A fluid paradox

International aid agencies and local people do not agree on what tastes like real water

By Jyotsna Bapat
Published: Saturday 15 April 1995

-- (Credit: Sanjaya Acharya / Earthscan<sc)BAD water kills. Since its 1979 conference the World Health Organisation (who) has been stressing that the high mortality rate in the rural Third World stemmed mainly from contaminated drinking water. And notwithstanding efforts undertaken by various countries, the problem still largely exists. Hence, many international aid agencies like the Danish International Development Agency, Overseas Development Agency, and the World Bank have now come forward to help India muster the resources for achieving the goal.

The problem underlying this project is at the level of perception and implementation. These agencies perceive clean drinking water as that which is devoid of coliform, bacterial and helminths -- organisms responsible for water-borne diseases. So, even though the water may look brown or taste metallic, or smell foul, although free of these organisms, it is considered safe for human consumption.

The agencies install deep borewells, pumps, storage tanks and lay pipes for water supply. And in the dry regions this is a costly proposition . I did extensive field work in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh (up) in 1994. In the black cotton soils of northwestern Karnataka and the coastal regions (as in southern up), the deep borewells yield metallic-tasting and brackish water respectively. A high percentage of dissolved salts give it the brown colour and metallic taste. The agencies insist it is safe. The local people find it unpalatable.

People in rural Karnataka and up say that water that is crystal clear, odorless and sweet is potable. They define "healthy water" as that which cooks their lentils fast, cleans their bodies thoroughly, and removes dirt easily from their clothes. Moreover, in up, a source that yields cool water during summer, and warm water during winter is considered desirable.

People refuse to believe that water can be responsible for diseases. The seasons, they say, are responsible. They argue that something which their ancestors called jeevan or life, can never take away life.

Problem arises because the aid agencies are geared to provide the water which is clean according to their definition of the term, but this runs against the stream of popular perception. If the water provided by the agencies is perceived by the people as undesirable, then they use it only for feeding their cattle or for gardening. They are unwilling to pay for it. As a result, the cost recovery is zero in these regions.

This takes us to the second basic premise on which the agencies operate -- water availability. This issue is directly related to the first premise. If clean drinking water is expensive, it must also be scarce.

During the field work in the summer of 1994, a survey based on geoclimatic zones using stratified random sampling of the villages was conducted. Information was gathered on the sources and the quantity of water collected per household. who stipulates that a minimum of 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) should be available in the rural areas. In Karnataka, an average of 67 lpcd was found available from the traditional sources: wells, canals and tanks in peak summer. The minimum amount available was 50 lpcd. In up, the average was a much higher 111 lpcd.

The reasons behind the technical nature of the solutions suggested by the aid agencies along with the local technocrats, are clear. The technocrats have stakes in providing hand pumps, borewells, storage tanks and pipelines, by allowing private contracts. And the aid agencies have to implement a programme in time as, they are accountable to their respective governments. So, what better way to show the output than by the number of pumps installed, storage tanks constructed and pipelines laid?

Since the popular perception of clean water is based on shared cultural experience, and the result of a long process of adaptation to the physical environment, the people should decide what for them is desirable clean drinking water. It is as valid as the donors' perception based on their modern scientific knowledge.

If the agencies genuinely want to reach out to the masses, the latter's perceptions should be given legitimate status without any imposition and thus, viable solutions be suggested to make clean drinking water available to them.

---Jyotsna Bapat is an eco-sociologist currently teaching at the Bombay University.

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