01 March 2013

AguaClara goes to India

AguaClara goes to India

I’m on my way home after an amazing week in India. My goal for the trip was to find the overlap between what AguaClara can provide and what could be taken to scale in India. The Cornell network had created connections before the trip that include PRADAN, an Indian NGO, the Tata Trust, a funding source for development work in India, and TACO-AN, the Tata-Cornell program for Agriculture and Nutrition. 
Finding the overlap required some creative exploration. PRADAN works with Indian villages that have fewer than 1000 people. AguaClara has experience with towns with populations between 1500 and 15,000. The Indian villages in Jharkhand use hand pumps. The terrain is gently rolling with few perennial surface water sources available and topography that makes gravity powered water supply systems almost impossible. 

There is strong interest in switching from hand pumps to distribution systems with water on tap at each household. The Indian government is installing deep borehole wells with an electric submersible pump, elevated storage tank, solar panel on top of the tank, and distribution systems. The deep borehole wells have a significant risk of not having sufficient water and failure of the pumping system leaves the village without any way to get water from the well.

PRADAN has piloted a very different approach. They identify a lowland location with a large contributing watershed that the villagers can modify to improve water infiltration and raise the water table during the monsoon. They dig a well that is more than 7 m in diameter and about 10 m deep. The well is lined with cut stones that are laid like bricks without mortar. Gravel is placed on the outside of the stone lining to reduce soil infiltration. PRADAN uses a diesel powered pump to lift water from a covered lowland well to an elevated storage tank. These wells are similar to traditional wells and they can be used for irrigation, watering livestock, as well as for domestic water supply.

The lowland wells are effectively a high quality surface water source. Some of the water entering the wells takes a short path from the ground near the well. That short path means that soil particles don’t have adequate opportunity to be filtered from the water. The US EPA would classify these wells as ground water under the influence of surface water and they would require filtration for use as a drinking water source. We measured the turbidity of one of the lowland wells and found 4 NTU. That would meet the Indian standard of 5 NTU. The turbidity must increase somewhat during the rainy season, but the reports are that the water is clear except perhaps for some brief periods after heavy rains.

We traveled to a number of sites near Ranchi, Jharkhand in northeast India. It quickly became clear that finding the connection between AguaClara and Jharkhand villages was going to require some creative thinking. The lowland wells offered cleaner water that could be much closer to the villages than surface water sources. The lowland wells would require filtration and disinfection to provide safe drinking water. The relatively high quality water suggested that flocculation and sedimentation wouldn’t be needed. We had a number of long discussions at the PRADAN offices in Ranchi and together we came up with a new strategy for village water supply systems that couples the PRADAN approach of using the lowland wells with AguaClara’s low flow stacked rapid sand filter and chemical dose controller for a coagulant and chlorine. 

The proposed system will use a low head pump to lift water from the well to a small building that will house two pumps, doser, filter, and a small filtered water storage tank. The second pump will be used to lift water from the filtered water storage tank to an overhead storage tank and then to the distribution system.
Everyone was enthusiastic about this new model for providing safe drinking water. It could be widely replicated, is economical, and would give villagers access to high quality water for all of their household needs. The well could also be used for small scale irrigation to grow vegetables as is already being done in several of the villages where PRADAN has been working. And if any component of the system fails, unlike deep boreholes, the villagers can still access water in the well using a bucket on a rope.

PRADAN has a strong network of villages with self-help groups and thus it was easy to identify several good candidates for pilot projects including one that already has a lowland well. With PRADAN and AguaClara finding plenty of common ground including a shared philosophy, the next step was to begin writing a proposal to Tata Trust and then meet with representatives of the Tata Trust in Mumbai. The meeting in Mumbai went very well with excellent questions and quick connections to the many opportunities for AguaClara in India.

The India team of TACO-AN, Tata Trust, PRADAN, AguaClara LLC, and AguaClara@Cornell share a goal of having the first system fully operational by the time the rains begin around June 15 of 2013. That means we need to swing into action immediately and get a team on the ground in Jharkhand by the end of March. And as we take these next steps, may we remember that there are 600,000 villages in India and most of them don’t have safe drinking water on tap. The government of India is investing heavily in improving infrastructure at the village level and thus scaling up will go rapidly if we can demonstrate a viable model. It is time to begin a new RIDE (Research/Invent/Design/Empower).