Gandhian Thoughts on Gender, Water, and Sanitation

asia, ngo, participatory management, rural, sanitation, sustainability, water justice, water management

An eight-hour overnight train journey leaves me waking up just before arrival to Dindigul Junction as the engine rumbles to a stop. For my final field visit in South India, I have come to Gandhigram Trust to see how their recent water and sanitation interventions, funded by Arghyam, have affected women and men in rural villages as part of my studies on gender, water, and sanitation.

Gandhigram began with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi. He supported his two friends, Dr. Soundram and Dr. Ramachandran, in starting an organization for local development in rural areas. Since 1947, Gandhigram has engaged in a number of activities to empower those in rural communities through promotion of local industries to strengthen economies, building low-cost health centers, providing housing for abandoned children and the elderly, creating schools for youth to study, and – lately – assisting villages in developing water and sanitation systems.

Kasturba, Gandhi, Soundram, and Ramachandran
Above Photo: Dr. Ramachandran, Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi, and Dr. Soundram.

My interest in Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) excites me for this visit. I am curious to see how such principles are incorporated into Gandhigram’s water and sanitation activities. What’s more, gender equality and Gandhian philosophy have much in common as they both advocate equality for all people regardless of socio-economic backgrounds and bottom-up, participatory social structures.

Upon arrival, I visit with the Secretary of Gandhigram, M.R. Rajagopalan. He claims not to be a scholar, but his shelves are filled with the writings of Gandhiji and other books on Gandhian thought. He authored a paper entitled “Gandhi – A Divine Environmentalist.” In this paper, he argues if all people are able to embrace Gandhian principles, the world (people, plants, animals, and inanimate objects) will be a kinder, more holistic, and more sustainable place. He says:

“Gandhiji would have wanted us to follow the path of the robust left – of the – centre social democratism where empowerment of women and the weaker/poorer sections of our society was guaranteed. Secondly, he would have liked us to link environmentalism with some basic social, economic, and ethical tenants.”

With this in mind, how does Gandhian thought translate to Gandhigram’s mission to assist villages in access, planning, and managing water and sanitation systems? Further, how does Gandhian thought overlap with reaching gender equality for water and sanitation systems?

By raising awareness about the importance of the use of toilets in reducing the spread of diseases, renovating community standposts and other water structures, and providing micro-credit for the construction of toilets, Gandhigram is creating better access to water and sanitation resources for some women and men in villages. If all people are able to garner equal access (a gender equality and Gandhian goal), less people will fall ill or have to relocate to urban areas (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). Access to water and sanitation resources for many women in these villages is improved by the creation and renovation of community standposts, which reduces their time fetching water, and the construction of toilets, which provides a place for them to manage their menstrual cycle (a gender equality goal).

Renovated Standpost
Above Photo: A renovated standpost in village.

Gandhigram assists with the formation of community groups in villages. One group, called the Village Water and Sanitation Committee, consists of village elders, government leaders, religious leaders, and others of influence. Another group, called the Water Users Group, consists of women in the villages. Both of these groups are intended to facilitate a bottom-up, participatory approach to water and sanitation planning and management (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). But these participatory management structures for planning and management are still evolving, and there are subtle caste, economic, political, and gender disparities which result in unequal participation in planning and managing water and sanitation resources in these villages.

Even in the presence of these existing hierarchical social structures which detract from true equitable and participatory systems, Gandhian principles provide valuable guidance for fair and just access, planning, and management of water and sanitation systems. Other scholars, like Amartya Sen, argue that Gandhian thought is not the answer for global environmental problems. Yet, seemingly, few would contend that fair and equal access, planning, and management of water and sanitation resources is a negative aspiration. It is my belief that equity and empowerment must also come from within each individual. It is up to every one of us in our daily lives – whether in a village or in a city – to incorporate gender equality and Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) into our routines in order to create and maintain equitable systems for water and sanitation resources.

“Success attends where truth reigns”- Gandhi’s last phrase for Gandhigram.

Author’s Postcript:
I am living in India for an internship with a water-focused NGO called Arghyam. Along the way, I will document my journey. Please see the Water in India page above for more information.

