When a group of Health Science students and staff turned up at the local school in a remote village in India, they didn’t muck around.
They set to digging the foundations for a rainwater tank and the trench for a ground water pipeline the same day, as part of a broader aim to educate the villagers about the benefits of rainwater harvesting.
The school in Kanagamakanapalli in the state of Karnataka has had no toilets or piped water supply since the school was built 10 years ago.
The practical help, plus a donation by the Health Science team from the School of Population Health (SPH) of $1,658, will enable the school to install a rainwater tank and pipe plus two ecosan or composting toilets.
Much of the population in the villages in the Bagepalli region, Karnataka, suffers from dental fluorosis – evident in the brown staining on the teeth of children and adults – caused by the high levels of fluoride in the groundwater that is their usual source of water.
The key message for the two-week trip, during which the team visited five villages, was that rainwater is a healthier alternative to the groundwater for drinking.
Dr Jane Heyworth, Sub Dean of Health Sciences, who instigated the inaugural trip and led the team of 24 students and three staff, said the tanks also improved access. The aim was for every house to have its own tank.
“Instead of having to walk to the town pump to get water, the rainwater tank would be at their household,” she said.
Another advantage of harvested rainwater was that it could be used to top up the groundwater table, which was diminishing from over-use, by recharging bore wells. This strategy also reduced the fluoride in the groundwater.
The group embarked on their three-week field trip on November 25. The next day, the terror attacks in Mumbai shook the world. However, the team decided to continue with their plans, albeit curtailing their stay by one week.
In the following fortnight, they helped build filters for the tanks, cleared farm ponds, which were used to harvest rainwater for agricultural purposes, and cleaned and weeded bore wells.
They also experienced “India time”, which meant waiting around a lot between jobs. But they filled it in by playing cricket with the village children and teaching them the Hokey Pokey. This helped build a rapport and meant the villagers were more accepting of their public health messages.
They were working with a non-government organisation called BIRD-K and were based in the village of Yallampalli, with the nearest major town being Bangalore, 130km away.
Team member Victoria Gray, who was a final year Health Science student and is now a graduate research assistant in the SPH, said the trip summed up the public health theory she had learnt over the previous four years, including disease control, health promotion, epidemiology, health economics, and health research design.
“From a public health perspective, it was amazing and a real eye opener to see how these people live, what issues they prioritise, and the scope there is for improvement,” she said.
“In India, they may not have a toilet, they may not have rubbish disposal, but everyone has got a mobile phone.
“For the younger students, when they get to the theory in their course, they will be able to apply it so much better.”
Dr Heyworth agreed that the students saw public health problems at the coalface.
“Although we had a specific target of rainwater harvesting, there were other major issues of litter, waste disposal, infectious diseases,” she said. “We are planning more trips and have been thinking that litter might be the thing we might try and tackle next time.”
-By Cathy Saunders