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Women innovators on simple, revolutionary alternate solutions for water problems

By Proshakha Maitra, Mansee Bal Bhargava*

The detrimental effects of uncontrolled population rise and accelerated change in the global climate have posed tremendous pressure on the water and sanitation. This calls all stakeholders, from both developed and developing nations, to improve their resilience and to instigate sustainability. It is more crucial than ever to optimise the use of the resources we have on hand since the world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.
The water scarcity and safety issues which the various regions are facing and is predicted to face in the coming days cannot be tackled without innovative measures. In a world grappling with water scarcity and climate resilience, the need for innovative solutions have never been more critical than today. The quest for sustainability and efficiency in water management is now on the high.
Novel technology and innovations are put into practice for improvements in water sustainability, and efficiency. In the present times, novel technology and innovations are considered crucial tool for achieving better access to water and reliance on water resources which can eventually lead to better standards of living.

The session

The Wednesdays.for.Water session organized on ‘Incorporating Innovation to Everyday Water Issues’ invited three women innovators as speakers, they are, Garvita Gulhati, Preeti Chauhan and Mithan Subbiah. They are concerned about the everyday water issues and are convinced that small actions can bring large impacts and that individuals can revolutionize the society through small sustainable measures.
They shared their journey of concern which led them to innovate. Their power of conviction and passion to bring a change in the water sector through their innovative solutions on the ground are discussed in the session. The session was moderated by Radhica Kanniganti.

The ‘glass half-filled’

Garvita shared her concern and experience of working and developing the Ashoka project on the ‘Glass half-filled’. Considering the direct water, the estimated water consumption per individual is approximately 400-500 litres per day, comprising various activities. For instance, a single toilet flush consumes approximately 15 litres of water, while an ordinary shower accounts for more than 150 litres.
Considering the indirect water, there are several alarming facts that are unaccounted in everyday life. For example, the manufacturing process of a single pair of jeans necessitates over 4,000 litres of water, highlighting the substantial water footprint associated with clothing production. Then, the significant water usage of around 3,000 litres in washing cars is overlooked. There are numerous water-intensive product and processes exist, operating inconspicuously and collectively exerting a considerable demand on water resources on a daily basis.
Likewise, there are numerous possible solutions possible which indeed requires motivation, dedication and investigation by concerned individuals. For example, Garvita identified the significance of citizen involvement in mitigating water waste within the restaurant industry. Serious investigation revealed an estimated 14 million litres of water wasted annually just from the leftover glasses of water in restaurants. She took the initiative to engage with restaurant owners and managers with an aim to find practical solutions together by understanding the operational challenges and perspectives surrounding water management in the restaurant business.
The initiative reached out to the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) to collaborate on this mission. Through this partnership, the reach was extended approximately up to 500,000 restaurants across the country. Over the course of two to three years, the collective efforts resulted in the conservation of an impressive 10 million litres of water.
 Encouraging restaurants to fill glasses only halfway is a practice where individuals are encouraged to consume only the amount of water they actually need in order to reduce wastage alias, conserve water. This simple change can have a profound impact when multiplied across numerous restaurant visits and patrons.

