When Scientists and 'Professionals' Decide for Rural People


A simple rainwater harvesting and storage facility for a rural household

by Ranjit Mulleriyawa

"Most professionals assume that they know what farmers want and need but are often wrong. Not knowing farmers' priorities and not putting farmers' agendas first means that professionals are likely to address the wrong problems in their research. Conversely, understanding farmers priorities and helping farmers meet them, leads to innovations which are adopted. To put farmer's agendas first, requires diagnosis in which farmers take part in analysis, and in which sensitive researchers respect farmers as people, professionals and colleagues."

(Robert Chambers)

I have participated in over a dozen seminars, symposia and workshops organized by 'scientists' and 'professionals' addressing the subject of Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Etiology (CKDu) during the past two years, and been amazed to discover that many participants seem to think in 'strait jackets'. They dissect, discuss and debate this major health crisis afflicting peasant farmers of the dry zone and recommend potential solutions paying little or no attention to the context within which the problem exists. Many of them fail to see the "big picture"- the people and their socio-economic and environmental conditions under which they live. One wonders how many of these brilliant academics have ever visited the suffering people in their huts and villages, and asked them about their lives, and what they (the villagers) think of the brilliant ideas and solutions advocated on their behalf? How relevant are solutions advocated to solve rural problems without consulting the intended beneficiaries?

Academics frequently overlook or underestimate the social context of rural societies when making specific recommendations designed to solve problems. As a result, many of their well intentioned, 'technically effective' solutions offered to solve rural problems remain un-adopted by the intended beneficiaries. Politicians embark on grandiose projects seeking maximum publicity. Contractors and businessmen promote solutions which bring them maximum profits. Meanwhile the rural poor - the intended beneficiaries - are saddled with inappropriate and unsustainable interventions, and their problems remain mostly unsolved.

Understanding rural realities

People in the CKDu affected areas are relatively illiterate, poor paddy farmers in the 'dry zone'. Their houses are widely scattered. The roads are dilapidated. Public services - transport, healthcare, sanitation, education, extension services and communication facilities, are poorly developed. Electricity is not easily accessible. Even where it exists, disruptions to power supply are frequent. Rural institutions (farmer organizations, rural development societies) are mostly dysfunctional.

Rice cultivation is the mainstay of their income. Rarely do their cultivated plots exceed one hectare in extent. Survival demands that they strive to maximize their income by practicing green revolution agriculture. Contrary to assumptions (by outsiders), 'chena' or shifting cultivation is rarely practiced now (due to limited land).

These areas receive an annual rainfall of 1,000-1,200 mm. per year. Over 75 per cent of this rainfall occurs within four months of the year (October, Nov. Dec. and January) giving rise to frequent floods. Total annual rainfall tends to be relatively consistent. However its distribution pattern has fluctuated widely in recent years.

Over 80 per cent of these villagers obtain their drinking water from open dug wells, where the water tends to contain high concentrations of Fluoride (2-4 ppm) and dissolved Calcium and Magnesium salts giving rise to the condition known as "hard water". There is widespread consensus among scientists that improving the quality of drinking water in these areas may prevent, or retard the progress of this kidney disease. This was recognized more than two years ago, but the required potable water still continues to be an illusion for people in the affected areas.

Providing clean drinking water:

Appropriate solutions

Viable solutions for the rural scenario described above would need to fulfill the following criteria:

!.Technically effective and able to provide an adequate quantity of potable water to meet household requirements (for drinking and cooking purposes) throughout the year, at an affordable price.

2 Simple, practical and easy for rural people to understand and implement.

3. Socially acceptable and sustainable within the current context of dry zone farming communities.

4. Environmentally sound and ecologically sustainable.

5. Require minimum dependence on external resource persons.

Assessing the options

There are basically three options pertaining to providing clean drinking water:

* Rainwater harvesting

* Reverse Osmosis Plants (R.O. Plants)

