The scarcity of potable water in our country is not a lesser-known problem. But what are seldom heard of are the stories of people who work hard to help overcome this crisis. One such story is that of a civil engineer from IIT, Delhi, who gave up a lucrative career in the corporate world to focus his efforts instead on helping those for whom water is nothing short of a luxury.

Lalit Mohan Sharma is Director, Adaptive Rural Technologies at SM Sehgal Foundation. He served as an invited member of the panel of experts for the War for Water; and Member of Program Advisory Committee (PAC), Water Technology initiatives under the Technology Mission of the Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India; and a Member of the ‘International Network on Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage.’

In a chat with Journey India, he shares with us his journey so far, his experience working with Anandana- The Coca-Cola India Foundation, and some of the most pressing issues facing the country today with respect to water management:

Journey: Please tell us a bit about the journey of a civil engineer who went on to lead the SM Sehgal Foundation

Sharma: After completing my education, I started working in the construction industry, with a real estate development company. In 1989, I realised that there would be a large-scale water management crisis in the coming future. I started constructing check dams and ponds the same year because the project I was working on at the time was in a water-stressed area. There was no other source of water so we had to recharge the groundwater for this project. This effort helped considerably increase the groundwater supply and was a great learning.

After that, I joined Seed ProAgro Seed Company and was once again working for infrastructure development for the company. In the development of one research farm where we were going to construct corporate houses, as well as laboratories and greenhouses, we found that the quality of groundwater was appalling. Since we had a huge roof area there, we started harvesting rainwater, and there was a tremendous change in the water quality. Everyone appreciated the efforts, and it was then that I realised my passion for harvesting rainwater.

With the commencement of the SM Sehgal Foundation, I started working as a volunteer here, and did this for the initial one and a half years. During this period, I established the water management department. Ultimately, my passion kept on strengthening day by day, and finally I switched over wholly into the development sector, and started working full-time in water management.

Can you tell us a little bit about your innovations, like JalKalp and the Saline Aquifer and the places around the world where they are being implemented?

Sharma:  JalKalp water filter is a sustainable water filter that was developed through locally-available materials. Contrary to belief, I would say that it is not a very high-tech innovation, but it does make use of all-natural processes, and is designed with a scientific background. Its sustainability lies in the fact that it requires no need for part replacement or maintenance work of any kind in the long run. It is also priced very reasonably at only Rs. 2,500 per unit.

The Saline Aquifer was created in Mewat, Haryana, where groundwater is predominantly saline, and cannot be used for any purpose. We recharge the water in the aquifer in such a way that it does not get mixed with the existing saline groundwater and forms a pocket which can further be used. We have conducted around 200 demonstrations of this in Rajasthan and Haryana, and still we are looking to replicate it in coastal areas where such intervention is needed. Already, we have shared this model with Arava Institute of Environmental Studies in Israel, and they are trying to replicate this methodology in the Gaza Strip.

We have shared this technology with organisations in Nicaragua, Haiti, Cambodia, Nepal and Ghana. People in Cambodia have started producing these filters and are using them. In Nepal, they are in the process of designing the manufacturing process and implementing. In Haiti, they are working on importing the parts required to build it. So at least three countries I know have started using this technology.

The Saline Aquifer was selected by the United Nations for showcasing at the Solutions Summit, 2015, where I was invited to make a presentation at UN Headquarters in New York. Both these technologies have also been showcased on the website of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.

Journey: You mentioned your projects in Mewat, Alwar and Karauli. You worked on these with Anandana- The Coca-Cola India Foundation. Could you share some of your most memorable experiences from the projects?

Sharma: As a matter of fact, we started our journey from Mewat. Mewat is a highly water scarce area. I had gone to one of the villages to look at the problems faced by people, and saw that the scale of requirement was so huge that I came back with little hope of getting the amount of funding required. It was then that I approached Coca-Cola and they willingly came forward with us. They visited the area and straightaway said they had to take this project up. And their support wasn’t only restricted to water- they really wanted to make a change in the lives of the people, with water driving the development process. That was really memorable because most funding organisations don’t respond in this way. They have their clear-cut agenda, and they work only for that agenda. This was an open offer from Coca-Cola allowing us to do whatever was needed to bring a difference to the lives of these people.

An overview of the collaborative work done by Anandana and SM Sehgal Foundation in Haryana & Rajasthan

Journey: If you had to list the three most pressing challenges the country is facing today with respect to water management what would those be and what would be your strategy for addressing them?

Sharma: The biggest challenge is the widening gap between demand and supply. For that, we are working a lot on water conservation on both demand and supply side.

On one side, we are creating water holding structures, on the other side we are trying to educate people on water issues. So if people themselves are taking care of their water management, this gap can be lessened.

The second pressing challenge is the quality of water. Its deteriorating day by day and new emerging contaminants are coming into the picture, because of which, people’s heath is getting adversely affected. To address this, we have developed the water filters I spoke about. We are also working on filters that remove additional contaminants like fluoride- I hope that within the next six months we are ready with these.

At the same time, the third most pressing challenge is the disposal of waste water- domestic, industrial or any other kind. The problem is that currently, no disposal mechanism in this country is perfect. Even the disposal mechanisms used by industries are not fail proof. As a result, contaminants are going into the water, polluting the environment and ultimately affecting the health of people.

Journey: How vital do you think is the work of organisations like Anandana, and do you have any message for these organisations?

Sharma: Many organisations are working on water management, but the best thing about Anandana is that they don’t limit themselves to water only. They go beyond water- water is sort of like an entry-point activity for them. From that, they try to build upon community development and engagement. Like in Mewat, agricultural development was another major intervention we worked on. Then came community development on social issues. It is important to address all the related issues holistically.  

Journey: Any special message that you would like to give to the country on water management on the upcoming World Water Week?

Sharma: We all need clean water, if we want to remain healthy. It’s not only the duty of a few organisations or a few individuals to make this happen. Everyone has to contribute and whatever anyone can do, they should do to conserve water. Any small thing you can do will contribute.