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Sips of salvation

  • Published at 03:50 pm March 30th, 2019
Sips of Salvation_March 30_Pg 9
Photo: Courtesy

Footsteps talks about the overcoming obstacles of setting up access to free safe drinking water

Imagine being thirsty, and yet the only water you can drink will make you sick. Your basic need for survival becomes the core reason of your health deterioration but, you drink it anyway. Around 4m people of Bangladesh are deprived of the right to safe drinking water. Although a riverine country like ours can’t possibly complain about a lack of water supply,  how much of that water is safe to drink is a different story. In Dhaka, low-income residential areas and slums, in particular have no other alternative than to use unfiltered water. The filtration process is just too expensive for people living in these areas.

One notable locality that frequently faces this issue is Korail. The water supply there has a high level of iron, and incidents of diarrhea and pneumonia are frequent. 

In such cases, an organization stepping forward and planning to eradicate such problems and providing access to safe water is a godsend. With this in mind, Shah Rafayat Chowdhury, co-founder and president of Footsteps, along with his team, implemented the project, Project Trishna in 2015. Chowdhury and his team recently spoke to Dhaka Tribune about their trials and outcomes in the attempt towards sustainability. 

The scope of the problem

“Students used to miss coming to school, they used to complain of severe stomach ache”, informed the headmaster at Educo School in Korail. When asked what contributed to these health concerns, the head master replied it was due to the iron contamination on the school water. Dipping his finger into a glass of water, he said “If you would put your finger in that glass, you can feel the contamination”. The relief on the headmaster’s face was recognizable as the agony came to an end with the initiative of Project Trishna.  

As per the project, Footsteps carried out water analysis in their target areas. Each area has a different problem with water. Korail’s problem was that it had the water capacity, but the supply was contaminated. After three months of water analysis, testing and conversations with the local community, Footsteps set up water purifying machines in schools and houses that had access to water. 

Will the system persist?

While the system prevails, the question still remains if the people would actually drink water from it. “Trust is a very big thing,” says Rafayat. The organization’s big challenge was to spread awareness amongst students who were suffering from post-traumatic stress after falling sick from drinking the contaminated water at school. He mentioned that engaging respected members of the community to disseminate the awareness messages proved to be an effective method.

The community in Korail took it upon themselves to build a shed around the purification setup to protect it from the elements. We spoke to a faculty member at Educo, who said “After the water purifying set up was installed, attendance has doubled and students do not complain about the school water anymore”. Guardians sometimes bring in their empty water bottles and collect the pure water from the machine. Shahjalal, a student at Educo said, “Earlier I stopped drinking water from school since a lot of students fell ill, but now we drink from it whenever we want without any fear”. 12 schools in Dhaka have been set up with water purifying machines including those at Korail and Lalbagh. Footsteps is working on ‘Goal 100’ within 2019. The target is to set up water purifying machines in a hundred schools within the capital city.

The A-ha moment

It was during a rickshaw journey from Gulshan to Tejgaon, when Rafayet’s rickshaw puller stopped and crossed the road just to drink water from a roadside water tank. At that moment, Rafayet realized to act on his observation. This project was later adopted as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity for companies.

A question of funding

While designing the project, Rafayet and his team faced the realities of the problem. The team looked for water testing technologies, locations that experience water problems in unique ways and possible public places where machines could be set up. From testing to implementation, one of the immediate roadblocks was the question of money. The answer came in the form of partnerships with corporations and small businesses alike. City Bank, Buro Bangladesh and South Breeze have seeded Footsteps with funds and have been in partnership with the organization since the beginning. 

“In order to make a project sustainable it has to come from both ends; from the organization and the stakeholders as well”, said Rafayet, reflecting on the partnerships his NGO has enjoyed the past five years. Companies wishing to fulfill their CSR requirements can sign up for an annual partnership contract, providing Tk10,000-15,000 a year to Footsteps to fund their projects

Can any individual contribute to the system?

Anyone who is keen to be a part of this social act, can contribute to set up the purifying machine  but they also need to dedicate to the long term commitment being a part of this system, informs Rafayet. Installation of the reverse osmosis mechanism costs TK35,000- TK45,000 and the testing apparatus costs TK2,500-TK3,000. 

Rafayet shares the story of Samiha Zaman’s late mother, who always had the dream of providing water for the poor. After stumbling upon Project Trishna, Samiha set up a water purifying machine in Gulshan 1, beside Gloria Jean café, on behalf of Saleha Mansoor Foundation, in her mother’s name. 

Like the Saleha Mansoor Foundation machine, many other water purifying machines have been set up in public places. While some may have the company’s logo on it, some are unmarked. Throughout the bustling traffic and roads, it is a common sight to see people stopping by the water filter and sipping water. In every site there is a Footsteps dedicated team working on maintenance. Every 2-3 months servicing is done for its efficient use.  

Social Media and spread of word

Footstep took the advantage of the power of the internet by starting an awareness campaign called ‘wateryouwearing’ . Footsteps collaborated with Eastern Influence, a minimalist clothing company, that now sells t-shirts for the campaign. With the purchase of t-shirt worth TK850, TK500 is directly contributed to raising money for water purifying machines. Footsteps has also harnessed the visibility of Instagram influencers to spread the word among the youth.   

Learning and growing

Every project has its pitfalls, and Project Trishna also has to struggle with concerns such as water misuse. “Footsteps is still a very young organization” said Rafayet, claiming that every day they are facing with new problems, overcoming obstacles and intends to reach it furthest as possible. With every problem that arises, Footsteps has coped by finding better solutions. Project Trishna has currently set up 80 water purifying machines which provide 200 gallons of water at 25 different sites in Dhaka. They have now set their sights outside the capital, in the hopes of taking their dreams of hydrating the population nationwide.