We broke our group into 4 teams to tackle 4 issues of water treatment. The water team for the week is Joey, Laura and me (Rachel). Water fascinates me. All over the world, everyone needs water. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, on a same basic level everyone needs it to drink, cook, wash, and water plants or crops. Without water there is nothing.
It is a vital part of life, but also one that most people take for granted. Huge quantities of water are moved, purified, pumped, sprinkled, consumed, and wasted each day, and most people are unaware of the magnitude of work that takes place to make that water available for use.
In India we had heard about problems with water before the trip. We had heard about sanitation problems, millions of people without access to toilets or clean drinking water, and widespread outbreaks of Typhoid or Malaria. But most of the villages we’d visited so far had not identified water access as a problem. When asked, they pointed us to a well where they got their water and reported no issues from drinking it. A man in Barara village had had a reverse osmosis machine to purify water at a low cost, but otherwise no one we saw treated their water. And although in the slum they said it tasted strongly of chlorine, there were no complaints about health.
The purpose of reverse innovation is to start with a clean slate and walk into communities looking for a problem they have and listening to them to develop a solution.
So far no one had said they had a water problem so some people in our group were skeptical about us focusing on that for a week.
However, sometimes people don’t know their needs until you show them what is possible. Steve Jobs is famous for his quote: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In 2001, when the first iPod came out, people didn’t know they needed it, and in 2007 when the first iPhone hit the stores, I guarantee you the over 300 million people who use iPhones today did not know they needed them. I was one of them.
Henry Ford said it, too: ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” They wouldn’t have said they needed a car.
Water, cars and iPhones share very little in common, but what this quote tells us is that sometimes customer feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps our customers didn’t know cleaner water was a cheaper solution, perhaps they didn’t realize their clear-looking water was dirty and didn’t identify sicknesses they caught with water quality or poor hygiene. We had heard about millions of people in India with access to inadequate water, and I was not willing to give up on tackling this fundamental problem after only 6 village visits.
Almost all of the world’s largest countries have problems with water access for a portion of their population, and I was skeptical that India had perfect water consumption. The trash floating in every river and the examples of infrastructure challenges we saw everywhere around us did not have me convinced.
I wanted to spend the week diving into the water issue. Finding out where it came from, how it was transported, who was willing to pay for cleaner water. I’d studied water problems personally in Peru, Colombia, and United States, and I wanted to see water issues from an Indian perspective.
Our first task of the week was to find someone who had a problem with water and was looking for a solution. We had requested to visit a water treatment center, homes that had pumps for water, and an NGO that worked with water on our first day.
And amazingly, at breakfast the next morning we were handed a schedule that had almost all of our wish list. Mahesh explained that in India, people don’t like plans, most operate on more free-flowing schedule, ready for anything that comes their way. And although this challenge had made our earlier travels and tours difficult, now, we were able to arrange opportunities on a few hours notice. We could show up in homes, explain who we were, and families would be willing to welcome us in and answer our questions.
We were all together for the first visit. A return to the fishing village for Sheela and Meagan who were working on the cold supply chain issue. They wanted to see how the fisherman preserved their fish after catching them until they got them to the market.
We were supposed to be on the beach by 9:00am to see the auction on the beach after the fisherman brought in their morning catch, but we got a late start. We made it to the fishing village around 9:45, but we missed the auction and could only stand in the hot sun asking the few remaining fishermen how their catch was and how they stored their fish.
Our next stop was the village where we would split into teams to tackle our problems individually. We started the day with a hypothesis that in India, ‘people have diseases from water but solutions are costly or they are unaware there is a solution.’ We visited a water purification plant that was started by an entrepreneur to sell bottled water.
They sold water in bags which were filled through an automated machine and dropped onto the floor where a woman sat picking them up. They sell liter bottles to weddings and restaurants, a 20 L containers to families and hotels.
