Dunguripada, a small village in Saipala Gram Panchayat of Nuapada district of Odisha, had only one tube-well fitted with hand-pump as the primary water source for drinking and other domestic purposes. The community was under the impression that tube-well water is safe for consumption. In 2013, WaterAid India along with local partner Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) intervened into the district and conducted a baseline assessment. It was found that tube-well contained fluoride of 5 parts per million, which is way beyond the permissible limit. In the small habitation of around 60 people, around 21 were already suffering from skeletal fluorosis and rest showed clear symptoms of fluorosis. Unfortunately, the community was completely unaware of the reasons behind their physical abnormalities and never questioned their only existent water source.
WaterAid India and RCDC conducted a series of meetings with the villagers, informed them about the presence of fluoride in their water source and its ill effects and started exploring ways to help the community get rid of their fluoride problem. The first collective decision villagers took was to stop using tube-well water and started using water from the nearby stream of Bhalubindha but the stream was seasonal and dried up soon after monsoon. As a result, villagers had to walk two kilometres distance every day for collecting water. The villagers also filed a memorandum for safe water supply with the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWS&S) department but decided to look for an alternative water source instead of waiting for government action.
During the course of intervention, it was noticed that the contamination was confined to a certain aquifer. The other open wells touching the aquifer, popularly known as sub-surface water table, were not contaminated. With some guidance, villagers learnt that a sanitary well (dug-well fitted with hand-pump with due assessment and protection measures from sanitary point of view to avoid physical and bacteriological contamination) can be a safe source of water. However, it was not an easy task to implement. Each household contributed manpower to dig the 18 feet deep well, break boulders and to construct the wall. They also contributed INR 11,150 to meet the cost for sand, cement, transportation and the mason. Even fluorosis affected people contributed in some form or the other. When material stocks fell short and there was no cash to spare for transportation expenses, women in the community volunteered to carry big boulders on their heads to complete the work. Despite being a backward tribal habitation, the community demonstrated excellent solidarity in addressing their water quality issues.
Finally, the well was constructed. After sanitising, the water was tested and found safe for consumption. Since May 2014, the community has not experienced scarcity in the village in terms of water for drinking and domestic purposes. The villagers also formed a user group and pay regularly for the operation and maintenance of the well. RCDC also helped develop capacity within the community on testing the water quality of the sanitary well on parameters like bacteria, fluoride, iron and total dissolved solids.
Now that the immediate goal to make provision for safe water has been met, the villagers plan to approach the government to provide safe water through pipe water supply system. “We now know that getting safe drinking water is our right,” says Kailash Majhi, another fluorosis affected person in his mid-forties. The small tribal habitation of Dunguripada is a great example of how communities can contribute to mitigate their water woes in a sustainable manner.
The reasons behind popularity of sanitary well as a safe water source are: (i) easy to install; (ii) easy to operate and maintain; (iii) cost effective; and (iv) can be done at community level. A number of villages in the district have already adopted the sanitary well concept to ensure safe drinking water supply. Kadameri is a village in Beltukuri Gram Panchayat of Nuapada that has constructed 16 sanitary wells. The model has been well appreciated by the Government. RWS&S has so far constructed 45 sanitary wells across the district to combat fluoride issue.Bikash Kumar Pati is Programme Coordinator at WaterAid India.