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Top 10 water trailblazers

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 July 2012 08:00 GMT

Here are the people who are improving access to drinking water and helping bring cleaner water to more people across the world

** This story is part of AlertNet's special multimedia report on water. Visit "The Battle for Water" for more**

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Who are the people and pioneers behind grassroots movements, groundbreaking research and government policy that are improving access to drinking water and helping bring cleaner water to more people across the world?

AlertNet put this question to dozens of experts and researchers from leading non-governmental organisations and research institutes involved in water issues.  

Many spoke of the need for better treatment of wastewater and water management, along with the importance of rainwater harvesting as a key way to ensure local communities have enough water to cook, wash and grow food crops.

Based on their responses, in no particular order, here's our "Top 10 water trailblazers", many of whom AlertNet interviewed. 

1. Manoranjan Mondal 

2. Gemma Bulos

3. Anupam Mishra

4. Professor Asit Biswas

5. Ma Tsepo Khumbane

6. Rajendra Singh

7. Margaret Nakato 

8. Andrew Benedek 

9Diana Iskreva

10. Ned Breslin

Manoranjan Mondal 

Bangladesh’s rice man

Growing up in Bangladesh’s flood-prone and salt affected coastal areas, Manoranjan Mondal saw firsthand the hardships facing hundreds of thousands of poor rice farmers.

Over the past three decades, Mondal has helped farmers improve their access to freshwater, by teaching them how to use residual soil moisture, catch rainwater and build levees around paddy fields to store rainfall.

The scientist has also introduced rice farmers in Bangladesh to new cropping patterns, planting times and new sturdier rice varieties that mature quickly enough for planting twice a year.

All this means many farmers can grow more rice - a staple part of the Bangladeshi diet and the backbone of the country’s economy.

“We show farmers that it’s possible to get two crops of rice a year in coastal zones and grow rice even during the dry season,” Mondal told AlertNet.  “If you don’t make their land productive, people can’t climb out of poverty.”

In recent decades, rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal have encroached on vast tracts of low-lying arable lands, making them too salty for some rice varieties to grow and diminishing crop yields.

Salinity affects some 60 percent of Bangladesh’s coastal farming lands, the United Nations estimates.

To tackle the problem, Mondal is leading efforts to measure and map the salinity of soil and water.

Mondal believes local communities should be given greater control over polders and sluice gates used to store diverted freshwater from rivers, which are needed for irrigating rice fields during the dry season.

“The monsoons in Bangladesh produce about 2000 mm of rainfall annually, which is more than the optimum water requirement for successful cultivation of Aman rice,” said Mondal.

“But due to lack of proper management practices often rainfall that could be utilised for rice farmers is not being stored and managed properly.”

Gemma Bulos 

Women’s water technology champion


Women and girls bear the brunt of fetching water, often spending up to four hours a day collecting and lugging water. It means they miss more school days and earn less than their male counterparts.   

Gemma Bulos, a Filipino-American water activist, believes part of the solution lies in training women how to build simple structures to store and treat clean water that can be used in the home.

“Women are the ones who have the most knowledge about water, where to find it and which water source is safest. But they aren’t making the decisions with regards to the provision of clean water and sanitation strategies, especially in Africa,” Bulos told AlertNet.

“By teaching women appropriate technologies, women can take on greater leadership roles regarding water issues, become self-reliant and uplift themselves out of poverty.”

Too often water infrastructures are not suitable for women, like water pumps with handles they cannot reach, Bulos says.

Through the Global Women's Water Initiative, which Bulos co-founded and heads, women are trained to build and maintain water harvesting systems, using local, replaceable, and cheap materials.

These include bio-sand filters used to purify dirty water and provide their families with safe drinking water, and water tanks to store rainfall made from clay, sand, and special interlocking bricks that are shaped to fit like a puzzle.

Women are also taught to build solar cookers made from recycled cardboard boxes, aluminum foil, cloth and glue, which are used for boiling water and cooking food using solar pasteurization.

So far, the Global Women's Water Initiative has trained over 100 women in nine African countries in such low-tech water solutions.

Bulos’s award-winning work with communities, particularly in the Philippines, to help people work out what kind of water systems they need, how to design them, and even make money from them, is considered an exemplary model.

“Water doesn’t have to be charity based or driven,” Bulos said. “Communities are drivers of solutions. That approach has helped shift the conversation for the potential of water to be seen as entrepreneurial and a community-based activity.”

Anupam Mishra 

Rainwater harvester


How did ancient civilizations in India ensure there was enough water for drinking, irrigation and farming even in desert regions all year round?

It’s a question Indian water conservationist, Anupam Mishra, is passionate about and one he believes can go a long way in solving India’s water shortages.