The owner walked us through the plant, past the pump at the back which pulled up groundwater, the purification room with 7 filters, sand, carbon, reverse osmosis, UV, etc. And finally to the room where there was a hose of clean water and they filled the bottles by hand before screwing on a cap. They were investing in an automated capper for the liter bottles.
Upstairs they had a lab where they tested the water for common contaminants. They said they tested the water once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and the results took 2 days. They had never had a problem with water quality, and they said the reason people buy the water is for the taste and to avoid getting sick.
As we continued walking down the streets, we learned there were 2 sources of water in the village. Each village had a pump of water that came from underground they used for washing and other purposes, and a pipe from the government that brought water straight from the Palar River, untreated for 3 hours a day. The untreated river water was used for drinking and supposed to be cleaner than the pump water.
We went to interview 2 homes, a Hindu priest who invited us in warmly and explained how he used just the ground water for all his needs and had never gotten sick. Instead of a tank on his roof he used a tank in his living room which he bleached every few weeks to clean. They had a shower room, a toilet room, and a washing machine in their very modest house. They said they had had no problems with water.
So we continued through the village, stopping at a water tower which provided the government water. We visited a home where several women showed us their pump out back of ground water. They modeled how they turned on the pump, collected the water and carried it in jars on their hips. They also had no complaints about their water.
As the morning wore on it became hotter and hotter and I was sweating through my kurta. We had a final stop at the center we stopped at yesterday where the women were folding bags. Our group was assembled in chairs under the shade of a tree drinking coconut water and listening to a panel of men talk about work in the village. We were able to ask them about water in the village and they said that migrant workers tended to have the most issues with water diseases and poor water access and that there in the village, some homes didn’t have a problem with the water and some on the other side of town did. So the next day we needed to visit migrant workers and people on that other side of town who may be looking for a solution.
After our first full day studying water in the villages, we regrouped with all the teams and presented our findings for the day. Then we turned in our ‘wish list’ of people we would like to talk to the next day. We wanted to visit a hospital, migrant workers, and people with water problems.
The next morning, we had a schedule very close to what we had asked for.
Our first stop was with the bag group to visit the fish auction on the beach. It was a beautiful place to spend the morning before the heat of the day came. The fish were placed in crates by each fisherman, and they were lined up along the sand waiting their turn to be auctioned. Women crowded around in beautifully patterned saris as the fish were dumped out by the crate onto a small tarp and bought as a lot. A man directed the auction, and although it was in the local language Tamil, I could follow the basic format of the auction similar to car auctions in the US. If an older woman went against a younger woman in a bid, the older lady would win by social circumstances.
They were selling a whole array of interesting fish, including a lot of sting rays which a woman held up for us to take her picture.
The boats were pulled high up into the sand after the morning catch, and fishermen sat in the large blue nets untangling and pulling out stray shells and baby fish, preparing it to store for the next day.
Kids crowded around us curiously, and we bought fish to serve for lunch later in the day.
Next we visited a small clinic where a village health nurse worked. She deals with a population of 9800 people and she focuses on children and expecting mothers. She said when she sees sickness from water her first question is “did you boil it?” They usually say no despite her frequent advice to purify the water before drinking it.
She told us that very few people were willing to pay for water, and although boiling the water is free, no one wants to wait for it to cool. This is understandable
She buys water in 25 L tanks for her patients.
Our next stop was a government hospital. This hospital does mostly outpatient work, and has very few beds for overnight. It was run-down, had no air-conditioning, and a long line of patients sat outside under an awning waiting to see the doctor.
The doctor was able to meet with us for a few minutes between his rounds of seeing up to 250 patients a day. The hospital was understaffed, over capacity, and under-funded. He said he usually saw waterborne illnesses in migrant workers or other people living in temporary housing with poor sanitation.
If there is an outbreak of sickness (Typhoid, Malaria, etc.) They will go knock on doors in the area of the home to find more sickness and quarantine the ill. We realized this was probably one of the reasons people had been telling us there was no sickness in the village. They didn’t know if we were from the government looking for people to quarantine. They were suspicious of our intentions and questions.
