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Northeast’s Water Problem – Lessons From The Last Well

Northeast’s Water Problem – Lessons From The Last Well

Clean potable water is part of the top goals of Sustainable Development Goals and yet, this remains illusive in much of India’s northeast

Providing access to clean water for all is one of the key priorities facing the world today.

Clean water and sanitation has been taken up as one of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDG 6), as water is critical to survival, and lack of it adversely affects health, food security, and livelihoods of people worldwide.

This problem of access to clean water is present even in some of the wettest regions of the world. It is a strange paradox faced by India’s North Eastern (NE)region.

The region receives high rainfall of around 2,500 millimeters on an average, and is fed by prominent rivers such as Brahmaputra and Barak.

In fact, the NE region of India is popularly called the ‘Water Tower of India’ as it accounts for nearly 34 per cent of the total surface water in the country, while accounting for just 8 per cent of its land area.

Two years back, NITI Aayog’s report on ‘Composite Water Management Index’ showed all the states in the NE region faring poorly on nearly all the 28 indicators identified to assess the performance of water resource management.

However, while the monsoon months in the NE region witness high rainfall and devastating floods in certain areas, the other seasons are marked by water scarcity in many areas. In hilly areas, rain water runoff quickly leading to the water sources drying up.

While in other areas the available water may be rendered unsafe due to improper management of water resources and inadequate infrastructure.

Two years back, NITI Aayog’s report on ‘Composite Water Management Index’ showed all the states in the NE region faring poorly on nearly all the 28 indicators identified to assess the performance of water resource management.

This is a key concern for the government as well as private and non-profit organizations trying to address the issue of water scarcity in the region.

The stakeholders can learn from the success of Texas-based non-profit The Last Well(TLW) in bringing clean water to Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world with a high incidence of death each year due to severe lack of clean water.

This initiative has been the subject of an award-winning*ICFAI Business School case study by research associate Benudhar Sahu and I.

TLW, founded by Todd Phillips in 2008, took up the ambitious twin-goals of making Liberia the first developing nation in the world with clean water from one border to another by the end of 2020, while promoting the Gospel.

Liberia was considered as one of the wettest countries in the world by annual rainfall, yet it was the worst affected of the African countries by water scarcity (similar to the situation in states in North East India).

TLW forged collaborative partnerships with interested private, public, non-profit organisations, research institutions, faith-based organizations and field partners, to put together a road map to ensure that its vision of providing clean drinking water to Liberian households within a walking distance of 15 minutes was accomplished.

They mapped available water sources in Liberia, constructed wells and hand pumps, managed the delivery of water filters, and provided training on their installation and usage at the community level.

TLW mobilised millions of dollars in funds by drawing the attention of the donors to the fact that while they had an abundance of clean drinking water in America, Liberians were deprived of this basic necessity.

In October 10, 2018, Phillips resolved to live on a floating barge in Lake Ray Hubbard, until he raised a further US$2.29 million for the initiative.

He lived in the barge in the middle of a lake for 27 days as part of the ‘Hope Float Campaign’, named so as to signify that access to clean water would keep hope alive in Liberia.

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The stunt was not only successful in raising the fund but also brought increased attention to the issue as it went viral in social media channels and was also picked up by mainstream media.

TLW successfully reached more than two million Liberians in five counties in Liberia through 8,000 water projects in ten years (2009-2019). Phillips was optimistic that he would meet TLW’s goal by the deadline (end of 2020).

He believed that with the completion of the project, Liberia would become the first developing country in the world to have universal access to clean drinking water and that the Gospel would have reached every Liberian.

India, and more importantly the NE region,dearly needs such collaborative models to address the issue of clean water. The magnitude of the problem of providing clean water in an emerging market is huge. It is not possible for even the most well-meaning parties with good resources to tackle this wicked problem of clean water alone. So, the best chance of tackling such problems is through multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Such collaborative models are required now more than ever in the post Covid-19 pandemic world, where businesses will be increasingly expected to be a part of the solution rather than the problem in order to create a more sustainable world.

The role played by the government/ public sector will increase, and it will become critical for new-age managers (whether in private, public or non-profit sector) to work collaboratively with each other to solve problems that are in the interface of public policy and business.

The case of TLW also shows how faith can be a strong binding force, in contrast to how it is usually used to divide people. It shows how faith can be a positive force for change, and can be used to pull people together in order to solve the critical issues facing the world today.


*The study won the prestigious Glendal E. and Alice D. Wright Prize Fund for Conflict and Collaboration Case Studies in International Development, from Syracuse University, New York, USA, in June 2020.

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