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For more than a month now the women of Kalikapur slum, along the Eastern Metropolitan (EM) Bypass in Kolkata, have been providing safe drinking water to their families. And they don’t even have to walk several kilometres to do that.

“Best part is I can get water any time of the day," says Brihospoti Coolie, showing her radio frequency identification (RFID) smart card, which she calls an “ATM card" like everybody else here. She scans the card over the reader of the vending machine at the WASH-US water plant in the slum and fills up her white jerrycan. “This water tastes good," she says. “There’s no odour and there are no suspended particles. After struggling for water all our lives, there is some respite."

She and her neighbour Anima Kar fill 10 litres each. Both work as domestic helps in the high-rise apartments separated from their slum by the EM Bypass and a “multipurpose" triangular pond.

WASH-US is the acronym for Water Sanitation Hygiene for Urban Slums, a project of the Kolkata-based South Asia Forum for Environment (SAFE). The project has been operational since August. It is funded by HSBC Water Programme—a partnership between HSBC bank and the non-profits World Wildlife Fund, WaterAid and Earthwatch.

At the core of the integrated water-sanitation-hygiene project is a solar-powered water-treatment plant, which has made potable water accessible to the slum’s 570 households for the first time. Each registered household has been issued a smart card with which they can draw water at any time of the day. Currently, there is one automated dispensing unit (ADU) at the plant. Each household gets 10 litres free of cost; for every additional 10 litres they pay 5. “This helps in checking wastage," says SAFE chairman Dipayan Dey.

The plant uses the microarray reverse osmosis (RO) system to purify the pond water and generates 10,000 litres of water daily. “It is our conscious decision to use surface water and not groundwater, which is fast depleting," says Amrita Chatterjee, head of research and communications, SAFE.

The refuse water generated in the process of water purification is channelled through a pipeline to the four toilets SAFE has set up to address the issue of open-defecation in the area. “Providing drinking water without checking open-defecation is meaningless," says Dey.

“We got the (refuse) water tested in the laboratories, not only in India but also abroad, and after we were satisfied that it could be used for cleaning purposes, we channelled it to the toilets," adds Dey.

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At the time of the survey, about 52% of the households had makeshift structures as toilets—generally, raised bamboo platforms covered on four sides. Very few of these exist now. These toilets dumped human waste directly into the canal on the other side of the slum and into the pond, the only source of water for household needs (washing and cleaning) for most of the slum residents.

In the WASH-US model, while the waste is expected to convert into non-toxic water in the experimental bio-digestive toilets, biogas and bio-fertilizer is being produced in the conventional ones. “The biogas is being used as fuel in the community-kitchen," says Chatterjee.

A lot of thought has gone into making the model “climate-adaptive" and energy-saving. “It has the potential to downscale climate impacts," says Dey. On the one hand, it uses renewable source of energy (solar power) and on the other, it generates energy by producing biogas. “We have in place an energy-meter that indicates how much energy we are saving daily."

SAFE has formed four joint-liability groups comprising slum residents who are being trained on the management and running of the plant. “SAFE believes in community governance of resources," says Dey. “If the people do not ‘own’ it, it is less likely that they will value it. Therefore we thought of this revenue-linked, self-sustaining model that works through participatory budgeting."

The main focus for SAFE now is to work on making the new lifestyle a habit. “There is a need to change the mindset first," says Dey. “The problem of water, sanitation and hygiene is not just because of the lack of infrastructure or the high costs. A lot is in the mindset which does not motivate them to invest in a hygienic toilet even if they can afford it."

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