Thoughts on the Safe Water Crusade Initiative

Background

India has the highest number of people who lack access to potable water which imposes a huge financial burden on the poorest. Additionally, almost 70% of surface water resources and a growing percentage of groundwater reserves are contaminated by biological and chemical pollutants. Groundwater contamination is reported in 19 states of which 200 districts have reported iron, fluoride and arsenic. The cumulative and latent nature of both fluoride and arsenic, adds to the complexity of the issue.

This being the context, the Fluoride and Arsenic Knowledge and Action Networks set up the Safe Water Crusade as a campaign to encourage new approaches towards “solutioning” for water quality. The first batch of potential fellows was invited to share ideas that can help create a technology interface for water quality issues.

It was clear that the team had thought a lot before arriving at the two challenges and I was happy to be part of the process of selecting the final fellowship awardees. It was a great opportunity for me to try and read about and engage with so many innovative ideas. The process of reading through the proposals itself was very rewarding. We decided it was best to evaluate the proposals quantitatively by scoring (scale of 1-10) each submission on the following criteria:

a. Relevance of idea to the call for proposals

b. Potential for impact

c. Potential for scale

We considered having a quantitative score for the level of open source inclination for the idea, but then decided it had to be a qualifying criterion for any proposal to be selected. The potential for impact was critical since the objective was to solve for water insecurity due to water quality issues. With the ever increasing scale of the issue, and the mode of operation for development solutions being mostly at a pilot level, the need to design for scale cannot be underscored enough. These thoughts formed the core of evaluating the proposals as per the above criteria.

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Reflecting on the submissions

As I went through submissions, I realized that the potential for innovative thinking was not rare in the sector. Of the 40 submissions, at least 25 brought out some very interesting concepts and ideas. In addition to the final 4 that were selected for the fellowship, there were a few others that stood out in my opinion. From IVR based grievance reporting without using smart phones that has a very high potential to scale, to the critical need to bring attention to dug wells as a source of arsenic and fluoride free drinking water, to IoT enabled smart water purifiers with a do-it-yourself filter replacement method, and real time monitoring of data from water supply schemes leading to creation of big data sets that will have the potential to predict issues with the supply scheme, all of these ideas had high potential.

Safe Water Crusade, Moving Forward

The ideas that came out of this exercise reinforce the need to continue with such initiatives. There is also an express need to engage with such ideas outside of this fellowship platform.

Arghyam, over the last year or so, has been working on developing a Societal Platform for Water. As part of this, we have launched a platform called ForWater. As we go about developing the platform, there are four key principles that we seek to remain true to:

1. Stakeholder Convergence at various levels, for example:

a. Data generators

b. Knowledge convergence

c. Principle of Interoperability: Ability to embed with other wbesite and platforms for improved reach.

2 . Open Knowledge Exchange

3. Democratic participation

Data/Information generation and access rests in the hands of a select few organizations and individuals because of limited expertise in the sector. Therefore, dependence on a handful of experts for decision making acts as a barrier to scale. If these interventions and processes of knowledge generation can be broken into smaller action pieces, it has the potential to widen the scope of participation for individuals at the first mile.

4. Stakeholder accountability

With a truly democratic process in place for data and information generation, systems to establish trust in these will play a key role in ensuring stakeholder accountability.

At Arghyam, we are seeking answers to the following two questions:

a. Can some or all of the above stated principles be enabled through digital infrastructure/capabilities?

b. If yes, can we abstract the building blocks for this digital infra so that duplication of efforts can be avoided and wider participation can be ensured?

At the core of our efforts lies the identified need to design interventions for scale, in order to have substantial impact on the issue of water insecurity. To this effect, Arghyam is seeking to build agency in the sector to develop the base technology infrastructure to facilitate the above stated principles. The effort also is to identify other organizations/institutions and enable them to play the role of enablers (enablers would use the base infra to build their own platforms for action). The Safe Water Crusade’s principles of openness of information/knowledge and participation align with the above stated points.

Intersects can also be seen in the following:

a. Data demystification and open sharing as propagated by the winning entries. Overlaying of data, enabling data convergence.

b. Interfaces imagined by the winners and other entries to enable convergence across intersecting thematic like health, nutrition, water etc.

c. The potential for these individuals and the organizations they represent to play the extender role and develop their own solution designs.

d. The imagination for systemic change, which impacts scale of any intervention

The Safe Water Crusade is a much needed initiative. It seeks to provide a space for small organizations and individuals with innovative ideas to find space for incubation and give their nascent ideas momentum, while also getting the exposure to collaborate with others who have made or seek to make significant impact. Wishing all the best to the fellowship awardees, and hoping that the ideas are successfully implemented and achieve the desired impact.

The writer is Karthik Seshan. He works with Arghyam, a philanthropic organization based out of Bangalore, working on issues related to water. He was part of the 5-member jury to select this year’s Safe Water Crusade fellowship awardees.

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