“One of the best solutions to make sure people have enough drinking water and to meet their irrigations needs - not greeds - is rainwater harvesting. The best thing is to utilise rain where it falls,” Mishra told AlertNet.

“Every house and school can collect water from the roof and ground. It’s easy, requires no funding, no outside help and little intellectual input,” he added.

As modern irrigation techniques have taken hold in India, traditional ways of rainwater harvesting, which help recharge soil moisture and ensure farmers have sufficient water during the dry season, has been neglected.

“Every city is doing away with traditional water harvests techniques,” Mishra said.

“The tendency now is to bring in water from 200 even 300 kilometres away using trucks into India’s big cities, like Bombay and Bangalore. That’s not sustainable or reliable.”

Mishra travels to villages across India on his quest to preserve and promote India’s ancient rainwater harvesting techniques. These involved feats of engineering and sophisticated systems of lakes, reservoirs, wells, filter ponds and tanks to collect and store rainwater.

“Water bodies are not protected in India and the country is an example of bad water management practices,” said Mishra, who has written several best-selling books on India’s centuries-old rainwater harvesting systems.

“We should be following our traditions and wisdoms and tell people about rainwater harvesting in simple ways like story telling.”

Professor Asit Biswas

The world’s water advisor  


For the past four decades, Indian-born Asit Biswas hasn’t been afraid to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom about how to better manage the world’s water resources.

It’s made him one the world’s leading advisors on water issues.

For Biswas, a civil engineer and scientist, water is an engine for economic development, an approach he believes should underpin water policy.

“I learnt a very important lesson from one of my mentors, Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India. She taught me that water is an important means to an end but not the end by itself. The end is poverty alleviation and better quality of life of the people,” Biswas said in emailed responses to AlertNet's questions.

Along with co-founding the World Water Council and the Mexico City-based Third World Centre for Water Management, Biswas has advised 19 governments, six United Nations agencies, two development banks and various multinationals on water issues over the years.

The world’s water problems stem from mismanagement, including corruption, and worsening water quality due to growing cities and industrialisation, Biswas says.

“Contrary to the widespread belief, the most important water problem the world is facing at present is not one of scarcity. We have enough water, and also the knowledge, expertise, technology and funds to manage our water efficiently. However, we need to manage our water resources better,” Biswas said.

“Sadly, however, water management in most countries of the world range from poor to pathetic.”

Part of the solution, says Biswas, involves tiered and fairer pricing of water and better reuse of water.

Biswas dismisses the idea that water shortages will cause future conflicts.

“Numerous water professionals and political figures have claimed that the next war will be fought over water. Such statements receive widespread media publicity but are wrong, dead wrong. No two countries have ever gone to war over water in the entire human history. It is highly unlikely that countries will go to war over water during the rest of the 21st century.”

Rather, Biswas sees water as a source of cooperation between nations, citing India and Bhutan and South America as examples.

“But this is not as sexy a topic as conflicts,” Biswas said.

Ma Tsepo Khumbane

South African rural community leader

Outside the city of Pretoria in South Africa, Ma Tsepo Khumbane’s lush vegetable and fruit garden with its steady supply of water has become a model and source of inspiration for thousands of rural women.

Using her hands and a shovel, Khumbane has developed a robust system of contour ditches, furrows, small basins, and sunken paths that all store and channel rainwater directly to her vegetable crops and fruit trees.  When it rains, runoff water from the ground, gutters and roofs is also collected in her homemade underground tank.

It means Khumbane uses all the rainwater that falls in her garden to irrigate and cultivate her crops.

For the past 40 years, Khumbane has been teaching such water saving and storage techniques to thousands of poor women in South Africa, ensuring they can grow their own food to feed their families.

“In South Africa we have a dependency syndrome. We have blocked creativity. Even the poorest people used to build innovative structures using their own resources and environment,” Khumbane, a former social worker, once said.

At her garden and small farm where she runs weekly courses, Khumbane also teaches women how to make fertilizer from organic waste and simple homemade drip irrigation techniques using plastic bottles, which are perforated with a needle and buried in crop beds leaving holes that fill with water. It means water goes directly to the roots of plants, reducing the amount of water used.

Her work and teachings have evolved into a grassroots movement - Water for Food – which has become a lifeline for thousands of women in rural South Africa.

 “Natural resources are not from the department of environment and tourism. The concept of sustainability is in ourselves,” Khumbane said.

Rajendra Singh

Rajastan’s rain man

For thousands of villagers living in drought-prone Rajasthan in eastern India, Rajendra Singh is considered a saviour.

