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  People-sized desalination

It is odd that in India we always seek grand solutions when small ones will do. Huge dams, linking of rivers and centrally managed food supply are all examples of this thinking.

Take drinking water. The shame of Nalagonda, a district in Andhra Pradesh is enough to offset the whole laundry list of achievements in IT, aerospace and nuclear technologies. Here, 670,000 people --well over half a million!--, spread amongst 674 villages, have been irreversibly afflicted by an excess of fluoride in the groundwater. BBC has some harrowing images that tell the story. This has been going on since 1975 and successive governments have not solved the problem. But what were they trying? Here’s a quote from a report in InfoChange site: “...we come by an idle water purifier plant. It’s one of the many non-working systems built under the Netherlands Assisted Project (NAP). From 1975 till 1990, the state government received Rs 170 crore from the NAP to help solve the fluoride contamination problem.”

With that idea rusting to death, the current plan is even grander: “Experts believe that supplying water from the SLBC [Srisailam Left bank Canal] is the only way to tackle the fluorosis problem. But, although the project has been included in the Five Year Plans, and allocations made in the state’s annual budget, doubts are still being raised about how to channelise the water. Twelve years have passed since the plan was first proposed. This inexcusable delay has increased its cost, from the original Rs 200 crore to Rs 700 crore.” The target date for water to arrive in pipes was June, 2004.

Elsewhere in the same India, someone was working at an appropriate solution. Only—despite our claims in communications technologies—the ones in need of the solution and the provider of it, do not know how to connect. The Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute [CMSCRI], Bhavnagar, Gujarat has developed an ox driven desalination plant capable of producing 600 to 700 litres of potable water per hour. All it takes is Rs 2.5 lakhs per plant and a sturdy pair of oxen; no power, no pipelines, no canals. CMSCRI director Dr P K Ghosh says that a unit is already operating in Bengal’s 24-Parganas district and several more are being planned for border areas of Rajasthan.

In true Government tradition though, this profound innovation is hidden from all view. The CMSCRI site is an opaque mess with no usable information. Main media is busy headlining the firing of Brahmos missile or the like, and has no space in front-pages for a development like this one. Exceptionally, the New India Express has carried an article by Seema Singh on the subject. There is also a nice picture on view there.

This article is intended to provoke problem-solving individuals and therefore is full of leads they may wish to pursue. To begin with, reverse osmosis systems are capable of removing up to 95% of fluorides in water. You can verify that here. We next discover that manually operated desalinators have been known to mariners and the military for a long time. Katadyn, a Swiss company has been making them for over 75 years. Admittedly their hand-operated desalinator is for survival only but in the villages of Nalagonda, we are talking about survival, aren’t we? IDRC, Canada working with a different brand of manual desalinators in Botswana, found that people there experienced maintenance problems. But distributing a 1000 of these devices in AP would by now have created enough skills locally, to maintain them and some jobs as well, for young men. Such a solution would have been ‘here and now’ than the long wait for piped water from a distant canal at a huge expense. Katadyn also makes an electric model that consumes just 50 watts at 12 volts, making it suitable for running off solar panels. This produces 6 litres per hour. It can also revert to manual operation in emergencies. Katadyn is so confident about the sturdiness of this model, that it guarantees it for 3 years.

With all the foregoing information, we arrive at an idea for India. Can’t the issue of water in distressed villages be solved through mini-businesses run by self help groups using manual, animal or power driven desalinators? Some hand-holding may be required at induction time but given native ingenuity, with a profit element also thrown in, we might have avoided Nalagonda-like tragedy and shame.

It is information that solves problems, not just money. And it is the responsibility of informed Indians to provide this to those in need.