Sohani Bibi, 10, looks through her schoolbooks with wonder. It is the first set she has ever owned, and in a few months, she will attend school for the first time, in the desert district of Tharparkar in Pakistan’s Sindh Province.
“I really want her to learn to read and write. It could make a huge difference in her life,” Sohni’s mother, 35-year-old Ahuja Bibi, told IRIN.
Sohani’s enrolment was made possible by the construction of a solar-powered turbine, which pulls water out of a well, making collection easy. Previously, it had taken Sohani, with her mother and younger sister, up to three hours a day to collect enough water to meet the family’s cooking, washing and drinking needs.
“Because there is more time free, Sohni can go to school. So will her younger sisters in a few years’ time,” said their mother, who says she can now manage the household work on her own.
Their experience demonstrates the importance of water solutions to the future of Tharparkar, and shows what is lost when waterworks investment is wasted.
Access to water is a key problem for the district of Tharparkar, which comprises an area of 22,000sqkm. More than 1.4 million people and about five million heads of livestock live in the area, where annual rainfall averages can be as low as 9mm, and drought is common.
“Barely 5 percent of the population has access to a sweet [fresh] water supply. Even the district capital, Mithi, [only] gets sweet water twice in a month. Laying down water supply lines at high cost is also open to question. Most of the population relies on dug wells,” said Ali Akbar, executive director of the NGO Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), in the town of Chachro in Tharparkar.
While several projects have been carried out by AWARE and other NGOs, Akbar believes these have had only a limited impact.
One reason for this has been fluoride contamination of underground water sources, which has led to grave health problems. But there are other major issues as well, including corruption in schemes set up by the government.
An inquiry into these charges began last year under the government’s National Accountability Bureau. It is examining the manner in which contracts were awarded to companies to set up reverse osmosis (RO) plants, which turn brackish water into sweet water, and the location of these plants.
Traditional, cost-effective solutions
Also at issue are running costs after projects are constructed. The costs of running RO plants and diesel-operated tube wells installed by the government are high, and Akbar says only about 3-5 percent of communities are managing to pay the expenses.
One solution is to use indigenous water-purification technologies. The NGO Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) has been able to reach around 1,000 villages with water solutions, often using water access and purification methods based on traditional practices, which are designed to be more acceptable to local people.
One such purification technique is ‘mussafa’, which involves using a 1kg-bag of graded sand, treated with silver, as a filter in the clay pots used to store water. The technique, developed by the Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, is based on age-old practices.
“We know filtering water through sand will clean it. This method has been used for generations in some places,” said Habib Ali, a resident of a rural area on the outskirts of Mithi.
TRDP has also experimented with solar disinfection, in which water is placed in glass containers under direct sunlight to kill bacteria and reduce water-borne sicknesses.
The organization has also built rainwater collection tanks to serve 15,636 households in some of the most marginalized communities, with minimal running costs.
An eye on sustainability
Other projects being currently undertaken include the use of solar pumps, which can pull water from far below the surface, store it and pipe it into homes.
AWARE began a scheme in 2010 to introduce metered solar pumps in 17 village of Chachro administrative area (taluka). Each household will pay for the amount of water used. The project, aimed at sustainability, is due to be completed in 2017.
“I think the metered solar pump is a really good scheme. The community is involved, and water conservation built in,” said Akbar.
He also proposes building windmills to draw up water in suitable areas.
“We hear about these water schemes. But in our village, located 20km from Mithi, we still walk over 40 minutes to the only pond to collect water, and carry it back. When the pond dries, as is happening now, we move. We have been nomads for centuries, and nothing has changed,” Sassui Bibi told IRIN.
But when change does come, the impact on residents’ lives can be dramatic.
“With piped water available now at the tap, my small daughters are free to go to school, to play, and my wife’s constant backache has vanished,” said Adeel Ali, a carpenter in Mithi.
There has been a wider social impact, too.
“Access to water means people no longer have to collect it from the well or tap of the local landlord. This empowers them, and reduces the feudal hold over them,” Khatau Mal, a media officer at TRDP, told IRIN.
Freedom from water collection also gives women more say in their households.
“Rather than spending hours at the well, I can now take better care of my children, keep them clean to prevent sickness and share in discussions on family matters. As water collectors, we are just like chattel - but with water pouring from a tap we gain dignity,” said Sunniya Bibi.