Over the last 30 years, Singh has been credited with turning around the fortunes of poor rural communities in over a thousand villages by reviving dried up rivers and getting water flowing again along Rajasthan’s five major rivers.

It’s earned him the title of “rain man” among local villagers.

Part of the answer, says Singh, lies in going back to 400-year old practices of conserving water in small concave earth dams, known as johads.

Water from the monsoon rains can be collected and stored in johads for use during the dry months. 

“We can catch rain and put it in a safe place. It increases soil moisture and prevents soil erosion,”’ Singh told AlertNet. 

In 1985, Singh and colleagues from the grassroots organisation he founded, Tarun Bharat Sangh, arrived in the Alwar district in Rajasthan. 

Unchecked logging and mining had decimated the forests and damaged watersheds in the area, leaving barren farmlands and dried up rivers.

The villagers had abandoned traditional rain harvesting techniques but instead were digging wells deeper and deeper into the ground until they ran dry.

“You can’t take water and not replace it,” Singh said.  

Singh and his team went about building johads in and around villages, and repairing and deepening existing johads.

Within a year, many wells and rivers in the Alwar district slowly recharged and water tables rose. It was hailed a miracle, Singh recalls.

Since then, Singh’s leading environmental organisation has helped local communities across India build some 9,000 johads.

“We need to decentralise water supplies,’’ Singh said. “It’s only when a community feels ownership of their water resources that they can use water in a disciplined and sensible way and move forward.”

Singh believes India’s water crisis also stems from massive pollution of rivers by industrial and mining waste. He has described India’s mighty Ganges river as a “waste train.”

Singh has also taken on mining companies and won.

In the early 1990’s, he led a campaign to stop mining in the Aravali mountains in western India, which he said would suck johads dry and lead to an ecological disaster. India’s Supreme Court agreed with Singh, and ordered the closure of dozens of mines operating in the area.

Margaret Nakato

Ugandan community leader

Just a few years ago in Uganda, it was rare to find female masons and builders.

That’s changed recently, thanks to the work of Ugandan Margaret Nakato, who heads the Katosi Women Development Trust, a small grassroots organisation.

Through its network of 16 women’s groups, the organisation trains hundreds of poor women in rural and fishing communities in central Uganda to build shallow wells, rainwater collection tanks made from cement, and water filters to store water in their local communities and schools.

There’s still a preference for male masons over female ones, but social attitudes are slowly changing, says Nakato.

“Construction work was a man’s work but local cultures are transforming. Giving women masonry skills has broken social barriers and has provided women with a source of income and pride. It’s opened doors for women and allowed them to be leaders,” Nakato told AlertNet.

In Uganda, as in most parts of Africa, collecting water is the job of women and girls.

“Allowing women who are most affected by the lack of water to take part in decisions about where water sources should be and where tanks should be built, means they can take responsibility and leadership for their own water access and sources.”

The women’s organisation also provides loans for women to buy water collection tanks, allowing loans to be paid back in agreed and affordable installments over a four-year-period.  Repayments are pooled together to keep the revolving loan going.

The award-winning scheme is regarded as an exemplary model worldwide for rural communities with little access to clean water.

Under the scheme, over 200 tanks holding up to 12,000 litres of water have been built in schools and near homes in Uganda’s Katosi region.

“It’s reduced the time women and children have to search for water. And importantly, it is self- managed. Women decide who should be the beneficiaries of the loans and they collect the payments,” Nakato said.  

Andrew Benedek

Water treatment pioneer

There’s a good chance that when you turn on the tap, the water flowing from it has been treated and purified using membrane technology developed by Andrew Benedek.

Hungarian-born chemical engineer, Benedek is considered a pioneer in wastewater and water treatment using low pressure membranes, which can turn even highly polluted water into safe drinking water.

Membranes act like filters, separating substances and chemicals when a force is applied to them.

“If nature can filter by membranes then I thought I could figure out a way for human beings to make that happen and develop cost-effective membranes that can be used commercially,” Benedek told AlertNet in a telephone interview from San Diego, California.

In 1980, Benedek set up ZENON, a wastewater treatment company at a time when few scientists envisioned using membranes to treat sewage and recycle water.

His research led to the development of the ZeeWeed membrane, a hollow fibre membrane, which is submerged in a process tank with low pressure to filter water.

Water is pushed through the membrane, removing all particles, and even viruses, during a process known as ultrafiltration.

By early 2000, Benedek’s ZeeWeed membrane had become the technology of choice for many drinking water and wastewater plants in the world, including those in Singapore, the United States, China and India.

“Nearly every waste water plant built these days relies directly and or indirectly on this technology,” Benedek said.