Dude, where’s my lake?

africa, agriculture, asia, audio, climate change, economy, general, lakes, rainwater, research, south america, sustainability, water availability

An estimated three hundred and four million of them across the globe, and yet researchers are noticing many inland lakes are beginning to dry. In Siberia, Central Asia, East Africa, and North America – the results are the same – lakes simply cannot compete with man-made alterations to the environment. These are not just small lakes, some of the lakes with dropping water levels are gigantic in size.

There are 122 large lakes in the world each over 1000 square kilometers (386 square miles). Lake Victoria, in Africa, is the largest tropical lake in the world at 68,800 square kilometers (26,560 square miles). Mounting water-level decline in this lake is slowly eroding the livelihood of local fisherman and ranchers, agricultural producers, and industrial water users near the lake. A lack of suitable drinking water or dependable power supply is also becoming more common in the region.

Morning Edition on NPR recently aired a segment on Lake Victoria by corespondent Jessica Partnow: ‘Battle for Resources Grows as Lake Victoria Shrinks‘. She has also reported on dropping water levels in Lake Haramaya in Africa for World Vision Report.

Disappearing Lake‘ by Jessica Partnow

Sometimes occasional fluctuations of water levels in lakes are natural, but the current rate that many lakes are beginning to go dry throughout the world is not. Humans alter the natural environment near lakes and water levels decline. We build dams, over-pump rivers, over-use groundwater, put roads and parking lots in natural recharge areas, build industries in locations without enough water, over-irrigate our crops, and, often, we use too much water in our homes. Not to mention the effect of a changing climate on water supply sources.

But, some things that could help ‘decline’ at least some of this water-level decline include: conservation, conservation, conservationgrow crops in regions they are acclimated (low-water crops)alternative water supply sources such as rainwater harvesting systemspursue green “water conservative” development techniquesreduce the pavementrethink industrial productionlow impact livingconservation, conservation, conservation.

A few other lakes around the world with dropping water levels

Aral Sea – Central Asia
Great Lakes – United States
Lake Baikal – Russia
Lake Chad – Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger
Lake Chapala – Mexico

‘Water is Water’ – Newar Poet on Cultural Earth

agriculture, asia, audio, hydrogeology, international, outreach, rivers

Purna Bahadur Vaidya is a Newar Poet from Nepal with a collection of “84 poems refracted through water” in the language of Nepal Bhasa called LA LA KHA (WATER IS WATER).

Wayne Amtzis (photographer and writer himself) sat down with the author to translate the poems into English. He has so graciously given permission for some of these translations to be featured on the Cultural Earth page on Water for the Ages. His translations have also appeared in The Drunken Boat, a web magazine of international works.

In addition, the Library of Congress has recorded Purna Vaidya reciting portions of LA LA KHA in his native language of Nepal Bhasa.


Photo above courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Mount Everest is the peak with the clouds to the left. Ama Dablam is the peak to the far right.

Will water supply concerns overshadow the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing?

agriculture, asia, dam, drinking water, drought, economy, industrial, international, sustainability

Over two million people are expected to visit Beijing this year for the Summer Olympic Games. In August, the population of the metropolis will crest 19 million souls.

The arrival of so many visitors to China’s capital will result in exaggerated water use of 2.75 million cubic meters (2,229 acre-feet) a day or, in layman’s terms, enough water to fill 2000 Olympic size swimming pools each day.

Chinese officials may soon begin to worry as North China is currently enduring a severe drought including Hebei (which surrounds Beijing) and other provinces in the north.

The Chinese Ministry of Water Resources indicates the drought has caused 50,000 wells to go dry, with over 170,000 additional wells short of water. Over 3.4 million hectares of crops have been compromised, and 250,000 people are now short of drinking water in the Shandong, Heilongjiang and Hebei provinces.

China’s answer to this Catch-22 is to pipe water to Beijing via extensive water supply canals, often at the expense of local citizens, businesses, or agricultural practices. China hurries to finish 309 km (192 miles) of canals to draw water from behind several dams in the province of Hebei to serve water to Beijing for the Olympics, as stated on Reuters. These canals are actually part of a larger project China is undertaking to pipe massive amounts of water from the Yangzte River in the south to arid regions in the north, widely known as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project (previously reviewed on WaterWired).

