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  • Research in India: Happy Pongal!

    Harvest celebrations are a commonality across cultures, a time to think about where our food comes from and give thanks. Pongal is the time for that in Chennai, a major celebration of the harvest that happens in Tamil Nadu the middle of every January. After being deluged (or at least hopefully somewhat blessed) by the northeastern monsoons in the months of October and November, farmers are now ready to bring forth the harvest.

    Happy PongalSakkarai Pongal

    It took 3 women 2 hours to complete

    Like good BBQ in the U.S., the traditional flavor of these dishes comes from cooking them over a wood burning stove. In my uncle’s relatively modern Chennai home, wood stoves were constructed for the occasion, and four pots of rice were put to boil inside the house. You can see how smoky the interior is in this picture of my aunt putting some milk in the Pongal pots.

    My aunt putting some milk in the Pongal pots, over a highly polluting indoor wood stove

    Unfortunately, burning wood indoors greatly adds to indoor air pollution, a major problem in many developing countries. Billions of people use poorly-ventilated wood burning stoves. This pollution can contribute to numerous respiratory problems, including pneumonia and lung cancer, as well as cataracts and possible blindness. In poor countries worldwide, indoor smoke from solid fuels is the second-greatest environmental risk factor contributing to premature death (the greatest risk factor is what brought me to Chennai: water, sanitation, and hygiene). It is also the second-greatest risk factor in mid-income countries (after occupational risks and just above water, sanitation and hygiene). The World Health Organization found that indoor smoke was responsible for 1.7 million premature deaths in 2000. Thankfully for my uncle’s family, they do not need to rely on these stoves every day.

    The last day of Pongal, called Kanu, is meant for meeting friends and family, and the beaches and parks were overflowing with families. On the last day of Pongal I was sitting in the offices of various officials trying to organize speakers and data for an upcoming workshop I will be co-hosting on wastewater treatment. Many of these folks weren’t acting like my friends, but nevertheless…

    All in all, a wonderful holiday to celebrate the coming of the new harvest and be thankful for family, friends, and good food.

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  • Research in India: Counting Toilets in the New Millennium


    For three months in 2005-2006, Pacific Institute Program Director Meena Palaniappan will be conducting research in India. This article is part of a series of diary entries in which Palaniappan will elaborate on her experiences abroad.


    What will it take to prevent the people in the developing world from suffering the ill health of waterborne disease?

    Is it greater quantities of safe drinking water?

    Is it more toilets?

    Is it cheaper water?

    The United Nations attempted to answer these questions with a series of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): targets for the international community to achieve in order to improve the health and well being of all people. In 2002, the Johannesburg Summit added specific objectives on sanitation and hygiene to the MDGs. A main sanitation target was to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015.

    What is critical about these new sanitation goals is that they address a major imbalance in the funding and priority that has been given to drinking water as opposed to sanitation in the past. Sanitation has always been the forgotten child in the water and sanitation family. In fact, the gap in sanitation coverage grew during the 1980s International Water and Sanitation Decade.

    But what does access to basic sanitation mean? And how is access to basic sanitation being measured and reported? Are countries being asked how many toilets they have? Whether there is a toilet within 1 km of a residence? Whether people are actually using these toilets?

    Since it is primarily self reported, it seems to be up to the national government to decide how to determine how many people have access to basic sanitation. As might be imagined, countries like India who don’t want to be pointed to as a laggard on the indicator of basic sanitation are going out and building tens of thousands of toilets.

    But building and disseminating toilets does not guarantee their use. Or use as intended.

    Numerous studies demonstrate that lack of involvement by residents in the construction of toilets often leads to toilets being used for numerous purposes, such as store rooms or simply being filled with dirt. Meanwhile, the intended users are still defecating in the open where they are most comfortable.

    Recently, the focus in India has been on “open defecation free” villages. By involving residents in mapping where defecation happens, how this impacts their health, and designing a publicity campaign, numerous agencies are creating the demand for toilets and then working with users to design them. This focus on involving the whole community is critical, as it has been found that even if a few residents continue to defecate in the open, there still exist high rates of waterborne diseases

    Despite these important transitions in international thinking and local implementation, critical sanitation questions still go unanswered. What if a peri-urban community created a sewerage system that deposited its collected waste into waterway running nearby? What if septic tanks attached to a community toilet bank are overloaded, leaking, and not properly maintained?

