WASHed away: Can ‘Nature for Water’ stem the tide for the urban poor children?

22 Mar, 2018
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Children, Ecosystem, Nature, Resilience, UNICEF, Urban, WASH, Wetland

WASHed away: Can ‘Nature for Water’ stem the tide for the urban poor children?

Ritesh is a happy child. Holding gamely on to his faded knickers, he splashes in the knee deep slushy water, winning a hard fought battle against the hot sun overhead. Screams of joy fill the air as he and his friends jostle, pushing and poking the plastic, peels and other unmentionables that float their way.

A fourteen year old, he lives near a nallah, in the Nehru Nagar slum in Patna. For him, this festering, open nallah that overflows in the rains is a childhood solace, not a menace. And even though, many of his friends and neighbours fall ill, when the drain spills over, the public toilets choke or the garbage simply rots on the roads, for him this is home.

In Mutyamamba Colony, close to the road along Chakali Gedda, a big open drain in
Visakhapatnam, children play near garbage mounds, unconcerned.Nine-year old Pallavi rummages in the waste looking for something interesting to play with. Nagamma her mother, a frail woman in a blue sari, when asked as to why her daughter was playing near the drain, eyes downcast replies softly, “This is the only open space close that she can play in with her friends from school. When it rains, even this becomes inaccessible.” In another slum, three year old Adarsh, nonchalantly takes a bath outside his home near an open drain.

Not just for these three, such water and sanitation issues stalk urban poor children across the country. Water- borne diseases, skin infections and unsafe drinking water put their childhood at risk, and hamper their growth and development. Even where there are toilets, many times, open defecation becomes the only answer, as Manisha, a class ten student, who lives under the Chitkhora flyover in Patna, says “‘ How can I use the community toilet? It is so dark and dirty, and there’s has no lock on the door.”

Admittedly, the urban spaces themselves are under tremendous pressure to meet these demands, what with a constant inflow of migration, growing population and an ageing, inadequate infrastructure on their hands. And when land becomes a premium, the green, open areas give way to a concretised, grey city, even as ecosystems are trampled over in a haste to become urban.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) is at the centre of a child’s survival and
development. WASH is also important for maintaining a good health, nutritional status and quality education for children. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets an ambitious Goal 6 dedicated to WASH which envisions “global, sustainable and equitable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene”. It also calls for complete elimination of open defecation by 2030. But as per the current global status on open defecation, we still have a long way to go for eliminating this malpractice.

Globally, 946 million people are defecating in open as per the available data of the year 2016 (UNICEF, Strategy for WASH, 2016). The water systems are unsustainable in most of the developing countries with unevenly spread water supply networks, deteriorating water quality and growing problems of water stress. The impacts of climate change are first felt through water, and it is the urban poor children who bear the maximum negative impact. Climate-induced disasters severely affect the infrastructure and services related to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.

A collaborative effort of GEAG and UNICEF, India- ‘Building Climate Change and Disaster Resilience for Urban Children, Interventions in four cities: Bhopal, Patna, Udaipur and Visakhapatnam’, to understand these challenges, its implications and the possible solutions was undertaken across four cities that represent varied agro-climatic zones. The urban poor children are the “most at-risk” children, and are frequently exposed to physical hazards such as polluted water, open sewer system, lack of toilets and unhygienic local environment. The project aimed to understand child-focused climate change and disaster vulnerabilities in different geo-agro- climatic zones and identified resilience actions in collaboration with local governments, communities and children.

Udaipur revealed a deterioration of its natural rivers and lake based ecosystems, open defecation in the city’s surrounding vacant and agricultural land. Patna is plagued by acute flooding and water-logging in the city, while Bhopal faces droughts and water scarcity with a major deficit of potable water, even as the available water from lakes is contaminated. Both cities confront the headache of inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure, open sewerage drains and unplanned solid waste dumping. Visakhapatnam addresses issues of inadequate storm water drainage, waterlogging, choking of existing drains, saline water intrusion and open defecation in urban low income settlements.

The WASH challenges in these urban spaces are many, but, there are answers that are nature based, which we need to focus on. Rainwater harvesting is an age old practice that needs very little inputs. It can be a rich repository of fresh water through the simple collection of the rainwater falling. What is missing is a mandating of rainwater at the premises itself, especially in schools and public or government buildings. With ample water, a clean toilet, which is a major disturbing fact for their usage by an urban child, can be achievable.

Cities are prone to frequent flooding, with the urban sprawls facing the brunt. A simple exercise along with the community, to unblock natural drainage system and its catchment area will go a long way to reduce this. Peri-urban agriculture encouraged in the periphery of the urban areas will be a source of a diverse food basket and health improvement. Open green spaces, if encouraged, will act as buffer areas for excess water and runoff, rather than be on a wish list for further construction. These green areas/ water bodies need be addressed to when land use allocation happens, so as to promote natural water recharges mechanisms to ensure water security in the longer run. Conservation and restoration of water bodies can follow a natural cleaning process as that followed in the manner of ‘floating gardens’ in Patna.

Wetlands and water are intertwined; they act as a sponges for water runoff; help in water storage, flood mitigation, groundwater recharge and water purification; and nurture a diverse and unique ecosystem within them. Protecting the wetlands for enhancing the quality of water for human settlements has massive benefits and in the urban context, their importance increases dramatically, especially for the children. A sanctuary for the dwindling fauna, an open available area, it’s blending within a city will only aid an urban poor child’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Nature has the capacity to decompose all organic material. If the urban garbage is
segregated and its organic component collected and composted at the local level itself, not only will be the roads and the drains be cleaner and more hygienic, but water pollution too will reduce. It is the high time to switch to “Environmentally Sustainable WASH” while stressing on management of faecal waste, solid waste, drainage and ensuing urban ecosystem based interventions for water safety and security. This will ultimately reduce the threats to development and well-being of urban poor children while promoting good sanitation and hygiene.

It is time for the ‘grey’ infrastructure of a city to add a little ‘green’ to their palette; to advocate for rainwater harvesting structures at school and household level, green roofs, re-vegetation of impermeable surfaces , drainage basins, constructed wetlands, vertical gardens and permeable pavements for better water absorption, and to retain runoff and recharge groundwater. This will yield positive results in terms of water availability, water quality and flood reduction in the urban areas.

Nature offers many such answers, all we need is to unearth them, and follow them through courageously, so that tomorrow, Ritesh, Pallavi, Adarsh and many such urban poor children like them, can play in the monsoon, without soaking in the polluted drain water or grappling in the garbage, which today threatens to seep into their life, health and future.

This blog has been contributed by Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG)  in tune with the World Water Day, 2018, theme of 'Nature for Water" .

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