                                                                                                    Central route of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, courtesy of The New York Times.

Concerns about the colossal diversion project by residents of the area are many. During an interview with the Environmental News Network, one farmer said:

“For the country, it’s a good thing. It will bring water to Beijing so everything runs smoothly,” said Shi Yinzhu, herding sheep near the 100-metre wide canal in Tang county. “But for us here, they had to pump away underground water to dig the canal and we’ve lost a lot of land too … Sometimes you wonder if they need all the water more than us here.”

The world’s attention will soon be on Beijing, China for the Summer Olympic Games.

Will the world’s attention also be on the many people currently affected by drought conditions and difficult times in North China?

NEWS UPDATE 

In China, the State Flood and Drought Relief Headquarters has just updated statistics showing currently 5.9 million people face drinking water shortages, more than double that figure of 2.43 million published on Feb. 24, throughout the entire country.

and

China Diverting Major River to “Water” Beijing Olympics – National Geographic

Inner Mongolia Desertification (report by Circle of Blue)

asia, climate change, desertification, drinking water, drought, groundwater, industrial, international

Three million acres of sensitive grassland becomes desert each year in northern China and Inner Mongolia. This process of desertification causes water-tables to drop, groundwater sources to become salty, and dust storms to become more frequent. People from all walks of life are challenged by deterioration of these grasslands (often referred to as Steppe). Nomadic people of the area can no longer graze animals on the land and dust from storms is noticeable as far away as Japan, Korea, and the United States.


Above Photo: Kurt Friehauf.

The non-profit organization Circle of Blue has just released a comprehensive multimedia report on the desertification of Inner Mongolia called Reign of Sand. This inclusive and sensitive picture of Inner Mongolia (on the Circle of Blue website) features articles, an interactive map, a slide show of photographs, and videos. The collection examines linkages between climate change and rapid industrialization of north China to desertification and water unavailability in Inner Mongolia.

See the report on Inner Mongolia by Circle of Blue, REIGN OF SAND.

Singapore’s International Water Week 2008

asia, economy, international, research, technology, water privitization, water trade

Singapore is hosting International Water Week from June 23rd to June 27th of 2008. This first-annual event is to be held as a forum for “government officials, industry leaders and water specialists” to discuss policy, business, and water technology. Festivities of the week encompass a Water Trade Show, a Water Summit, and presentation of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize to an innovator in the field of water technology.

In 2006, Singapore began wide-spread governmental investments in water technologies to accelerate economic growth in the water sector. No doubt hosting two-hundred exhibitors of water technologies will be great way for the country to stay abreast of additional investment opportunities.

However, several main sponsors of International Water Week include multinational corporations with questionable environmental and water management track records including:

Enterprising steps in the field of water technology are fundamental to ensure available water supplies now and into the future.

Does sponsorship of International Water Week by the above organizations make this event any less important? Not necessarily, but maybe it does mean that we should pay closer attention to these companies and their water management standards.

World Economic Forum 2008 Wraps Up with Water

agriculture, asia, climate change, drinking water, economy, industrial, international, technology, united nations, water trade

Water was a major topic of conversation at the World Economic Forum 2008 (WEF) now coming to a close in Davos, Switzerland.

At the forum, according to the Environmental News Service, Bill Gates announced a grant of $306 million dollars for development projects to help boost yields of crops for farmers in developing countries. It is unclear whether a portion of this money will be devoted to water conservation practices in conjunction with agriculture. Also discussed was implementation of a cap and trade system for water supplies and the importance of market forces in water allocation.

Leaders at the forum pledged renewed support for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, of which one goal is to increase access to safe drinking water.

Created as a venue for dialogue, research, and networking among economic and political leaders, the WEF is often criticized for more talk rather than action, a membership majority of industrialized countries (primarily USA, Europe, and Asia), and limited media access to specified plenary sessions.

While members of the WEF did review the importance of water in the coming age, no definitive plan was drafted to move our global society in that direction. However, maybe discussions during the event will leave lasting impressions on these economic leaders. And gradually, they will come to the realization that water is more than a commodity, but a necessity of life.

Be sure to check out other blog posts on this issue… our friends at WaterWired give additional perspective on how water was incorporated into the WEF agenda.

