India: Water critical in rehabilitating earthquake-struck communities in Gujarat

by Pamela Davie in Dharampur
"After the earthquake in Gujarat we realised how vital water is in maintaining community health and well-being. In many villages access to water was the most critical issue," says Dr. Ramalingam, Secretary General of the Indian Red Cross.

But the Gujarat state was already suffering from three consecutive years of drought when the earthquake struck. A naturally arid region, the state has an average annual rainfall of 350 mm (14 inches) which falls during the monsoon over a fifteen day period. In the district of Kutch, worst affected by the earthquake, community water supply came in the form of a government pipeline network linked to bore wells and deliveries by water tanker. The earthquake had damaged the already weak and unreliable pipelines and the truck deliveries were sporadic at best.

While water shortages pose a continual threat to the vulnerable population, the possibility of a far greater humanitarian disaster in the next decade looms large. Increasing commercial activities that rely on large quantities of water and a proliferation of deep bore wells pose a serious risk to the natural renewal process of ground water reserves.

"We asked community leaders how their parents and grandparents managed to survive in such an arid region, and the answer was traditional water harvesting reservoirs, which you see in most villages. The problem is that that they have fallen into disrepair since water pipelines were introduced some 40 years ago," says Dr. Ganthimathi, deputy secretary-medical services, Indian Red Cross.

Traditionally, small reservoirs or dams collected rainwater to supply community needs for drinking, washing and agriculture. The reservoirs also recharged underground aquifers which fed village wells. The Red Cross recognised that by reintroducing traditional harvesting techniques, communities could supplement and significantly increase their existing water supply and the challenge was to build as many as possible before the monsoon rain arrived. Working around the clock, Indian Red Cross and Federation watsan teams managed to construct over 190 small reservoirs in time to harvest an estimated two years supply of water in each village to meet the communities' needs.

Local communities have been closely involved in the construction of the reservoirs and village Sarpanchs-or community leaders, and women meet with the Red Cross team to decide how the small reservoir rehabilitation would be used. Accordingly, the watsan team introduced ancillary works such as wells located close to the dams, so soil filtered water would create a potable water source. Hand pumps were added as were separate washing facilities for women.

"Villages have adapted the small reservoirs to serve their priority needs," says Patrick D'Aoust, Federation watsan delegate who recently visited communities to assess the programme. "In the village of Beru they have fenced off the small reservoir to prevent livestock from accessing it and a guard has been appointed to keep watch of the site. The reservoir is their first reliable supply of drinking water-and they report that it tastes much better than the piped water!"

In the village of Dharampur a newly built reservoir still full with monsoon rains has made a dramatic difference to the community. Local women exclaim how they used to have to spend four hours each day in the heat of summer, fetching water from the closest well in a neighbouring village.

Increased water combined with appropriate education has a positive impact on villagers health. A chronic health issue for many children in Kutch is diarrhoea and skin ailments. Through drama and song Red Cross awareness teams educate women and children about hygiene and its impact on health.

"Ninety-eight percent of water-borne diseases are linked to lack of hygiene. Most diseases and infections are caused by not washing hands after defecation, not cleaning utensils after cooking and not washing the body. In most of the beneficiary villages the piped water supplies used to provide some 15 litres per person per day, far less than the 50 litres recommended by WHO to maintain adequate health and hygiene," says Marilyn Leblanc, watsan delegate with the American Red Cross, who is working on a similar programme in the northern districts of Mehsana, Patan and Banas Kantha.

Complementing the watsan programme, is a three year community health training programme that focuses on building community capacity to address their health needs. Over 80 Red Cross field workers work in 20 villages to train new volunteers in health and hygeine, first aid and minimising risks of health epidemics.

In a region where the primary means of employment in villages is farming, cattle or labour, water supply is closely linked with economic prosperity. As a massive range of reconstruction activities are underway, large quantities of water are required for mixing cement mixing- one of the most expensive components of the process if transported from other sources.

But according to Neha Pomal, a Red Cross health and hygiene worker from Kutch, the greatest impact on communities is the new-found stability linked to a dependable supply of water. "This is where community development begins. Village women tell us 'you helped us to find water and improve our lives. Now it is up to us,'" says Neha.