Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Front Lines

Every morning I rode a bus to the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) office outside of the city from our guesthouse in Panji. Women’s colorful saris pressed up against me as we all lurched along accompanied by blasting Indian music and passed coconut palms drenched in the tropical sun.

I was spending time at TERI to observe how they use hydrology and geology to implement appropriate technologies in the developing world. Specifically, I was interested in a project demonstrating the efficacy of Riverbank Filtration (RBF) at a site in the neighboring state of Karnataka. RBF uses the filtration and microbial properties of soil to purify water pumped through the riverbank. So far, this description is identical to a borewell tapping groundwater, which is how billions of people all over the world obtain their drinking water. The difference with RBF is that the well is adjacent (60m) to a perennial river, so it draws river water rather than depleting ground water. With funding from the World Bank, TERI has built an RBF well demonstrating that this technology can be used in a monsoon climate, and importantly that it can be run by a committee of villagers in an economically self-sufficient manner.

Veerbaswant Reddy, one of the TERI researchers, accompanied me and Eddie on a site visit of the RBF well. We met the landowner on whose the land the well was drilled, toured the village served by the RBF well, and took some basic dissolved solid, salinity and pH measurements.
In addition to fecal bacteria, the effluent from a nearby paper mill is the primary contaminant to the adjacent Kali River. This is where things get complicated: the paper mill is the major player in the local economy, employing 2000 people including both the landowner and one of his sons. The people in the village served by the RBF actually filed a lawsuit against the paper mill several years ago claiming compensation for the deaths of many of their livestock. Clearly, the mill has a stake in providing clean water to the village, and they have helped with the RBF project in building pipeline for the water and providing laboratory services for analyzing the contaminant levels of the RBF water (although this involves an obvious conflict of interest). Not surprisingly, upon closer investigation the situation is more complex than simply a well that provides clean water for a village in India.

But RBF is a well that provides clean water for a village in India. It appears to be functioning perfectly, and pays for its own maintenance with user fees that are less than what it costs to buy the unreliable water provided by the state. It has definitely succeeded in what it tried to accomplish: demonstrate that RBF can be effective. But it is a demonstration: TERI’s mission is to develop technology, not to directly provide clean water to large numbers of poor rural people.

In addition to observing TERI’s projects, I helped them out during my time in Goa. I worked on a project that has formed a local farmer’s club, encouraging farmers to cultivate their fields. In relatively well-off Goa, the price of labor is so high and the social value of agricultural work is so low that farmers let their fields lie fallow, leading to a lack of food sufficiency within the state. Yogitha, the project leader, asked me to help her to make a digital map of the fields of participating farmers and those who plan to join soon.

On a blazingly hot day punctuated with heavy pre-monsoon showers, I went to the fields, located on a low-lying island in the wide Mandovi River. Following each farmer as she or he walked out the perimeter of her or his field, I marked GPS points for every corner of every field. This level of detail was unneeded because we planned to make the map using GoogleMaps. We really only needed one set of latitude and longitude coordinates for each of the two groups of fields in order find them on GoogleEarth (and then we could find them on GoogleMaps).

I took this experience as an insight into the appropriate use of technology. I could have taken two GPS readings instead of the 35 that I was instructed to, but I believe that the project leader was oriented towards using the highest level of technology even where it wasn’t needed. Thanks to Eddie’s expertise with community-based development, he envisions a different approach involving the farmers themselves drawing a map of their fields in the dirt on the ground. This would not have been any more work for TERI (in fact it would have been less work), and would have given the farmers more ownership of the project. In addition, many of the farmers may not be familiar the abstract graphic representation of land using maps, so the map that we made will be of no use to them.

Despite these frustrations in addition to the missed communications, unchecked batteries and uncalibrated instruments that are the reality of work in the developing world, my time at TERI was extremely valuable. Going to the RBF field site allowed me to ask questions that I would not have thought of without actually being there. How does the Water Users Association work, and where does the power lie within it? (It lies with the one wealthy member, the owner of the land on which the well was drilled) Why would the paper mill pay for pipeline to be laid? (They have had a lawsuit filed against them for contamination of the river water) How do villagers access the water? (In two big tanks) Who uses the extra RBF water? (The landowner, at no cost to himself) Why won’t more RBF be implemented? (Because the villages will have to ask for it, and without outreach to encourage them, they won’t.)

If I choose to go into the field of development, I will have a sharp eye looking out for what type of organization to work with. Working in the field with TERI helped me understand its orientation towards developing and proving the efficacy of technology rather than implementing those innovations for large numbers of people. The two water purification techniques that I learned about at TERI, RBF and a method to remove geologically-occurring fluoride, were both appropriately simple and low-cost for use in the developing world. But only a community-based organization focused on implementing any one of these techniques will actually make a difference in more than 500 people’s lives. There is definitely a need for organizations like TERI to develop these methods, but I think I am more interested in an organization with a community implementation mission.


  1. is the green shirt the uniform or do you and Eddie just like to match? Just kidding, looks like you are learning valuable things in India! Wanted to let you know I'm reading your blog. :)