    There is no point in asking “What if?” in a city like Chennai. While Chennai reports that 100% of its population is covered by underground sewerage, untreated and undertreated sewage flows freely into the waterways. Most underground aquifers, which supply up to 2/3 of the city’s drinking water needs, are polluted by sewage.

    Have we solved the waterborne disease problem yet?

    If sanitation is the forgotten child in the water and sanitation family, then wastewater and sewage treatment is an even further neglected cousin. In India and other nations with inadequate water systems, untreated sewage flows in urban waterways, serving as a vector for diseases that run right through the community. This surface water pollution and the leaking of underground sewer pipes and septic tanks pollutes groundwater, which is often the only dependable source of drinking water in many areas.

    When we measure how well we are doing in providing access to basic sanitation, we shouldn’t count toilets, or even how close people live to toilets. I would propose a different measure: we should conduct independent testing of surface waterways and groundwater for the presence of E. Coli or intestinal bacteria, which would be the best test for the extent of sewage contamination in water and identify the need for better treatment and disposal of human waste.

    Improving health and reducing waterborne disease requires more than just toilet construction. People need to use the newly constructed toilets, and the sewage generated needs to be treated, and in areas where water is in short supply, this treated wastewater can be reused for non-potable purposes. If we want to improve health for those that are most affected, a focus on wastewater treatment will be critical in the next leg of our race toward the Millennium Development Goals.

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  • Research in India: The Holy Grail


    For three months in 2005-2006, Pacific Institute Program Director Meena Palaniappan will be conducting research in India. This article is part of a series of diary entries in which Palaniappan will elaborate on her experiences abroad.


    There are passions that drive people. Finding a cure for cancer. Stopping the spread of AIDS. Improving wastewater treatment in India has always been my holy grail (It’s a strange holy grail to be sure. But what is even stranger, I’ve found a small cadre of those who are equally passionate about it).

    It must have started in studying Environmental Engineering, when I was taught how to build mega wastewater treatment plants. I learned how far in the U.S. we had come on the cost/benefit curve, how gaining some additional benefit would come with great expense. Engineering degree in hand, I came like a sanitary missionary to the land of my birth. How naïve and passé … I know.

    I am not sure if India has yet made it onto the sanitation cost/benefit curve. The costs of waterborne disease in India can be measured in lives lost: waterborne disease claims half a million Indian children every year. Even more starkly, in the eastern state of Orissa waterborne disease kills thirteen infants per hour. On the other hand, the costs of wastewater treatment on a decentralized scale can be as little 1000 rupees ($23) per cubic meter of water. Do we even need to make the cost/benefit calculation?

    Solid waste pollution and siltation of the Buckingham Canal, one of Chennai’s four major waterways

    When I arrived in Chennai in 1995, I found a city badly in need of a functioning wastewater treatment system or really any kind of wastewater treatment at all. For an ingénue in search of a cause, I had certainly found it. The rivers and waterways in much of urban India serve as little more than open sewers. In Chennai, a 1994 study found biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels in three of Chennai’s four waterways to be higher than the BOD level of raw sewage. Even in urban areas where sewerage systems exists, a large portion of human waste goes untreated into the waterways, creating vectors for disease running right through the city. Of the 300 largest cites in India, 30% have little or no sewerage system or sewage treatment. And of the total wastewater generated in metropolitan areas, the great majority, about 70%, goes untreated into water systems.

    I worked with NGOs in Chennai in 1995 to develop an Action Plan for Clean Waterways, which was later endorsed by the state government. This Action Plan brought together all the agencies with jurisdiction and responsibility over the waterways to participate in their clean-up. I left feeling self-satisfied…

    … only to return a few years later seeing that nothing much had changed.

    This frustration led me to conduct research on the history of sanitation in Madras (a.k.a. Chennai) for my Master’s thesis, asking: How is it that when both Madras and London were disgusting places full of excrement and disease in the 1800s, London is now revitalizing the Thames, while Chennai’s rivers are still sewers? In my research I found that colonial governing mentality and decisions in the latter half of the 19th century set the stage for the differential development of sanitary infrastructure between colonial port cities and the colonial capitals. During that time, London, Paris, and U.S. cities began building municipal sanitary infrastructure. Meanwhile, resources in colonial Madras were spent to protect the British Army from disease and on infrastructure to extract raw materials and goods. Colonial governments took little effort to protect the native population from disease or to build municipal sanitary infrastructure.

