Nandini sits coyly in the first row of her class, leaning against an unplastered pillar. The school is a dark, dull brick structure where the children sit on a mud floor as they recite after their teacher. There are only 25 in out of the usual strength of 42. The others have skipped school to buy goods at the santé (weekly market) with their families. Nandini smiles, looks down, and nods her head when asked if she goes to the spring to fetch water with her mom before coming to class. Nandini isn't alone. Infact she is the norm in the hills of the Eastern Ghats near Narsipatnam town in the Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh. Most girls, some barely 10 years old, are burdened with the chore of fetching pots of water along with the female members for their family's daily needs before they head for school.
State governments and NGOs are encouraging the use of springs as clean sources of water across India, considering they cater to 20 million people...
Sample this. Women here (including young schoolgoing girls) spend almost five hours a day fetching water. This means making five to eight trips depending upon the season, number of people in the family, and those who can assist in fetching water. Each of the pots average around 15 litres and the women carry three to four, one on top of the other each trip, uphill or down. On a rainy day the task of securing water for the family risks limb and life. Unlike the plains, the distance isn't the only hurdle. A 100-metre walk to a spring source might seem harmless. But the slippery, rocky precipice or a water-logged trail is arduous, with a possibility of proving fatal. Yet, there is no way around the drudgery until standposts with dependable water supply are made available. Across the world, especially among the poor, the burden of fetching water is borne by women while men eke out a living doing odd jobs or agricultural work. According to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), women and girls collectively spend as much as 200 million hours—or more than 22,800 years— every day fetching water. These Ghats are home to Adivasi communities such as the Agathas, Valmikis, Khond Dora and Khond Savara. Within these numerous communities that often share spaces of habitation, the act of procuring water is located within the silos of gender hierarchies.
The most common source of drinking water supply in these hills, in the recent years, has been groundwater tapped via borewells. But due to the various forms of contamination (geogenic and anthropogenic) like mining, drilling, land-use changes and so on, the water in many locations is unfit for drinking. It is under these circumstances in the mountainous and hilly regions of India that the traditional sources—springs—have become an important source for water. For generations, this was where an adivasi quenched her thirst. For many of us city-slickers the source of water may seem to begin and end at the twist of a tap; a luxury most families here have not experienced. That is slowly changing.
The potential benefits of conserving and maintaining springs in remote parts of India has been substantial. The foremost is the time saved.
State governments and NGOs are encouraging the use of springs as clean sources of water across India, considering they cater to 20 million people, 80% of whom live in the Himalayas, and the Western and Eastern Ghats. Innovative techniques such as the Gravity Fed Water Supply System (GFWSS) are being deployed. This is done by securing the spring as a source from human and animal contamination and allowing natural elevation and hydraulics, and basic infrastructure to establish a water supply. Not only is it cost-effective, it requires minimal maintenance and facilitates community participation that allows local decision-making. Its replicability has made it popular within communities. A typical GFWSS that serves about 100 households costs around ₹6 lakh including hardware costs of ₹4.5 lakh and human resource and software costs of ₹1.5 lakh. For a habitation of about 100 households, this amount translates to ₹6000/household. An average five-member family, therefore, can be served at ₹1200 per person as a one-time investment. It is an amount that can be spared by the communities without stretching them too much financially.
The potential benefits of conserving and maintaining springs in remote parts of India has been substantial. The foremost is the time saved. For women, being able to walk across the street next to their homes to fill a pot of water has opened up time for other chores. It has provided children a regular and safe access to water. This has translated into an increase in attendance in schools. Interestingly, the hills have seen an increase in construction of houses due to the regular supply of water. This has meant a proliferation of pakka buildings.
Initiatives like these are being made to ensure villages are water secure. Springs being numerous and often ignored, need to be protected to suit the needs of the local communities and ecosystems. There are many Nandinis in our country whose lives need to be enriched and secured. Persevere we must.
Shreehari Paliath is a part of Research and Advocacy at Arghyam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org