Rasheeda Bhagat

In 2003-04, Chennai was reeling under one of its worst droughts and despite living in an independent house with three sources of water -- well, borewell and a huge sump to collect Corporation water, we still had our taps running dry often. A water thanker then cost a princely ₹350 and our domestic help would run through a tanker load in no time. So water had to be supplemented by jerry cans of 15-20 litres that my husband brought by car from his office, where the borewell water was hard and salty, but nobody was complaining.

We are talking about a relatively privileged family in South Chennai having the luxury of owning an independent house. But carrying those plastic cans of water to the first floor was a nightmare our family will never forget.

Let’s cut to thousands of villages in India where women have to carry headloads of water, walking across a rough and uneven terrain of 2-4 km. Day after day, month after month, year after year. In some cases, a woman has to carry two to three pots every day for cooking and minimal washing needs of the household. What this does to their back, spine and knees can be imagined.

Innovative solution

In rural Maharashtra and Gujarat, a few hundred women have been relieved of that burden, thanks to a few Rotary and Inner Wheel clubs in Mumbai coming together to raise enough funds to provide these families with an innovative, semi-mechanical solution to transport water from the village well or community tap to their homes.

The waterwheel is a cylindrical, high-density plastic drum that can hold about 45 -50 litres of water. The sturdy container is fitted with a strong metal handle, which allows it to be rolled down any path or rough terrain like a trolley. It eliminates the physical strain of carrying pots on the head, or waist, and with a 45-50 litre capacity, the number of trips can also be significantly reduced.

This novel device makes boys and girls, who accompany their mothers to fetch water, look at the rolling of the waterweheel as a game and often fight for the task of rolling it back to home.

Even better, men in villages, who see carrying water pots as a woman’s job , find no shame in taking water home through this device.

The Genesis

The waterwheel was developed thanks to the initiative of Cynthia Koenig, founder and chief executive of Wello, an America social enterprise working to explore ways to deliver clean water in developing countries like India and in Africa.

According to the NGOs involved in getting these waterwheels to rural women in drought prone areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, Cynthia first came on an exploratory trip to Rajasthan in 2010, and discussed with villagers the option of rolling water instead of carrying it.

Expectedly, the women loved the idea and she returned a year later, and worked in close collaboration with these villagers, and after several trips and experiments with water drums/cylinders of various capacities such as 10, 20, 30 and 50 litres, they zeroed in on cylinders that could carry 45-50 litres of water. Cynthia has been quoted saying that she was pleasantly surprised to find the waterwheel’s popularity among the men, and was happy to find that in many village homes men volunteered to undertake this task; “they felt no shame in fetching water using this device, as it wasn’t a pot that is associated with a woman!” Some villagers also use it for irrigation or giving water to their animals.

Apparently, this device is also popular in some pockets in Africa, where it is known as the hippo wheel and can carry water up to 100 litres.

In India a plastic product manufacturer -- Neelkamal -- makes these waterwheels under the Wello brand at around ₹3,000 each. NGOs get a discounted price of ₹2,200 for bulk orders and some of them give it to rural families at just ₹100, logging in this expense for their community welfare projects.

But the number of waterwheels distributed through NGOs to villages is minuscule, compared to the huge need and burden that women have to bear, not only in villages but also many towns and cities, for fetching water for daily needs.

Every Budget strives to do something for the Indian woman; can Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, think of a mega government initiative that can help the already overburdened women from disadvantaged families scratchoff the ‘fetching water on her head’ chore from her list? A couple of hundred crores invested in women’s health and well being is surely worth it.