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Speakers discuss innovations for better water quality, access in India

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At “The Future of Water: The role of innovation and human rights in the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals,” Smaart Water CEO Ravi Mariwala and venture capitalist and social impact investor Paula Mariwala discussed how to improve water sanitation and accessibility concerns in India, a country with a population density 10 times that of the United States.

Radhika Shah, chair of the Tech and Advisory Group at Stanford’s Center for Human Rights, introduced the speakers and their research in the context of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2015, the UN announced 17 SDGs, including goals to reduce poverty and promote ecological sustainability.

“[The UN was] recognizing that these goals are linked; they’re not isolated,” Shah said. “[It was] also recognizing that we can’t achieve these goals unless we have the spirit that change comes from the ground — from all over the world and every corner of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, [not just] in Silicon Valley.”

Ravi Mariwala, the first and primary speaker, discussed Smaart Water’s efforts to bring clean and affordable water to India.

Ravi situated his remarks in the context of current water quality issues in India, identifying sewage treatment as a major obstacle to water access in the area. About two-thirds of sewage enters the environment without treatment, which in turn affects water sanitation, reducing the water supply and creating rampant malnutrition, according to Ravi. 

Paula Mariwala also spoke to India’s malnutrition problems in her remarks.

“Malnutrition numbers are scary, and we should all be ashamed as citizens of India that we allow this to happen,” she said.

Ravi discussed the impact of agriculture on water usage, which accounts for about 82% of water usage in India. Agricultural water is completely free, making it difficult to incentivize farmers to use less of it, according to Ravi. He outlined potential approaches India could take to reduce this water use. 

“People are looking at if you can change from rice and wheat — the staple crops which we grow right now — to the local indigenous crops like oilseeds and lentils, which are much higher values to farmers, as well as more nutritive. So you tackle the problem of hunger and malnutrition along with the problem of water,” he said.

The bulk of Ravi’s talk focused on specific locations where his company had improved local water quality. He pointed to the Pauri Garhwal district, where people had ample water but did not know how to use the water pumps to sanitize it. Smaart Water educated the district on how to use the water pumps so that their water was no longer contaminated by sewage, according to Ravi.

Some rural areas have issues running deeper than water pump education and have considered using trees to clean water supplies instead of pumps, he added.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, the government was recommending you use pine trees as deforestation vegetation, and the locals tried that, but they were quite unhappy with it because the pine did not allow anything else to grow,” Ravi said. “They went back to their [native] trees and this started giving them back […] water in a continuous manner throughout the year. [The water is] stored by the roots of these trees, which are extremely long, and that retains the water.”

Ravi ended his portion of the event by listing technologies his company has developed, including an energy-free phytoremediation technique with a low carbon footprint for sewage treatment, a sustainable glass media filtration mechanism and a weak acid-ion exchange water softener. 

Ravi concluded that finding the right fit for each community is crucial to creating effective solutions.

“There is no high tech or low tech, there’s only right tech,” he said.

Paula Mariwala talks importance of creating community

Paula focused a significant portion of her talk on the roles of women and children in achieving the UN’s SDGs. 

“Civilizations have come up around water,” she said. “For various reasons, it’s the woman who somehow decides how water and resources are going to be shared. Not having access to water — not having access to clean water — really changes the life of the family, and of the woman in particular.”

Paula gave an example she saw in Mumbai’s slums. Children were often agitated, and after further inquiry, it was discovered that water was the cause of community disputes. When the water tanker came, families only had 30 minutes to go get water. This short time period led to disputes among neighbors and increased tensions in the community. 

After Paula and her co-workers helped the community get a tank of water, the amount of hostility decreased dramatically, she said.

“It completely changed [the community],” Paula said. “Domestic violence decreased [and] all kinds of abuses were really reduced, so one can see the power of just having the right solution. And this is not yet clean water — it’s just water.” 

Contact Clara Kieschnick at ckiesch ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Clara Kieschnick is a writer for The Daily's campus life news beat. She enjoys acting, reading, and being pretentious. She also likes to reenact mimes in a mediocre fashion, and talking in the third person. Contact her at ckiesch 'at' stanford.edu.