Bio-sand filter

Preeti shared her concern and experience of working in Ladakh and developing the Bio-sand filter. The winter conditions in Ladakh provide compelling illustrations of the significance of water and the intrinsic value it holds. Situated amidst this region's harsh environment, individuals are faced with the reality of having to travel more than 200 meters to access water for basic necessities like washing and cooking.
Living through such circumstances naturally instils a deep appreciation for water, leading individuals to develop a sense of conservation. The absence of easy access to water accentuates its importance, thereby nurturing a deep-seated sense of its value.
Although, the mention of the Himalayas often evokes images of pristine and untainted water sources, settlements like Ladakh experience acute water scarcity being a mountain desert, where the availability of fresh water is limited. Rivers do flow through the region but the availability of water is alarmingly scarce.
Adding to it, the influx of domestic tourists surged after the release of the popular film ‘3 Idiots’ leading to a drastic surge in water consumption as well as pollution. Unlike the locals who are accustomed to utilizing dry compost toilets, which are eco-friendly, the tourists visiting Ladakh have different expectations and require flush toilets. However, the construction of flush toilets in this arid region poses a challenge, as the absence of proper septic tanks necessitates the use of soak pits—a makeshift solution comprising mud bricks placed on tank walls to receive flushed sewage water. Over time, this arrangement leads to the contamination of groundwater.
The perception of Leh's water as being heavy and unclean has driven an increased reliance on bottled water as an alternative. In response to the growing demands, people in Ladakh have expanded their reliance on water sources, moving beyond surface water to also include borewell water. However, this shift has raised concerns regarding the quality of groundwater. Instances have been reported where the extracted borewell water exhibited visible signs of contamination, with a noticeable yellowish hue, indicating potential groundwater pollution.
Despite the perception of mountain water being pure, the reality in Ladakh is gradually shifting towards water contamination and an increasing generation of waste due to plastic water bottles. Factors such as the improper disposal of waste, including plastic bottles, coupled with the contamination of water sources, pose significant challenges to maintaining the purity of water in the region.
Preeti found her concern in finding alternatives to plastic water bottles and established Little Green World to focus on waste reduction, prevention, and effective environmental management practices. The organization conducted surveys across various sectors, including hotels, restaurants, homestays, and guest houses to get comprehensive understanding of waste management mechanisms, including their approach to water and whether they served bottled water. The surveys also examined their energy consumption practices.
Additionally, tourists were surveyed to understand their preferences and readiness to accept alternative options. The survey sought to understand why tourists opted for bottled water, where most of them cited health concerns to be a major reason. It also investigated the practices of hotels, which typically refrained from serving regular water unless explicitly requested, driven by potential business benefits.
Through these surveys, the organization gathered valuable information to inform their initiatives and develop effective strategies that addressed the challenges of plastic bottle waste and promoted sustainable alternatives in the tourism industry. A bio-sand filter is designed specifically suiting for implementation in Ladakh. This water filter operates using a combination of sand, gravel, and a specially designed container. The primary purification process occurs as water passes through the sand and gravel, while an additional biological layer, consisting of microorganisms, accelerates the purification process at the top of the filter.
The bio-sand filter has a capacity of 80 litres, which proves to be sufficient for the water needs of hotels and restaurants. Compared to other filters that utilize modern technology, the maintenance costs are lower, and importantly, it is readily available in Ladakh where other filter options may be scarce. Considering the previous unsuccessful implementation of a government water ATM in Ladakh, the bio-sand filter offers a promising solution that can be managed and maintained locally. Its durability is noteworthy as it can operate effectively for up to 30 years, providing a reliable and sustainable water purification option for the region.

Customised bio-sand filter use in Ladakh
Ladakh, with its abundant availability of sand and gravel, provides a favorable environment for the functioning of the bio-sand filter. However, the implementation of a bio-sand filter in Ladakh faces several challenges due to the region's extreme temperatures and difficult terrain. The requirement of bio-sand filter is a temperature range of 15-20 degrees Celsius for the survival of the biological layer and in Ladakh the temperature falls as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The availability of metals for the manufacturing process is restricted to the summer months, posing further limitations.
Despite the obstacles posed by Ladakh's unique environment, the implementation of the bio-sand filter holds great promise in addressing the issue of plastic bottle usage. It aligns with the larger goal of waste reduction and environmental conservation, contributing to a cleaner and more sustainable future for the region. For example, with 30 establishments having 3000 tourists, each person using an average of 14-15 plastic bottles, the filter has the potential to reduce the consumption of approximately 135,000 bottles annually. By filtering and making available local water sources, reliance on plastic bottles can be minimized.

