Meet the water warriors working with FORCE for mission 'blue planet'

At a time when the movement to green the planet is gaining ground, another set of activists is working to colour it blue. Meet the folks at Forum for Organised Resource Conservation and Enhancement (FORCE), Delhi-based water warriors who believe that in the coming years, perhaps even more than data, it is the life-giving liquid that could become the planet’s most precious commodity. “Water is the root of almost every problem we face today, be it climate change or economic distress, health or hygiene,” says Jyoti Sharma, the IIM Bangalore alumna who founded FORCE in 2004 to work on ensuring water security and sanitation in low income communities. “The good news is that water-related issues are, by and large, easily addressed.”

The initial problem FORCE attempted to address was of water availability. “I moved to Vasant Kunj, Delhi just when this neighbourhood was reeling under the worst possible water shortage,” she says. “The first thing that struck me was that if things were so bad in a relatively affluent urban neighbourhood — what would they be like in a remote village?” She noticed that when faced with such water scarcity, all her neighbours became pros at water conservation. “However, in localities where water supply was plentiful, people tended to think of water as the government’s headache,” she recalls. “They were unwilling to take ownership; resistant to the idea that they should conserve it or heaven forbid, spend money on rainwater harvesting to recharge ground water!” Years of working in the marketing sector came to Sharma’s rescue and she devised innovative strategies to effect behavioural change. 

First, they launched each rainwater harvesting project with a lot of fanfare. “We’d invite the local MLA and other politicians, senior members of the Central Groundwater Board as well as the local RWA and journalists,” she narrates. Participation and enthusiasm dramatically improved once some publicity was garnered. Another strategy she often uses is to emphasises the collateral benefits of water-efficient technology — ease of use, money saving etc. “Rather than pitching a water misting nozzle as water-saving, we tell consumers how it makes utensil cleaning more efficient,” she says. Today, they have helped develop thousands of rainwater recharge systems across the country.

Another problem they faced early on was that of sanitation. “Initially we thought of building a rainwater harvesting system in an unauthorised slum in Delhi,” she recalls. “But although it is the poor who benefit the most from groundwater recharging, slums invariably have open drains and sewage seeping into the ground which makes them less than ideal places to harvest rainwater.” Today, FORCE works in urban slums in Delhi to provide access to clean drinking water and solid waste management. 

Presently, much of their effort is being expended on developing and promoting water efficient technologies for agriculture. Sharma points out that the farm sector is the single largest water guzzler in the country. FORCE has recently inaugurated the Pandit Jagat Ram School for Profitable Agriculture and Resource Conservation, which will research, train and share models of water efficient farming technologies, groundwater recharge methods and more. This is in line with FORCE’s award-winning, four-way partnership model in which the community, technical exports, funding partners and the government are mobilised simultaneously for effective social action. “In the coming years, we’re going to try to develop the demand for water-efficient technologies, as well as agro products grown using these technologies,” she says. This has the potential of becoming the new organic: “Typically, crops grown using water efficient technologies cast a smaller ecological burden but also use fewer chemical additives and are tastier too!” she says.

So far, FORCE has been supported by institutional donors like WaterAid India; government agencies like Jal Board and corporates like HSBC, Asian Paints and Diageo to name some. Sharma estimates that they have managed to reach out to over 1.5 million people in the country and over 30 million litres of water have been saved or recharged because of their intervention. A lot more needs to be done, however. Sharma is confident that once people take ownership of their water resources as well as consumption instead of leaving it for the government to handle, they could ensure they inhabit — and leave behind, a bluer planet. 
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