The water purification technology works itself, without chemicals and it can be automated, Benedek says. It can even run on solar panels.

It’s part of the reason why Benedek sent 80 membrane filtration units to Sri Lanka to help supply drinking water to communities affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

For Benedek, water shortages stem largely from the inefficient use of water in agriculture.

“Human water needs can be satisfied today. The water issue is more of a management issue,” said Benedek.

“My biggest concern is water use for agriculture. We waste a great deal of water in agriculture. Too much fossil water is being pumped from the ground that can’t be replaced.”

These days, Benedek is focusing on turning wastewater, including sewage sludge and farm waste, into biogas and natural gas.

“We should do more with water re-use,” he said. “Wastewater should be seen as a resource and a source of energy.”

Diana Iskreva

Bulgaria’s sanitation buster

It’s estimated only two percent of people living in the countryside in Bulgaria are connected to some kind of sewage network and in 70 percent of villages there is no solid waste collection system.

Since the 1990’s, it’s a problem Bulgarian Diana Iskreva has helped improve and has put on the national agenda.

“The water issue in Bulgaria is not about the shortage of drinking water but the serious problem of the lack of wastewater treatment and sanitation,” Iskreva told AlertNet.

“It’s a problem that was ignored and neglected during communist times and across the former communist bloc.  It’s only now starting to get the attention it deserves.”

About 90 percent of Bulgaria’s sewers were built before 1990, points out Iskreva, who campaigns for more government spending on upgrading and repairing the country’s ailing sanitation infrastructure.

“A very serious investment in labour and financial resources is needed to increase coverage of sewage systems and urban wastewater treatment services in Bulgaria” Iskreva said.

For Iskreva, water and sanitation are two sides of the same coin.

Bulgarians heavily rely on freshwater sources, taken from the country’s lakes, groundwater and rivers, for their drinking water.

But if wastewater from toilets, agriculture and industry is not treated, freshwater can become contaminated with water-borne diseases like typhoid.

“If you neglect to treat wastewater it reduces the quality of drinking water and pollutes groundwater quality too. It can also pose serious risks to public health and surrounding ecosystems,” Iskreva said.

Earth Forever, a non-governmental organisation lead by Iskreva, teaches thousands of Bulgarians living in rural areas, especially those from the Roma ethnic minority, about how to better manage their human waste and improve hygiene.

This includes promoting the use of the so-called dry or waterles stoilet, which contains a toilet bowl that separates urine and faeces.  A special air ventilation system helps to dehydrate and decompose the waste. Urine can then be reused as liquid fertiliser and faeces as organic fertiliser.

Iskreva has also shed the spotlight on the taboo issue of dirty toilets in Bulgaria’s schools and hospitals through lobbying, public awareness raising campaigns and radio programmes.

“A clean toilet is not a luxury. It’s a human right,” said Iskreva.  

Ned Breslin

Rethinking water aid champion

Every day around the world, women and children pass by broken hand water pumps and capped wells on their way to collect unsafe water from muddy puddles.

It’s thought that around one third of the world’s water pumps are not working at any given time, putting at risk the health of millions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Ned Breslin, who heads the US-based charity, Water for People.

He’s at the forefront of getting charities and water aid agencies to rethink the way money is being spent on water and sanitation infrastructure and what criteria is being used to measure a project’s success.

Continents have become wastelands for broken and unused water and sanitation infrastructure, says Breslin, leading to millions of dollars of lost investment.

“It’s not just about slapping in some hardware to get water but making it last for a long time. There’s evidence of project failure that has left wreckage particularly throughout Africa and Asia,” Breslin told AlertNet.

Measuring the success of any project aimed at improving access to clean water for local communities should go beyond counting how many water pumps or wells have been built or the number of people benefiting in a given year, Breslin says.

Instead, the real test is whether water pumps, pipes and wells are still up and running in ten years time. In turn that means ensuring local communities can get spare parts, they know how to fix broken water infrastructure and test the quality of water.

It’s also about local communities contributing money to set up and maintain water systems as part of a tailored finance plan and tariff system, says Breslin.

Taking a long-term approach is also crucial.

“We need to move away from the short term view that installing a water pump will solve the problem. It leads to project failure,” Breslin said.

“The solution is based on training and ownership that takes root and flourishes in communities and makes sure skills can be applied over time. It’s about making the investment last.”

He also believes water agencies and NGOs must get better at monitoring the water projects they invest in.  

Through Water for People, Breslin has helped develop an open source water tracking system called FLOW, using mobile phones, Google maps and Android technology, a computing platform owned by Google. It can collect and map information on tens of thousands of wells and pumps worldwide and track if they are working for years to come. 

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