In the hospital they boiled the water for the patients, and the staff had a small-scale filter for their water. They were hoping to buy a reverse osmosis filter for the entire hospital from donations when enough funds were raised.
From the hospital we made our way to the government water pump station. This was an eye-opening visit, not because of the large machinery they use to pull water from the Palar River and underground then propel to the filtration station, but because of the information we learned about water scarcity.
Water is getting harder and harder to supply in India as in many of the largest countries in the world (U.S., Brazil, etc.) This pump station was working at only half capacity because there was not enough water being supplied. They told us that they kept having to pull water from deeper and deeper sources. (This was consistent with families we met who had been forced to dig deeper and deeper personal wells as they dried up).
They mentioned the problem that the water they did manage to pull up from the ground was getting saltier and saltier. This is consistent with coastal areas that pull water from aquifers at a faster rate than they can be replenished. Major pumping causes the aquifer of fresh water to shrink and the salt water encroaches into the area previously filled. As shown in the diagram below, areas that were once fresh water become saltier (zone of diffusion) as the salt water seeps further into the coast.
Source:< http://kanat.jsc.vsc.edu/student/spatafora/setup.htm> James Spatafora, Johnson State College
A desalination plant had begun construction along the road to Chennai to try to purify salt water to drinking water. Water scarcity is a huge problem in India, one of which we had been relatively unaware of until we were told first-hand.
After our morning interviews we returned to the same building we had visited the past two days to eat lunch made by the local women. They served us the fish we had bought at the market, rice, potatoes, spinach, buttermilk (which was chunky and fermented), a sweet pudding-noodle desert, and bottled water. They served us on large banana leaves and we ate the traditional way with our fingers.
When we returned to our home we showered, worked on summer MBA class homework online, and made presentations of our findings. We turned in a request to visit migrant workers and an NGO that worked with water.
On our third day our schedule of events began in the afternoon. In the morning we got up to do yoga in the grass on shower towels. Laura is a certified yoga instructor, so she led the morning class.
After yoga and breakfast, we made a call to a man called Sai who Mahesh put us in contact with. The call dropped 3 or 4 times throughout our 45 minute conversation, but we learned lots of valuable information about water in southern India.
He told us about government focus on conservation initiatives especially rainwater collection. He said the government was also considering charging money to homes after they used a certain amount of water. There were social entrepreneurs transporting water around urban areas with water scarcity making money for themselves and providing water to homes, and a drip irrigation system that had been implemented for farmers was highly successful and saved large quantities of wasted water.
He also cautioned us that most people consider water a basic necessity, so people are not willing to pay a lot. This is a common problem in the US as well, we consider clean water a personal right, and people would not be very accepting to higher water prices even though this would promote water conservation.
He talked about the huge issue of water wasting which relates to the scarcity problems, and he advocated the direct use of collected rainwater instead of storing it underground like the present method.
A huge barrier to water access in India are the high infrastructure costs and the corrupt people in government.
His final thoughts to us were the importance of educating people about water conservation and to look at purifying sewage to clean water. In reality, dumping sewage directly to the ocean to pull ocean water back into the desalination plants was just wasting a step in the process. There is a strong stigma about purifying sewage water to drink, but there is very effective technology to do so (the space ships and cruise ships already do.)
In the afternoon we joined the poop group (the group researching biofuels and manure) to an organic farm. This farm was run by a man who had retired from a high-paying job and simply chose to go into organic farming. He had a drip irrigation system that was highly effective, and used a type of fertilizer called Panchagavya. Panchagavya is an organic fertilizer made from cow poop (yes, poop), cow urine (yes, pee), curd, gee (like yogurt I think) and a few other cow ingredients. He had a concrete floored feeding area for the cows to collect their urine, and he generously walked us through the process of making this Panchagavya.
