The road ahead
Ramba Bai sets out from her home in rural Rajasthan, northwest India, on a journey she’s made every day since the age of ten. For 45 years, she’s hoisted two clay pots on her head and walked to fill them at the village well. Now, WE Charity is working to convince women like Ramba to add an extra step to the already strenuous process: boil the water before drinking. It’s part of a comprehensive program to combat waterborne illness and improve health. Women like Ramba are often skeptical.
Ramba has three grown children. At first, she only knew that her family was getting sick. She didn’t know it could be from their water source. Through a translator, Ramba describes frequent gas, loss of appetite, fevers and chronic stomach aches. And she uses a word for a symptom that’s very common here—swargh—Mewari for “heaviness.” It’s a catch-all for a variety of gastrointestinal problems in a region that lacks health education and knowledge of medical terms.
Step by step
Clean water development must be comprehensive and layered. It’s not just digging or deepening wells. Basic infrastructure is vital, but engineering doesn’t change attitudes or behaviours. Add to that the fact that Rajasthan is a desert state and groundwater levels are low. A well will increase water supply, but the most effective way to ensure that groundwater is safe to drink is to persuade families to boil it. This is no simple feat. Boiling water is a foreign concept, a disruption of routine with no cultural context. There is little trust that it works and little knowledge that it can save lives.
Round and round
Here, what the locals call “heaviness,” a universal symptom, could be traced back to a number of waterborne diseases. Diarrhea, dysentery, jaundice and typhoid can spread through bacteria in Rajasthan’s water sources. Diarrheal disease is the second-leading cause of death in children under five around the world. Typhoid fever, left untreated, can also be fatal.
Ramba’s family of seven uses a lot of water. She walks to fill these pots eight times a day, twice in the morning and twice at night. This is the water that will quench the thirst of her sons and their wives, and their own children, and for a number of household tasks. “I use the water for my goats, for my oxen, for drinking, for bathing, for washing my clothes,” Ramba says. For rural farmers with livestock, clean water is even more essential to daily work and chores than in urban areas.
Where there’s a well…
Without plumbing, far from the nearest grocery store, communities rely on natural bodies of water— mainly groundwater wells. This well near Ramba’s home is set to be rehabilitated. With resources and equipment from WE Charity, her community will blast the well with dynamite and haul out the heavy rocks. This will increase depth and therefore water supply, especially in the summer months when the rain stops and shallow wells run dry. Rajasthan is a desert state.
Spreading the word
In addition to clean water infrastructure, WE Charity offers outreach and education. Health mobilizers are hired locally to raise awareness for proper hygiene and best practices. Mobilizers go village to village, door to door, compelling women and families to boil drinking water. They also recruit community members to attend free training programs. These more in-depth seminars teach participants about water borne illness, the importance of handwashing and of course, boiling water.
Now, there’s another step the ritual Ramba observes daily. Returning home from the well, she pours the water from clay pots into fire-safe metal. She has been boiling her family’s drinking water for two years, with clear health benefits.
“Clean water helps my family have a normal, happy life,” Ramba explains. “They don’t get sick after [drinking].”
To make the boiling process easier, Ramba installed a smokeless chulha, or chimney, in her home. In her community, most cooking is done over open fires in homes without chimneys—it makes boiling water a chore that threatens lungs with smoke. Chulhas are an additional element in a multi-faceted approach to clean water and health programming. Ramba was the first woman in her community to use the smokeless chimney, and is now an advocate, telling her friends to convert. Word is spreading.
Lerki Bai is 35, from the nearby village. Every day, she wakes at 5:30am to milk the goats. Afternoons she works in the fields and gives water to the animals before making dinner. Then it’s dishes before bed. Three families live here. Lerki with her husband, his two brothers and their wives and children. Lerki didn’t want a chimney or to boil water, another job. “I said it was too big. My old stove is small, only one burner,” she says. “This would be extra work for me.”
Lerki’s family suffered many ailments. She mentions typhoid and jaundice. Her husband, Naring, made regular visits to the doctor, a 15-kilometer trip each way, and often paid for medicine to soothe an upset stomach. The smoke from cooking was ruthless in other ways. “Our eyes burned. The walls were black,” she says. “Utensils were black. Our lungs filled with smoke.” Curious, Lerki attended one of WE’s health seminars. Afterwards, she installed a smokeless chimney.
Lerki experimented with her new chimney. “When I first used the smokeless chulah and saw the walls were not black, I knew this stove was better,” she says. “There is no dark black smoke in the house.” Her family’s health immediately improved. Her husband no longer makes trips into town to pay for medicine.
Two for one
A smokeless chulha takes up twice as much space as a traditional stove. In small homes with big families, this seems like an inconvenience, but is essential. Lerki can boil water and cook at the same time, using the same amount of firewood. She makes up to 20 chapattis for her family’s lunch every day. Wheat chapattis are formed by hand. For corn chapattis, she uses a rolling pin. At dinner time, Lerki cooks lentils or vegetables on one burner and boils drinking water on the other, a crucial time saver. “I cook jaldi jaldi,” she says, very fast.
WE Charity’s smokeless chulha program started in the region in 2014—700 chimneys have since been installed here, for free. That’s 700 homes. Even with an average of four-member households, that’s 2,800 people breathing clean air while they cook, a conservative estimate where large families are culturally common. It’s soon to be more. “I tell all of my friends to try a new stove and to boil water,” says Lerki. They will in turn tell their friends, improving health for their own families.