By Alisha Zhao, Student Assistant.
The Center for Human Rights and International Justice recently hosted Dr. Ravi Mariwala and Ms. Paula Mariwala to discuss the role of innovation and human rights for the future of water in India. Dr. Mariwala is the founder & CEO of Smaart Water, a company focused on providing holistic solutions for water in India, and Ms. Mariwala is a venture capitalist and social impact investor based in India. The discussion centered on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and how it can be achieved in South Asia.
Before an overflow audience, Dr. Mariwala discussed his work bringing cost-effective access to water to all through stories of sustainable water innovations in South Asia, citing the importance of employing engineering to create access to water. Dr. Mariwala explained that there is more than enough water in India, but the key issue is that there has been a failure in managing the water. In a country of 1.3 billion people that relies heavily on ground water resources, 82% of India’s water is consumed by agriculture. However, India only has about ⅓ capacity to treat its sewage. Moreover, there is a human cost of poorly managed water, specifically on access, economics, and health. In India, 163 million people lack access to clean water and 541 million people lack access to sanitation, he said. Inadequate sanitation has not only led to massive economic losses, but also major public health concerns, where 21% of the country’s diseases are currently water-related.
Dr. Mariwala found that there is significant variation throughout the country, and solutions must therefore be region-specific. In discussing the role of innovation, he outlines the elements of a successful rural model for water management, which includes: building trust, building interdependence, pricing it, and engaging & communicating. Dr. Mariwala gave experiences on the ground, highlighting the Hill District of Pauri Garhwal as one of his case studies. In Hill District, there was ample—but contaminated—water, and he found the contamination emanated from pumping stations that did not work well. He saw an opportunity to use engineering to develop a solution that integrates testing and measurements to the pumping station system, stating that there is a “need to get the whole solution rather than a part of the solution.” Dr. Mariwala concluded his talk by posing the questions: can we create “water technicians” to take care of water resources? How can we scale these solutions fast?
Ms. Mariwala discussed SDG 6 and its intersections with other SDG areas, particularly gender. She explained that in less developed countries, it is important to have access to clean water because water and sanitation affect health, particularly maternal and child health. Ms. Mariwala highlighted a case in the slums of Mumbai where women and children in a community were experiencing unusual agitation. She found that because there was no pipe water, women and children regularly fought over water rations. Thus, children developed a solution that not only increased access to water for their community, but also dramatically reduced domestic violence rates. From this case, Ms. Mariwala cited the importance of looking at the local context in creating holistic solutions and stated that gender is extremely important in developing such solutions and is essential for both the household and community. She concluded by emphasizing that the SDG framework serves as a way to link the right to water with gender.
The talks were followed by a group dialogue and Q&A moderated by Radhika Shah, chair of the Tech & Innovation Advisory Group for the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. In addressing a question about whether governments are embracing solutions in a systematic way and making changes at scale, Dr. Mariwala reiterated the need to customize solutions at local levels. In response to another question, Ms. Mariwala discusses the importance of education and advocacy, particularly environmental education and general awareness of what is happening to natural resources. However, she stressed that the Indian government should also prioritize communication, warning that short-term thinking can conflict with communication.