He said he eats a spoonful a day (yes, this man ate cow poop and urine every day) and it would prevent diabetes and a whole collection of other ailments supposedly. After demonstrating how he would eat it he shook Caylee’s hand…ew. Then he handed us a whole pile of cucumbers grown organically on his farm…with the same hands…
They showed us their drip irrigation system and several of the plants that were hanging to grow on vines.
The poop group had started to change their focus from utilizing cow manure as biofuel to focusing on Panchagavya. The limiting ingredient (the hardest one to get) was the cow urine which was in quantities almost double the cow pool. But Cow urine is hard to get. Following a cow around with a bucket waiting for him or her to take a leak is not ideal. So they were considering a urine collection system to facilitate Panchagavya production.
After the organic farm we drove to find construction workers (migrant workers) whom we found next to a large bridge construction. We climbed down a steep dirt hill to reach the place where they were cutting large sections of rebar. We were hoping to finally find people who had water problems, however according to the workers (carefully monitored by the foreman standing within earshot) they had perfect lives. No health problems, no water problems, good food made by a chef. We went into their homes built along the side of the site and they did look pretty nice.
At this point we were stilling looking for someone with a problem…
For our 4th day, our wish list was only to find someone with a water problem.
Our first visit was further inland in what we would call the country in the US. There was a small home right beside the road with a huge rice field behind it. There is a pump by the road where they get their water from the government which is only turned on for an hour a day, around 6:00am.
They said they have problems with sickness when the water source changes. (Sometimes the water from the government comes from a different source when the water tower or pump is in need of repair.) The sickness that corresponds to the change in pipes makes sense because it would be different bacteria they are exposed to.
When we asked them if they filter their water they showed us a strainer like we would use for flour and said they put it under the spigot to catch the worms that come out.
Not exactly the type of filter we were asking about.
They said they had paid about 15 rupees (25 cents USD) for the strainer and would be willing to pay about that much for another filter if we designed one. They weren’t really interested in paying for water.
We talked to them about how they store water and they showed us the metal containers they keep water in throughout the day. They said they share the water with their neighbors when they have extra after their needs for the day are met.
They showed us their house and their cows and they said that if they had a way to collect the urine they could make 10 rupees a liter (15 cents).
After their home we went to visit a community leader who talked with us for a few minutes. They said they boil water during the rainy season, but summer season is when the sewage from the unlined septic tanks begins to leak into the water. He also said his people are lazy and choose not to boil the water.
We didn’t stay long visiting them, they didn’t tell us much we hadn’t already heard.
Our final stop of the day was at a government-built library that had a rainwater collection system. They had built it as a model for the village and offered 50% subsidy to build your own 5 years ago. No one installed them, primarily because water scarcity is an issue in the cities and not so much in the rural areas.
There was also a government sign with health information about the importance of using toilets and not defecating in the open, washing hands, not walking barefoot….but they told us that the villagers chose not to follow the government instructions.
Venkat had been with our group since the airport in New Delhi the day we arrived. I think culturally, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing opinions with us while we researched water, but on this day we asked him his opinion on the water problem and he provided a wealth of information that would change the direction of our project.
Venkat lives with his family in Chennai and he said everyone in the city (if they have money) buys water. If they don’t have the money, they have to move. People in urban areas all have rainwater collection systems on their rooves that store in an underground tank.
A truck brings in 1000L of water per week in the dry season which is four months of the year. These people are transporting water from up to 600 kilometers away due to water scarcity. He said the wells people use have to get deeper and deeper to reach the water.
One of the most interesting cultural insights he told us about was visiting his wife’s family in their village. When he travels home with his wife, he drinks the water in the village knowing that he and his children will get sick. He said it would be rude to not drink the water in the family home even though they know it carries bacteria and viruses.
Again we returned back to our base to compile information, prepare our nightly presentation and compile a wish list of people to see on our final day.
We started the day looking for the groups of women who collect water at the spigots every morning when they are turned on for a short period of time.