Putting ‘dreaded’ Hyacinth to use

Mithan shares her concern of water hyacinth and the experience of working on the lakes of Bengaluru. Lakes play a crucial role in our ecosystems and have significant importance in various aspects. They function as crucial reservoirs for groundwater recharge, maintaining the supply of water for drinking and sustaining the entire water cycle. Unfortunately, most lakes are poorly maintained and thus confront multiple challenges.
In South Bangalore, a group of individuals and professionals came together in 2017 to work towards the restoration and conservation of Hulimavu Lake. The lake is located in the south of the city. It spanning around 107 acres and is surrounded by residential development. With the aid of volunteers and experts, the group planned restoration in and around the lake. They restored around 1.5 square kilometers of barren land surrounding the lake into a green space by planting 700+ trees.
Like most lakes/wetlands in India, being heavily polluted, have serious issues with growth of water hyacinth, Hulimavu Lake too was infected by it. Water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes), an invasive weed species from South America, has naturalized its habitat in the polluted waterbodies. It grows rapidly covering the surface area of the waterbody and sucking up the oxygen in the water leading to loss of aquatic life and thus disrupting the ecosystem of the waterbody.
To combat this issue, the group involved in the lake's restoration undertook the task of removing the hyacinth. They successfully pulled out approximately 100 tons of hyacinth from the lake during the corona time. To ensure proper disposal and utilization of the hyacinth, it was sent it to a Biocentre to be converted into compost. Additionally, the group explored the possibility of using the hyacinth for biofuel production. However, transportation posed a challenge in this process, making it costly to transport the hyacinth to the biofuel production facility. Several other possibilities were also explored to put the hyacinth to use but all of them required processing the plant before sending it which involved huge amount of time and effort.
The high fiber content of hyacinth presented an opportunity to utilize it for paper production. A decision was made to send the hyacinth to a startup called Bluecat Paper, specializing in making paper from alternative sources. Due to its sturdy and resilient nature, hyacinth proved to be a suitable material for paper making. The collaboration between the Hulimavu Lake group and Bluecat emerged as an example of synergy.

Products made from Hyacinth collected from Hulimavu Lake
By collecting tons of hyacinth from the lake, Bluecat are able to produce a range of products such as bags, coasters, table mats, etc. This initiative had significant environmental benefits. By using hyacinth instead of cutting down trees, the production of these items offers an eco-friendly alternative for a more environmentally friendly future. It was also found that hyacinth contained around 60% cellulose content emphasizing its potential as a waste plant resource.

Youth and Innovation

Water crisis highlights the stark disparity in water accessibility among the vulnerable and poor. It bestows a huge responsibility on those who actually do not face the brunt of the crisis, i.e., the educated elites. Among them, the young people are a unique asset as they are growing in a rapidly evolving world which is allowing them to develop a different perspective about the world around them and thus incorporate innovation in everyday life. Initiatives like Why Waste, Bio-sand filter, Bluecat Paper have emerged aiming to reform social behavior towards water problems by providing them with simple alternate solutions to actively participate in them.
Investing in sustainable technologies, infrastructure, and practices is crucial than ever before in order to move towards the conservation of water resources. As an innovator, constantly thinking about ways to protect the environment and seeking ideas from others become crucial. Patience is a key virtue in environmental initiatives. Many ideas may arise, but successful execution is where many people stumble. It is crucial to persistently stick with a concept, investing the necessary time and energy to operationalize it, run through the acceptability and then make it successful.
In today's occupation and lifestyle, we anticipate instantaneous outcomes, however, we need to keep in mind that lasting change takes time. Ensuring that the solutions do not cause other new issues is crucial while designing solutions. It is also crucial to take an integrated perspective of potential effects on various people or groups. Taking a balanced approach that benefits everyone and maintains sustainability is essential.

Individual and collective re(actions)

Just like good/bad environment is a shared effect, environmental responsibility is a shared duty. It is thus essential for individuals, organizations, and governments to make conscious choices that prioritize long-term water conservation and sustainability. Individuals need to accept responsibility for the situation and actively participate in coming up with solutions. Relying only on governments and businesses in solving the problems is insufficient and unsustainable. Since, behavioral change is crucial part of any innovation to last long.
A significant challenge lies in the fact that most of us do not recognize and realize our role in water conservation. Unaware of our daily water consumption and waste production, we unknowingly contribute to the problem. An explicit objective of such initiatives and innovations thus, is to raise awareness to make people recognize and realize their role in the problem as well as solution. By understanding the impact of our actions, we can embrace small, yet significant, changes in ours and others lives which collectively can make a difference.
Each of us has the unique power to influence and inspire other stakeholders to take action. By leading through example and demonstrating our commitment to positive change, we can inspire others to join in and contribute towards solving pressing challenges like water conservation. It is essential for everyone to be aware of the duty and role in building a sustainable future.
By taking individual actions, even small ones, we can create a ripple effect that inspires others to do the same. Whether it is conserving water in our daily lives, advocating for sustainable practices, or influencing policymakers, our collective efforts have the power to drive significant change. The initiatives and innovations besides the speakers certainly enhance that, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ besides, ‘Small is Beautiful’ and that each of us can do our bit to make water everybody’s business.
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*Proshakha Maitra is an independent scholar and senior fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is an entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor, Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation (www.mansee.in, www.edc.org.in, www.wforw.in). Click here to know about Wednesdays.for.Water

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