Clean water is everything
Last Thursday, I visited a slum in Vasant Kunj, on the south-side of New Delhi, to see a water project which is being supported by AusAID, Australia’s overseas aid agency.
To see taps running when we turn them on is a basic reality in Australia which we rightly take for granted. Yet, in a community where this is far from a reality, it is astounding to see how profoundly water affects every aspect of life.
In the slums of Vasant Kunj, and across many large cities, meeting the need for water is fulfilled by a daily government water truck which delivers free water to the slum community.
When the truck arrives, what ensues is a free for all of people clambering over the water truck with hoses and buckets in a desperate effort to fulfil their needs. In full swing the locals identify the scene with Medusa: the myriad of hoses emanating from the top of the truck akin to the serpents which constitute Medusa’s hair.
Being forced to scramble on a daily basis for the sustenance of life is an inherently tension filled event.
With every hose that is put in the truck a new germ or bacteria is introduced into the water. Every germ in the water is a potential bout of diarrhoea inflicted upon a child or a mother.
With each bout, a day is not worked, money is not earned, school lessons are not attended, futures are lost.
A stark truth of life becomes clear: clean water is everything.
The simple act of putting in place a communal water tank which is filled every day by that same water truck has revolutionised water distribution in this slum community.
Where there was once chaos, now there is an orderly process of visiting the communal tank - complete with taps that work. Each person’s allocation can be fairly given, and not everyone has to come at once. Tension in the community has reduced.
The result is that the water is cleaner and disease is on the decline. In turn, kids are spending more days in school and parents are better able to earn a living.
Equally as important as the supply of drinking water are toilets and sewerage.
The aspiration of this community is to become open defecation free. For the majority of these people there are no toilets, there is no sewerage system.
As you comprehend the problem which is trying to be solved here, consider that half of India’s 1.2 billion people practice open defecation. In what is a global dilemma, India is ground zero.
The hygiene implications of open defecation are obvious. Diarrhoeal disease is rampant. It is a major cause of death.
But disease is not the biggest issue. Open defecation also means the fundamental loss of human dignity. For what is naturally an intensely private act, is simply not.
Adjoining this particular slum is a tree-filled bushland area. For most women in the community, their bodily urge is met by hanging on until the very middle of the night and then venturing into the park to seek relief, despite the added risk of possible violent assault.
There are about three hundred dwellings in this slum. Less than fifty have a toilet. I saw two. One had a padlock on the door to keep people out while the owners were at work.
As part of the revitalisation of this community a new communal toilet block is being built. It will eventually contain about forty toilets connected to the Delhi sewerage system.
While great freeways and bridges have dramatically improved our lives in Australia, as I tried to get my head around what daily life must be like in this slum, I couldn’t imagine a more life-changing piece of public infrastructure than this block of toilets.
This community is experiencing a revolution. The heroes of this change are the community leaders - mainly women - who have rolled up their sleeves, and with total practicality, got the job done. When you are talking about water and sanitation there are no airs and graces. This is a world of diarrhoea, stopping open defecation, and with total frankness, calling a spade a spade.
To make this happen they have stared down politicians, and pulled no punches with their own community about how daily habits need to change.
As our caravan moved on through the slum, spaces were created in our wake. In no time at all, one of them was filled by kids with a bat and a tennis ball playing backyard cricket. The boy inside of me wanted to join in. There were bouncers, and sixes, and roars of delight.
In a world away, I saw my own childhood. Yet a sick kid in bed with diarrhoea doesn’t play cricket. It made me realise: proper water and sanitation is giving these kids their childhood as well. That Australia is playing its part should make us all proud.
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