*Pipe borne water supply.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater is one of the purest forms of water available to man. Our country is blessed with an abundance of rainfall - even in the 'dry zone'. Our ancestors had the wisdom and foresight to recognize this fact and they established a network of surface water storage reservoirs ('tanks') virtually in every village. These helped both man and beast as well as in ground water recharge. However, since the soil in the area contained minerals rich in Fluoride, Calcium and Magnesium, the ground water became laced with these elements over time and proved unsuitable for drinking. Nevertheless, it is still possible to catch the rainwater flowing off the roofs of houses and use it for drinking and cooking purposes. All that is required is a storage structure large enough to collect and store sufficient water to last through the 6-8 months of dry weather (February to September). It is estimated that a household consisting of five persons, would require approximately 20 liters of water per day for drinking and cooking purposes. Thus, a storage tank capable of holding 5,000 liters is adequate to cope with even a severe drought. This facility (complete with a gutter and down pipe) will cost Rupees 50,000 per household. It requires no maintenance cost (except replacement of the gutter every five years or so). It will last 10 -20 years, and provide households with independent access to potable water at an affordable price (25 cents/liter). Rainwater harvesting is the most rational, cost effective, socially acceptable and ecologically sustainable method of providing clean drinking water to widely scattered rural households in the dry zone. The technology involved is simple and easy for rural people to understand, implement and sustain. This is pure common sense. Does it work?


Proof of a pudding is in its eating

A local NGO (Lanka rainwater harvesting forum) helped villagers in Vavuniya to establish 750 ferro-cement rainwater storage tanks two years ago. This has enabled the people to obtain adequate good quality water for drinking and cooking purposes throughout the year. When asked to comment on the benefits of the new intervention, the most enthusiastic response came from the women in the household, " We like to drink this water; moreover it has saved us 4-6 hours per day previously spent in fetching water from long distances". The economic value of time saved, amounted to a staggering 72,000 rupees per year (more than the capital investment incurred in constructing the storage tank). Despite such living proof of the viability of rainwater harvesting systems, many technologists are rushing headlong into promoting Reverse Osmosis Plants in CKDU endemic villages. Politicians and policy makers are being mislead into believing in the 'RO manthram'.

Reverse Osmosis Plants

High capacity Reverse Osmosis Plants (R.O. Plants) have an advantage over rainwater harvesting systems in that the capital investment per household is much lower. However, cost of a liter of R.O. water to the consumer (poor villager) is 4-6 times more than rainwater (due to higher operational costs of R.O. Systems). R.O. Plants require establishment of a separate institution for operation and maintenance and ensure equitable distribution of water to villagers from centralized locations. They also make heavy demands on foreign exchange for purchase of imported equipment and replacement of costly filter membranes, need a dependable supply of electricity, and release toxic impurities (such as Fluoride) to the environment via the effluent water. This is a violation of the National Environment Protection Act No 47 of 1980 prohibiting discharge of effluents containing over 2mg/L (2 ppm) of Fluoride into surface water bodies (drainage canals etc). They may have serious ecological implications for the already over exploited ground water resources in the 'dry zone'. Clearly, R.O. Plants are socially unsustainable within the prevailing context of dry zone villages.

If the village women were aware of the simple alternative option- rainwater harvesting- which provides independent access to potable water at their door step, they would have given a piece of their minds to the promoters of R.O. systems who have little concern for the time spent by villagers in fetching water from centralized locations!

Pipe borne water supply systems

Pipe borne water supply is only feasible where adequate quantities of good quality water from a perennial water source are easily accessible. They make heavy demands on trained personnel; entail high capital investment as well as operation and maintenance costs.

Fertilizers and Pesticides

"Excessive use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides are bad for you …. You must not apply pesticides shortly before harvest of your crop….. You must wear protective masks, clothing and boots…" you must not take advice from pesticide vendors", advice scientists and arm chair critics. "Yes, we know all that, but there is no one to tell us the correct amount of fertilizer to apply, or which pesticides are safe, and how much to apply… because the agricultural extension service is defunct. Pesticide vendors are the only people who visit us in the field and tell us what to use", retort the farmers. "Your advice on using protective gear is good, but try doing that yourself out in the paddy fields with a 25 Kg sprayer on your back ,"exclaims farmer Punchi Banda. John Kenneth Galbraith was dead right when he said: "Farmers rightly sense there is danger in the counsel of any man who does not have to live by the results."

When will our ivory tower scientists awaken to grass root level realities?

*The author is a member of the Center for Education, Research and Training on Kidney Diseases (CERTKid), University of Peradeniya. He has been a farmer, researcher, and rural development activist interacting with farming communities in the dry zone for over 30 years. He holds a Masters degree in Agriculture from the University of the Philippines. He may be contacted at: rangoviya2013@gmail.com

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