River from the sky

In Rajasthan, India’s driest region, social entrepreneur and innovator Dr. BP Agrawal believes a “River From the Sky” is the answer to providing arid villages with fresh drinking water.

After decades working in research and development for global companies such as General Dynamics, Dr. Agrawal turned his attention to his non-profit organization Sustainable Innovations. One of the company’s major initiatives is solving the dramatic water shortage problem in his native Rajasthan, a region in north eastern India with 56 million people and 40,000 rural villages. His efforts during the past five years earned him numerous awards, including the 2010 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award, presented by The Lemelson Foundation. Dr. Agrawal recently visited MIT to share insights on his work during EurekaFest, a mutli-day celebration designed to empower a legacy of inventors through activities that inspire youth, honor role models and encourage creativity and problem solving. Dr. Agrawal also presented posters on innovations at the World Health Care Congress in April and the World Healthcare Innovation and Technology Congress last November.

The implications of inadequate access to clean drinking water are, of course, dramatic. The World Water Development Report 2009 estimated 80 percent of health problems and 5 million deaths per year in developing countries are linked to inadequate water and sanitation.

“River From the Sky” is the English translation for Aakash Ganga, a project Dr. Agrawal developed that maximizes the use of rainwater by the channeling it from village roof tops into water tanks that can be used to supply villages with much-needed drinking and cleaning water.

Rajasthan suffers from a 10-month annual drought. While it rains considerably during the two-month rainy reason, the region lacks the infrastructure to capture water and maximize its use. The Aakash Ganga system channels enough rooftop rainwater to provide a village with a year’s worth of drinking water.

If the concept sounds simple, the project’s development and implementation is not. Dr. Agrawal explained that he must navigate economic, social political and logistical barriers to make Aakash Ganga sustainable.

Poor basic health and sanitation are constants in Rajasthan. While a lack of running water and medicine are contributors, the psychology of the villagers can also hinder progress.

“Health care is pretty much non-existent,” said Agrawal. “They have accepted diseases as the normal aging process. They don’t event complain about them.”

Under the Aakash Ganga system, a portion of the water collected on a home’s roof is channeled into a tank for the family’s personal use. The rest of the water is channeled into a community reservoir and used by homes with thatched roofs that cannot collect water and families that cannot afford personal water tanks. The large shared reservoir is 400,000 liters or more in capacity, costs about $0.05 per liter to construct and has an infrastructural investment of $2-$3 per person per year. The network is designed to provide 10-12 liters daily per person. So far, it has helped 10,000 villagers gain access to clean water, and Dr. Agrawal hopes to replicate the system in many other villages.

In order to help make the system self-sustainable, Sustainable Innovations rent the roofs from the villagers, which provides them with income. Seventy percent of harvested water is sold or used for individual families. The rest goes to horticulture.

Sustainable Innovations has received a $200,000 World Bank Development Grant and matching funds from the Rajasthan Association of North America. Dr. Agrawal hopes to secure several million more dollars from India’s Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Science and Technology, the National Rural Drinking Water Program and social investors.

In addition to Aakash Ganga, Agrawal and Sustainable Innovations has developed a kiosk-based health clinics that can provide care at $0.25 per visit. The clinics are operated by high-school educated young women and are designed to alleviate the shortage of trained medical staff and improve standardized treatment protocols for common ailments and preventable diseases in India.

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