Webcasts from this forum are available on the Podcasts, Video, and Web-Mediapage on this blog, as well as on the WEF website.

For an insiders look at the WEF 2008, check out this NPR story: The Wacky World Economic Forum.

Drought and the Yangtze

agriculture, asia, climate change, dam, drought, sustainability

A short video clip from the BBC on the current drought occurring around the Yangtze River in China. River levels are at record lows, and Chinese officials are discharging extra water from the Three Gorges Dam. Scientists indicate climate change will increase the frequency of such droughts.

Will the Three Gorges Dam still be relevant if dropping river levels on the Yangtze become commonplace?

More articles on dropping flows in the Yangtze River include:
Yangtze River water level at 140-year low – Telegraph
Yangtze hit by drought in China – BBC News
Parts of China’s Yangtze at lowest level in 140 years – AFP 

Flood Drinking Water Contamination: Risk Factors

asia, drinking water, floods, groundwater, international

Many in the United States are acquainted with the effects of flooding. Especially after Hurricane Katrina, numerous other flooding events, and the recent past deluge on the Chehalis River of Southwest Washington. Rampant in the media during these times of floods are deaths, displacements, economic losses, and causes associated with the flooding. Less common immediately after a flood event, however, is media attention to water-borne illnesses and water contamination.

Depending on location and sanitation conditions, flood water can contaminate drinking water (surface water, groundwater, and distribution systems). Groundwater wells can be rendered useless from inundation of water laced with toxins, chemicals, animal carcasses, septic seepage, and municipal sewage. Surface water sources are impacted in similar manners. Infectious diseases can also be spread through contaminated drinking water. As indicated by the Center for Disease Control such illnesses might include:

Diseases not present in an area before a major flood event are not likely to be present after a major flood event. Cholera and Typhoid are more common in lower income countries. Additionally, people in higher income countries are sometimes able to obtain drinking water at shelters, and/or others with adequate resources may temporarily move to a nearby location with safe municipal water supplies.


Above Photo: Devastation in Bangladesh. SOS-Arsenic.net.

Prospects in countries without such available infrastructure are often dire. Bangladesh encounters flooding annually. In August 2007, floods in the region (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and India) killed over 2,000 people and displaced 20 million people with many infected by contaminated water supplies (over 100,000 in Bangladesh alone). Mozambique is enduring endured serious flooding as the Zambezi River and Save River are cresting crested the banks from torrential rains in Zimbabwe. A press release was issued by Oxfam International stating:

“Whenever a flood hits, a lack of clean water and sanitation facilities reaches dangerous levels in a matter of days, if not hours. Access to both will become farther and farther out of reach and could lead to a widespread health crisis as flood waters continue to rise,”

– Hugo Oosterkamp, Oxfam Water and Sanitation Emergency Coordinator

In all countries, time is of the essence to assist people with access to potable water. In rural locations, education is essential to provide alternative options for water treatment. Sometimes it is possible to disinfect a groundwater well that has been contaminated or, more immediately, purify water using solar radiation on top of a house and chlorinate small water supplies for personal use. For more information, see these websites on flood related water issues and well protection from contamination by flooding.

Drought Continues in Kashmir

agriculture, asia, drought, economy

The Kashmir region (India, China, and Pakistan) is hoping for additional precipitation in form of snow.  The region, while traditionally arid, has received little snow or rain over the past several months to replenish waterways. December 22nd commenced an annual season of 40-days known as “Chillai Kalan”, characterized with heavy snowfall and blustery temperatures. However, as of yet, this “Chillai Kalan” has not brought the significant snowfall for which citizens have been hoping. A shortage of rain threatens many farmers in the region, including those who cultivate the famed Kashir Saffron spice (exported on the global market).

Nearly five hundred springs have dried up, and the level in the river Jhelum has fallen to a dangerously low degree. The river through the middle of the city has shrunk so low that at several places children can bee seen playing cricket on the river bed.

Kashmir Observer

River Jhelum near Srinagar, during a time with ample flow.

