09/11/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Safe Water is a Social Right -- How India is Making This Happen

Jalabandhus restoring a defunct water system in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, India

The citizens of India believe that access to clean, safe water is a social right -- and that the government is responsible for providing it. Groundwater accounts for over 60 percent of the irrigated area in India and is a critical element to the livelihoods of millions of people across the country. Eight million tube wells are the only drinking source for about 85 percent of the rural population.

So in recent years, the Indian national government has made water resource management a top priority, underscoring the necessity for institutionalized systems with a stronger technical, financial, and educational support structure.

But this enormous task has become more and more challenging over the years with supply seldom being able to keep pace with demand. The Indian government has realized they need a fresh perspective, and a new approach to achieve sustainable provision of safe drinking water to its citizens. Recent government policies including the Twelve-Five Year Plan clearly indicate the shift towards community ownership in management of water systems and sources. However, this thinking is yet to be translated into complete practice, for want of appropriate mechanisms and systems to support the change.

Since 2005, Water For People has been a principal partner in promoting sustainable systems to facilitate provision of safe water and sanitation across communities, schools and clinics in West Bengal. The organization has placed significant emphasis on improving the crucial convergence between the communities, local government and private sector players, and promoting resource mobilization, stakeholder participation, community ownership, sustainable service providers, and continuous monitoring and sustainability. In the near 10 years since we first began working in West Bengal, we've collected a massive amount of data and have more than a few lessons learned as we pushed through the myriad challenges. Here are just a few:

  • Preventive maintenance takes a backseat as local mechanics posses neither the skill nor access to tools and spares. This reduces the average life span of the hand-pumps.
  • Community involvement during water source installation has been overlooked. This has reduced communities' willingness and ownership towards safeguarding the installed water sources.
  • Extended periods of breakdown create pressure on the functional sources in the vicinity, adding to their wear and tear and ushering in a quicker breakdown.
  • A steady drain of resources and the lack of community managed source maintenance models, leads to the poor and vulnerable in the villages competing with the powerful and influential for their share.

Despite these setbacks, we saw promising developments that work as proof points for an alternative solution in water resource management in India, such as:

  • Functioning WATSAN (Water and Sanitation user) committees play an important role in the villages to educate and train residents on water system maintenance and management, leading to more community investment and ownership.
  • Residents are willing to pay for water and sanitation services through an organized and structured subscription system managed by local WATSAN committees.
  • Communities are eager to keep the water supply flowing by contributing funds to support hiring skilled professionals to maintain services.

So what exactly did all this mean when it came to creating a new, more effective solution that aligned with the national government's plan but also served the needs of individual communities?

In 2008, Water For People piloted the "Jalbandhu" or "friends of water" program in a subsection of the South 24 Parganas district. The Jalabandu plays the role of a more permanent mechanic and caretaker of water systems in communities and institutions, and provides professional services on a regular basis. Whereas most villages were using "mechanics" with rudimentary skills, beckoned when something broke down, the Jalabandhu is trained on various equipment and technology, and focuses on preventive maintenance.

As we saw the positive impact from the pilot program in 2008, we trained dozens more young people eager to make a difference in their district, and the impact that they created on sustaining the water systems inspired district governments to replicate the program in the remaining geographies and also neighboring districts to replicate in their own areas. A study conducted by World Water Corps volunteers in a subsection of the pilot district showed that the down time of repairs for hand pumps declined from two weeks to only 2-3 days on average.

Jalabandhus working part-time earn up to $70 a month, but those with more experience who make it a full-time business can make up to $400 a month. As with most of our programming in water and sanitation, we've seen the importance of good customer service in creating a successful business.

The goal for the rest of 2014 and into 2015 is to build upon the budding relationship and contract between Jalabandhus and the local governments to create a sustainable system that evolves based on district demand and resources. As of now, there are 259 Jalabandhus working in four districts in West Bengal and Bihar, and as interest grows, so does the number of young people signing up to be a "friend of water."

Ultimately, the Jalabandhu program has been and continues to be a unique solution for West Bengal, built around the priorities of community ownership, long-term investment, and sustainability -- and that is exactly what Water For People is aiming for -- it's just one example of how NGOs, governments, the private sector, and communities can work together to achieve access to clean water for Everyone Forever.

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Water For People is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.