From hydrogeology to hygiene

Date: 3rd March 2020

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A conversation with WSSCC member Dr Asad Umar 

By Raza Naqvi

Dr Asad Umar’s professional journey began 20 years ago with the completion of his PhD in hydrogeology at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University. Then came the Bhuj Earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 where he worked relentlessly to make water accessible to the victims. That was when it became clear to him that, whatever career he might pursue, it would have to take him beyond the performance of basic work duties and put him in a position where he could help people.

This led him to the field of water supply and sanitation where he became associated with well-known national and international organisations and worked closely with central ministries, NGOs and research agencies on large-scale programmes related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and health.

Dr. Umar is now a Senior Programme Officer with the Aga Khan Foundation, India, where he heads the WASH portfolio. He is a member of WSSCC and of the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN). He is the recipient of an international fellowship on groundwater governance in Asia and has had 17 articles published nationally and internationally on issues such as ground water management, drinking water security and inclusive approaches to improved sanitation access and services.

WSSCC spoke with the dynamic hydrogeologist to find out more about him, his plans and his views on sanitation and hygiene.

WSSCC: You have been part of some important programmes including the Maharashtra rural water supply and sanitation programme, supported by the World Bank and the German development bank. What made you choose this field?

Dr Asad Umar: In fact, after completion of my PhD in hydrogeology, I got the opportunity to work in some of the most difficult terrains in India. My work was to help identify safe and sustainable ground water sources for drinking and domestic purposes.

The most rewarding part of my job was to see the direct impact of my efforts on marginalised communities. Looking at the socio-economic and geographical diversity of the country, this sector always provides an opportunity to learn many things and to introduce new approaches and technologies to ensure better WASH access. It is also quite rewarding when you see communities helping themselves, following your capacity-building efforts. These are the reasons I am in this sector.

WSSCC: Why do you think water sanitation and hygiene are so important?

Dr Umar: Lack of safe water, sanitation and proper hygiene practices can adversely impact the health, education, productivity and economic status of a household. This ultimately leads the family towards poverty. In other words, sanitation and hygiene have a powerful multiplier effect that unlocks measurable benefits in health, nutrition, education, poverty eradication, economic growth and tourism. This also reduces discrimination and empowers communities.

I would like to quote a WHO study that says, assuming 100% sanitation coverage, India could avert up to 300,000 deaths yearly due to diarrhoeal disease and protein-energy malnutrition (PEM). This is precisely the reason why sanitation and hygiene are so important for India.

WSSCC: You are also a WSSCC member. Can you tell us what it means to be part of WSSCC?

Dr Umar: As a WSSCC member, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about innovative approaches such as Rapid Action Learning. It helps us analyse progress and achieve results quickly. WSSCC facilitates sector coordination at national, regional and global levels, and provides an opportunity to engage with key stakeholders.

It provides a platform to give voice to the marginalised sections of the society, and it also works extensively on other critical issues such as menstrual hygiene management and sanitation.

WSSCC: What do you think about the status of sanitation in India?

Dr Umar: Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the country has demonstrated unprecedented progress on sanitation. But there are still issues such as irregular usage of toilets, poor construction quality, and water scarcity in summer. I feel that top level policy priorities and financial commitment for Swachh Bharat Mission and the ambitious rural water supply programme, the Jal Jeevan Mission, will help to improve and sustain WASH access.

In India, there is a political will. India is committed to continuing its efforts through the launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission and the ODF Plus mission, and has already made substantial budget allocations towards this.

WSSCC: What can the government do to improve sanitation and hygiene facilities?

Dr Umar: It is heartening to see the financial commitment made by the government towards ODF sustainability and ODF Plus activities in the 2020 union budget. However, the government must prioritise to sustain the gain made from the first phase of the Swacch Bharat Mission and should work to ensure sanitation access for those who are still left behind. Rural faecal sludge management is another critical area that needs to be prioritised.

WSSCC: Do you think awareness campaigns are effective?

Dr Umar: Understanding behaviour science is critical to creating public awareness or driving behaviour change. There has to be a systematic approach with a well-planned mass-level campaign, followed by interpersonal communication through dedicated and well-trained last mile volunteers.

This reminds me of the concept of ‘social proofing’, mentioned in the article “Swachh Bharat shows how to nudge the right way” by Bibek Debroy, a member of the government policy think tank, NITI Aayog. The idea is that making the actions of people more observable adds social pressure towards a preferred behaviour. By making open defecation more ‘observable’ as a socially unaccepted behaviour, the Swachh Bharat Mission could apply social pressure to motivate more and more people to build toilets.

WSSCC: As part of the Aga Khan Foundation, what are your plans?

Dr Umar: The key priorities are to align the Aga Khan Foundation’s programme with National Priorities of ODF Plus and the Jal Jeevan Mission. We will ensure sanitation access for the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of rural communities. We also plan to demonstrate a holistic water security framework to ensure safe, sustained and adequate access to water.

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