China Faces a Range of Water Problems

asia, international

The Peoples Republic of China is a country of over 1.3 billion people with 20% of the world’s total population. Extensive environmental pollution in the region is often blamed on increased industrialization, with little or no environmental regulatory oversight. Water problems are many and include:

  • The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River
  • South-to-North Water Diversion Project
  • Increased Desertification in the North
  • Industrial Discharge
  • Raw Sewage Discharge

PBS produced this documentary, China From The Inside, which highlights the governmental systems and environmental problems of China. Their web-site features an interactive map, such as the one depicted below, detailing water issues in China.


Above Photo: PBS

This recent post on Water Wired, talks of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project in China, billed by some as the largest hydrological alteration attempted in the world. Economically, China is beginning to make strides in the global market, but this progress is at often at the cost of the environment. Is the Communist Party of China (actually more similar to a state capitalist system) doing enough to preserve the country for future Chinese citizens?

Nepal Discontent Over Climate Change Talks in Bali

asia, climate change, india, united nations

Nepal is a land on the edge of the mighty Himalayas. Although rather small, only the size of Arkansas, Nepal is known the world over for Mount Everest which is the highest mountain globally at an elevation of 29,029 feet.

As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change wraps-up in Bali, Nepali officials are worried water supplies may become even more stressed with loss of glacial sources in the Hindu-Kush. Their concerns are exasperated with the hesitancy of the US and Canada to agree to any definitive carbon emission cessation.

Water shortages in Nepal are nothing new. The diverse elevation and terrain leaves lowlands hot and humid while alpine regions are cold and remote. Sanitation and water infrastructure have continuously presented difficulties in places such as Madhyapur Thimi and areas of Kathmandu Valley. Approximately 13,000 children die each year from lack of potable water.

Individuals who reside in mountainous regions in Nepal use less than 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of water per day. Still Nepal’s rivers, driven by snow-melt, are already showing signs of decreasing flows. Further, water wars are expected to ensue between many countries that rely on glacial melt in the Himalayas for water supply including India and China.

A step in the right direction, organizations such as Nepal Water For Health are encouraging better access to sanitation and utilization of alternative water supply systems such as rainwater collection and fog collection systems (such as the one depicted below), and water conservation measures as drip irrigation.

Singapore: Water Technology Clearinghouse

asia, economy, technology

Previously, on this water web-log, we have heard of Israel’s attempts to become the next “Silicon Valley” of water technology. Right on schedule, other investment minded countries are jumping on-board.

Singapore has stepped-up with hopes of being a major water-technology provider for Asian countries, as reviewed on Earthtimes. The island of Singapore, south of Malaysia, began serious investment inquiries of the water industry in 2006, with major political funding aimed at such measures. And, a track-record of being able to provide sustainable supplies of water to citizens in a water scarce country, certainly helps to poise the country to step into such a role with ease. China is already beginning to take much interest in this small city-state’s ability to utilize water technology.

Downtown Singapore sky-line (at the entrance of the Strait of Malacca), photo courtesy National Geographic.

Water Guzzlin’ Biofuels

agriculture, asia, india

Initially, biofuels (such as biodiesel and ethanol) were thought the holy-grail of the environmental and energy movement. After further review, several problems arise that may negate any positive environmental outcome of the use of biofuels.

Negative aspects of biofuel production include increased water shortages, food shortages, and energy shortages. Such issues are evaluated in this article written by Fred Pearce (author of When the Rivers Run Dry). Developing countries have the highest rate of biofuel production, and thus endure most negative environmental consequences. As stated in Down to Earth, environmental journal of India:

A paper “Biofuels: Implications for agricultural water use” by researchers from the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, predicts China will face shortage of land while India is likely to have severe water crisis. The study was released on October 11, 2007.

Photo courtesy of rrelam on flickr.

Kashmir Region Prepares for Harsh, Dry Winter

asia, drinking water, drought, groundwater, india

The region known as Kashmir is experiencing water shortages as there has been little rainfall over the past three months. Weather outlooks for the coming weeks predict more dry weather, and main rivers and lakes in the region have water levels that are decreasing.

In Srinagar, the summer capital of Jummu and Kashmir, the central River Jhelum has been reduced to a mere drip through the city. Government officials have implemented some water rationing programs in preparation for water shortages. Researchers at the University of Kashmir are reviewing climate change and possible links to increased fires and weather changes in the Kashmir Valley.