Last week was (in case you missed it) World Water Week.
And while the idea of a special week dedicated to a social problem may seem contrived, it is worth taking note that every week is a tough water week for millions of global citizens. On an average day, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, women and children around the world spend 200 million hours collecting water. They may have to hike for hours to a source of water. They may have to line up for water distribution. And in some cases they may have indoor plumbing but have no idea if water will emerge when they turn on the tap.
This blog post looks at the issue of water through two lenses: the photographic eye of Mustafah Abdulaziz, whose pictures show what an ordeal it can be simply to get water for drinking and cooking and cleaning, and the reporter's eye of Rae Ellen Bichell, who writes about a solution to the problem of water delivery that's being tried in India.
You need some water. You open the faucet. And you wait. And wait.
You twiddle your thumbs. You wait for the first drop to come out of the tap so you can get water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. You wait for hours so that when the water comes, you're ready.
A lot of the time, nothing comes out.
That's the way water works — or, rather, doesn't work — in many parts of the world.
In India, a group of young entrepreneurs based in Bangalore has figured out how to let people know when there's water on its way. And it's as simple as sending a text message.
The problem of water delivery has a lot to do with the "valvemen" who control the water flow of the city. That's Chandru's job in Hubli, a city in southwest India.
For 20 years, Chandru has worked at a reservoir on 48-hour rotations, keeping an eye on the water level and moving from valve to valve. He opens one, and water flows to a part of the city. Then he closes it and opens another. He listens to the rush of water to make sure the water pressure is high enough to keep things flowing but not so high that it will burst decaying pipes. Utility engineers tell him which parts of the city to give water to that day, and for how many hours.
An Indian water tap is the tail end of a chaotic braid of aging pipes, ad hoc decisions and a lack of communication. The system leaves engineers and utility companies in the dark, and many people — mostly women — wasting precious work and school hours waiting each day for the first drop to come out of the tap.
Many cities in the world "don't have the tools for managing the type of water supply that they operate in. So we started building the tools for the cities," says Anu Sridharan, who moved from California to Bangalore a few years ago to co-found NextDrop.
The social enterprise startup, created by graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, calls valvemen each day to find out when they'll release water that day to certain areas. It then alerts subscribers via text message when to expect water. In return, subscribers text NextDrop to let them know if the water fails to come on as promised, or if pressure is unusually low — valuable information that is passed to the utility engineers so they can identify leaks and pipe damage.
NextDrop started out five years ago in the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad, where the group estimates that low-income households were wasting 10.9 million hours per year waiting for water to flow from storage tanks, some a century old.
The service now has 75,000 household subscribers in four Indian cities, where it's also working with government and utility engineers. After a successful pilot test in Bangalore, NextDrop is about to roll out the system to the city of 9 million. And it recently launched a smartphone app, Waattr, that allows users to find and share information about water quality and supply with the local community.
The group had to get over a few speed bumps along the way. It created maps that pinpoint where subscribers live, and maps showing which valves send water to which neighborhoods, but it hasn't been able to overcome one issue: Riots and terrorism scares twice have led the government to ban bulk texting, making it difficult for NextDrop to get its alerts out to people for days at a time.
And NextDrop had to figure out exactly how water moves through Indian cities, a process in which valvemen play an essential role. They're the ground-level staff, usually underpaid and with an elementary school education and no formal training. They don't communicate much with consumers, or with the engineers who make decisions about when and where water will go.
"It's insanely difficult to do a good job" at distributing water, says Sridharan. "To give you a sense of scale, in Bangalore there's about 500 men who manually operate 8,000 valves over three days to make sure the entire city gets water. And it's all manual."
The intermittent, unreliable water that many Indians experience is not because of water shortages, Sridharan explains: "It's actually an energy problem."
Reliable and constantly available tap water requires an expensive, automated system that keeps water constantly pressurized and pumped. That eats up vast amounts of energy. About 3 percent of California's total energy use, for instance, goes toward pressurizing and pumping water as it moves from the greener north to the more arid south.
Even without those automated pumps and pressurizers, moving water costs a lot. Right now, Sridharan explains, a third of Bangalore's spending budget goes to energy for use in the water sector.
Some cities are trying to move toward automated systems that would eliminate the need for valvemen like Chandru — and hopefully also fix the intermittent water supply — but it's a slow and painful process, says Sridharan. The twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad have been trying for a decade to introduce an automated system to deliver water to 10 percent of the city.
"It's very political, it's very time consuming, it's expensive," says Sridharan. She sees NextDrop easing that transition, by providing the communication and information between the ends of the tap, allowing baby steps toward the goal of 24/7 automated water supply.
The startup's progress has garnered the attention of big funders, particularly because of its potential for liberating women's time.
"It's a reasonably simple idea ... to really set people free and help women," says Hanneke Willenborg, an executive at Sunlight, an initiative by global food giant Unilever. Sunlight funded NextDrop's pilot project in Mysore, a city of about 1 million, in addition to publicity campaigns and research based on interviews with subscribers.
Before NextDrop, Willenborg says, "the women that we interviewed said that they were spending on average five hours a day next to their taps waiting for water." Next month, researchers will conduct interviews to find out how much time the service saves people.
UNESCO launched a toolkit this week to help countries better evaluate the role of women in gathering and distributing water. Blanca Jimenez-Cisneros, director of the Division of Water Sciences at UNESCO, says NextDrop is innovative because, instead of waiting for the government to make infrastructural change, it allows a small but potentially significant change in people's behavior.
"We're finally at that point where we're ready to scale rapidly — not just in India but in other countries as well," says Sridharan.
Next up: Africa. NextDrop is talking with the city of Nairobi, Kenya, about setting up the service. Maybe there, too, people will be able to get up from their seats near the tap and walk off to work or school.