Sustainable Innovations offers clean water, health solutions

In Wired magazine’s provocatively titled “Social Entrepreneurship Achieves What Centralized Aid Could Not in India,” one man’s efforts at providing sustainable solutions for water and health in Indian villages show how economic incentives may be more successful than pure aid. As a recepient of the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, Dr. BP Agarwal’s Aakash Ganga and Arogya Ghar are initiatives under his organization, Sustainable Innovations.

Aakash Ganga aims to use rainwater harvesting to address the water shortage in Rajasthan. Through storage of collected rainwater, they are able to provide

an average of 10-12 liters of water per day to each resident of 40 villages, reaching approximately 10,000 villagers so far. The system also creates an economic incentive for villagers to sustain the program, not only by providing water, but by allowing them to rent out their rooftops to those with increased demand for water in order to generate income. Excess water is routed to a community tank that all of the villagers can access.

The Arogya Ghar program employs rural Indian girls, who are given inexpensive laptops that have diagnostic capabilities. These girls essentially act as the first line in medical care.

Carrying the entire unit in a shoulder bag, they travel door-to-door in villages asking if anyone is sick, receiving 25 cents for performing diagnostic tasks using instructions on the computers. This typically creates an income of about $100 per month, says Agarwal, while offering girls, whose career options are usually severely limited, valuable vocational training in the field of healthcare.

What’s interesting about Dr. Agarwal’s approach is that instead of approaching the issue by tackling “problems,” he focuses on the strengths of his target areas. The article provides some great examples of this approach and how Dr. Agarwal adapted his solutions.

“People look at culture, traditions, and social norms as something that holds society back,” he said. “What we realized was, cultural traditions are an asset of a village. They are like social capital that can be monetized.”

In one case, that meant picking a village for the water harvesting program because one woman there was particularly upset about her drinking water. After spitting it out because it was undrinkable, then listening to her ask him how he would like to drink water like that every day, Agrawal knew she would keep the rest of the villagers motivated. He picked that village for the pilot program.

In another village, he listened to an ornery old man — addressing him with the respectful term “Baba” — who told him the water harvesting method would never work there, because it took up space where villagers liked to sleep on hot nights. He responded by making that aspect of the design flat rather than dome-shaped, so that it could still be slept on.

Dr. Agarwal’s ability to stay attuned to the local context clearly has increased his ability to implement successful solutions. As Sustainable Innovations looks to expand, they will stay focused on holistic systems and public-private-community partnerships.

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