We found a large group of women sitting by the road, and a woman standing ankle-deep in a puddle of water holding a pot to a pipe.
They explained to us that instead of paying the government to install a pump to their water line, they simply dug a hole themselves and sawed off the pipe (one of the oldest women in the group explained this to us with exaggerated animation.)
They had a ground pump to use for washing clothes (there was a coke bottle tied to a faucet to funnel the flow).
They said they do get sick from the water sometimes with fevers, colds, and headaches. They travel 3 kilometers to get water that they believe is clean (not the pump water). Their method for determining if the water will make them sick or not is a “rice test.” If they boil the rice and it is yellow then the water is bad. If they boil the rice and it is white, then the water is good.
I couldn’t help but laugh as the women shared their stories with us, talking over each other and trying to explain directly to me what was going on, though I clearly didn’t speak Tamil and could only read their body language.
These women gave us hope for a solution. They were the first ones to recognize there was a problem with water, and they would be interested in a solution. They were spunky ladies who took control of their own lives and sawed off a pipe if the need arose.
They told us they would be willing to pay up to 150 rupees ($2.50) for a solution. The solution should attach to the existing spigot and not fall off in heavy flow.
Our final stop was at a home/local post office. This woman was the postmaster so there was an extra door in the front with a sign that said the post office opened at 10:00am.
They had three sources of water in their home, 2 wells with pumps, and one government water source. She had two well pumps because the first well had dried up and she had to build a second one much deeper. She said the neighbors use each other’s pumps when one runs dry. And there was the possibility to dig 10 feet deeper, but the improved well would only last another two or three years at the current rate of water scarcity depletion.
Her plastic hoses had fungus growing inside, and they had a problem in the summer months with sewage seeping into the wells as well. I used their toilet out back and it was simply a concrete structure built on top of a pit that served as the septic tank. But since the tank isn’t lined it is no surprise that it leaches into the wells.
She buys her mineral water to drink from across the street, but the problem is they never know where the “purified” water actually comes from.
She said she would be willing to pay 150-200 rupees every six months for a filter or pump and would be willing to clean it daily.
This woman also used the rice test we had heard about from the ladies earlier in the day.
This rice test is apparently a very commonly held idea. Venkat told us that of course everyone uses the rice test. In the words of a 5th grader… “DUH”
This is one of the best examples we had of the importance of being on the ground doing research for a reverse innovation project. This rice test may or may not actually reflect the true quality of the water. The water could look completely clear and make white rice, but there could be dangerous microscopic bacteria and viruses. In the same way, extra sediment may make the rice yellow, but the water could be safe to drink by other standards.
But whether or not the color of the rice is truly a mark of purification, any solution we create would have to produce white rice. We can filter the water to be 100% safe for drinking, but if the rice turns yellow, no one will believe in our product.
This little detail is so engrained in society, and it was something we would have never thought to ask about, we just had to discover it over time. It was a valuable insight that would allow us to relate to potential customers and hopefully develop a viable solution to the water problems in India.
I see it as a reminder of the importance time on the ground getting into the mindset of the people you want to help.
In the evening we further developed our filter and prepared for our final presentations to a panel of local Indians who would give us feedback on the feasibility of the designs we had worked so hard on. Mahesh would be our translator.
We presented our water filter design with all the features added to fit the needs of our consumers
- A removable filter that could be manufactured by local women and sold in a corner store
- The familiar bottle-shape of the existing pop bottles attached to spigots
- An extra tie to ensure the filter won’t spring off the pipe
- An expandable balloon-type material to ensure water flow is not slowed
- And of course our filter would have to pass the rice test
The panel was extremely receptive to our pitch, and it was truly rewarding to see them nod in agreement as we shared our findings from the week and how we had incorporated the small nuances into our designs.
We are continuing development of a water filter for our STEM Path to the MBA Senior Design Project this year and we will keep this blog updated with our progress.