Safe Water Network gives villagers in India a push toward a better future
By David Funkhouser
At a village meeting in Rajasthan, India, Ravindra Sewak of Safe Water Network
presented a challenge: We can help you build a new cistern that will improve
your water supply and your health, but you will have to pay for some of it, and
take over and maintain the system.
The villagers balked. In this desert land where just a few inches of water fall
each year, poverty rules. Typical annual incomes range from $1,000 to $1,600.
Women and children can walk several kilometers each day to fetch water for
drinking, cooking and cleaning. Dysentery is so common, Sewak said, it’s not
even considered a disease anymore.
With so few resources, how could they pay for this, and handle this new work? “I
had to leave at one point,” Sewak said, describing how he walked out of the
meeting to let the residents ponder the question before them. “You have to make
them believe that they have to maintain it. They need a sense of ownership and
willingness to pay so they can see the long-term vision and take responsibility. …
They need to contribute to make this work.”
That’s the sort of push that Safe Water Network, based in Westport and co-
founded by the late actor Paul Newman, hopes will help build long-lasting
solutions for villagers like those in Rajasthan.
The non-profit brings together people and resources to build clean water systems
in the developing world. This spring, it joined with three organizations in
Rajasthan to tackle the region’s water problems. Project funding comes primarily
from the PepsiCo and Newman’s Own foundations.
Safe Water Network has already spent $110,000, and it will spend an additional
$350,000 to support the Rajasthan rainwater harvesting initiatives, including all
program costs, over the next 18 months, a spokeswoman said.
During the project, the Bhoruka Charitable Trust will help villagers build 750
household rainwater cisterns and refurbish 32 community cisterns. That will bring
safe water to about 10,000 people in 40 villages.
The trust has operated in the region for 25 years, but the help from Safe Water
Network will allow them to build many more cisterns, said the trust’s project
officer, Shivendra Kumar.
He cited the family of Umed Singh, in the village of Bhattod in the Churu District.
The eldest child, 12, could not attend school because she had to fetch water for
the family from an open pool, often contaminated by cattle, about 2 kilometers
from their home.
“With construction of a rainwater harvesting tank in his home, the family has …
safe and good quality of drinking water at their doorstep,” Kumar said. “It
improves their health and gives time to the children to [attend] school.”
Another partner, the Institute of Health Management, teaches residents how to
maintain water quality and promotes better health and hygiene practices.
And the Centre for Micro Finance focuses on building financial models to sustain
projects over time, including small-scale loans that help villagers pay for their
“What we’ve learned from past work with rainwater harvesting is that traditional
donor programs and subsidy models alone are too expensive to be replicated at
a large scale,” said Jai Pal Singh, the center’s executive director.
Safe Water Network’s goal is to empower communities to own and care for the
projects, and to build systems that are sustainable and scalable, CEO Kurt
Soderlund said. The Rajasthan project also will develop policy models that local
governments can apply more broadly to benefit a larger population.
Sewak, a former PepsiCo employee who is now India country manager for
Safe Water, estimated that India has 200 million to 250 million people who don’t
have access to safe water. Worldwide, more than a billion people lack reliable
sources of clean water, a problem that leads directly to disease and death.
The World Health Organization estimates 1.8 million people a year die from
diarrheal diseases alone, 90 percent of them children under 5.
The Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000 and endorsed by 192 nations,
seek to cut in half the number of people without sustainable access to safe
drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.
Cisterns are an ancient way of collecting water, but in poorer communities, even
new systems tend to break down within a few years, because the community
lacks expertise and cannot afford to maintain them.
Sewak said he asks villages to provide 30 percent of the funding, while Safe
Water Network pays the other 70 percent. Even that can be daunting.
Without cisterns, “a lot of these families are spending 10 to 15 percent of their
earnings just to collect the water,” Sewak said. “They do not have the means to
create these systems, they don’t have the capital. … We provide that support.”
Most villagers survive on agriculture, growing millet during the rainy season, he
said. If they are blessed with extra rainfall, they may also grow black gram,
which Sewak said they call “karj utaar” — the “alleviate debt” crop.
After he walked out of the village meeting, Sewak said, the residents relented and
agreed to go along with the program.
Once the cistern is built, he said, “instead of spending $10 for water every
month, they mayspend $3 or $4 … and that saving can go to repay the
microfinance loan given to them.”
Villagers also spend less time and effort gathering water and suffer less from
illness. That increases their productivity and income.
A second phase of the program will try to improve cistern design for more
efficiency and lower cost, track how to best protect water quality, and look at
different funding models.
Originally published summer 2009 online at CTIndianLife.com, and at http://