    While this explained a part of the huge divide, my research did not provide a solution. In search of those solutions in 1997, I worked with Auroville’s Center for Scientific Research. This small “village that is a laboratory” has developed and implemented numerous decentralized alternative wastewater treatment systems for communities in Auroville, including reed bed systems and aquatic weed lagoons. I learned a bit of what real engineers do, which is build, test, and then fix and fix … and fix. No fear of turning ideas into cement here.

    Now 2005, and I am back in Chennai, full circle in a way, trying to propagate these decentralized solutions for wastewater treatment. What types of solutions will work in such a densely populated urban area? How can we create a cadre of technicians to help troubleshoot backyard or institutional systems to treat wastewater (since we don’t train environmental engineers on how to build something so practical, and too often these systems are never fixed once they fail to work)? I’m working with the Chennai Water Forum, a newly formed network of concerned residents and NGOs, on co-hosting a Waste Water Treatment and Re-Use Conference at the end of January. Hopefully this will at least initiate the desperately needed conversation about how we deal with our sewage.

    So the search for the holy grail continues. Wish me (and my colleagues in the search) luck.

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  • Research in India: Water Troubles in Chennai


    For three months in 2005-2006, Pacific Institute Program Director Meena Palaniappan will be conducting research in India. This article is part of a series of diary entries in which Palaniappan will elaborate on her experiences abroad.


    December 28, 2005 – Chennai, India is a really a city that is a song about water, and a poem in contrasts. When I was here two years ago in 2003, Chennai (formerly called Madras) had gone through a 7 year drought, with the hope of a good rain on everyone’s minds and in many prayers. People spoke of moving back to the villages because there simply was no water in Chennai to meet people’s needs. The water utility had pretty much stopped providing piped supply to residents at this point. Really, it seemed like the city would be abandoned in a few years time–a mega-city that dried up because of drought. It was “thanni cushtaam,” or “water troubles” that were on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Where were people getting water, how salty was it, what if the tanker supply ran out?

    In 2005, I arrived in Chennai to weeks of pounding rain. Roads, homes and villages are flooded, sewage runs in the streets, rains have taken lives of many bus riders, trains were derailed, reservoirs overflowing, and lakes being breached. Yet again, water is the main subject of conversation among my relatives in Chennai. Fully one half of the evening news, which we watch daily, is devoted to pictures of overflowing rivers, flooded fields and villages, demolished roads, and interviews with the many affected (including interviews with disappointed cricket fans who have been rained out on numerous occasions). I kid you not, that water has been on the front page in The Hindu newspaper, sometimes in three separate articles, nearly every day I have been here. What is ironic and frustrating is that yet again, Chennai-ites talk of “thanni cushtaam,” yet now it is too much water! People are cursing the endless rains. The last week of November found 7 districts receiving 1000 percent of typical rainfall. Development of housing in flood plains, lack of adequate storm water drainage, lack of sewage treatment all contribute to the problem.

    Recently, my relatives are starting to say that since the Tsunami that hit South India hard last year, things are just not the same. Some go even further and say that things are really changing on a global level. They point to the hurricanes that have hit the U.S. (they bemusedly note that the U.S. has even run out of letters to name the hurricanes), and the heavy rains in Tamil Nadu (unseen for 20 years). It was too hard for me to talk about the nature of severe weather patterns in a warming planet in Tamil, so I left that one alone.

    There is not only the constant rain and flooding, but there is also a lot of standing water. Which naturally means breeding grounds for mosquitoes. This is a personal bane for me—my one year old daughter Gitanjali has become the favorite feeding ground of Chennai mosquitoes, much to my dismay. After a particularly heavy bout of mosquito bites, and scary television news stories about the prevalence of dengue fever among children here, I took Gitanjali to a pediatrician. I asked if there was anything immediate we could do for dengue fever and malaria (which I didn’t want to give Gitanjali the heavy preventative medication for). He said to me that there were two types of mosquitoes: the mosquitoes that bite at night can cause malaria, those that bite during the day can cause dengue fever. He also let me know that there really wasn’t a lot one could do to prevent this, other than avoid mosquitoes. As you might imagine, this provided me a lot of relief (!!!), considering how successful we’d been at avoiding both night- and day- biting mosquitoes thus far. Nevertheless, Gitanjali is being a wonderful sport, and we are doing our best to douse her in “safe” mosquito repellents.

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