toilet, there's no use for constructing the toilet.

CHITWOOD: I would say that I think that's brilliant - to get the famous cricketers and such people. It really has a great impact because people...for example, our NGO makes ceramic water filters, which can remove almost all of the microorganisms, so the water is safe to drink. But getting them to use it while the water is right there, there's a mentality where I work that if it's clear, it's good to drink. And yet there could be thousands of microorganisms there, so how do you change that? So one of the ways that we do it is we try to get students like from Beijing or other influential areas to come and promote a "Well if they use it, we're going to use it" mentality. So the social engineering, the social change of the way people think is far more important than the engineering aspect. You need both.

GRILLOT: Yeah, because you could clean up the water, but then you don't have, nobody uses the latrines. So what do you think needs to be done? Each of you working on a very local level, I would imagine, but is there more international awareness that needs to be managed about this? Do international organizations need to be buying in and facilitating the type of work that you're doing, or is this really a ground-up, grassroots-level, people at the local level need to be buying in more, or some combination of the two? What would you say are some of the common solutions, or are there common solutions, that you're facing in these areas?

LABHASETWAR: Although there is a similarity between the problems in Ethiopia, India, and China, I feel the solution should come from within, because it's a local issue, and then as you rightly pointed out, it's a cultural issue also. So to deal with the cultural issues...if we can find out a good plan to communicate with them and keeping their cultural interest protected, I'm sure that it can be handled. We really made good progress [over] the last 5-6 years when we tried to communicate with the community. I hope that we'll try to do much better than in the past.

ZEWGE: I think the best way in Ethiopia, according to my experience, it would be more appropriate to empower the local communities and build capacities at the grassroots level. We can use different advocacy approach, and for several years it didn't work, so we have to think how to really empower the communities and how we should be able to make them understand the situation.

GRILLOT: But what about governments? Inevitably, governments are involved in all of your work in some way, shape, or form. Are they helpful? Are they an impediment? Are they supporting this type of work? If you want to empower people at the local level, do you do that working with governments? Outside of governments? What is the method that you're using in that regard?

CHITWOOD: We have to work with the local governments. We're an international NGO, so it's their home, so we need to respect them a lot. Secondly, they need to understand the situation so they can promote it. We worked with the party secretary of a county who we were providing filters to schools, and they really thought that it was unnecessary, because the water was clear. But when we showed them the petrie dishes full of microorganisms from the water that was coming out of their taps, it opened their eyes for the very first time, and they realized they can't just provide water, they have to provide biologically-safe water for these children to drink. So then from there, they opened the door wide open and said, "Oh, yes, please come in." So part of it we need to be working with them to educate the local officials so they will open the door so that more grassroots work can be done.

LABHASETWAR: Yeah, in India it's predominantly done by government. We also face problems in convincing government officials sometimes what the proper solutions are. We are told also to demonstrate through evidence-based research and implementation a certain approach may prove harmful, and they can analyze the findings and replicate those interventions in India. It's really good to be in Oklahoma to participate in this international conference to know more about international experience so we can go back and try to implement some solutions which have been successfully practiced elsewhere in the world.

ZEWGE: We have...the government structure is up to the local level. So it's up to the communities. So we have health extension workers in each community. So it's good to link our efforts to the government, particularly to the local government. I think we cannot bring any change without strengthening the local government.

GRILLOT: So local government capacity-building within the communities. Well, very important work, and certainly very challenging I'm sure, but thank you Feleke, Pawan, and Derek for being with us today on World Views to talk about this important issue.

ALL: Thank you very much.

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