Success in the Trenches in Flood-Ravaged Bihar, India

Latrines. Maybe they don’t make your list of Things I Get Excited About. But for Katherine Westphal, water and sanitation technical advisor for CRS in India, latrines are all about delivering health, in this case to people driven from their homes by massive flooding.

The Q&A that follows is the second of three parts that give insight into living conditions for thousands of people forced to evacuate after floodwaters tore through Bihar, India in August. See part 1 here.

Caroline Brennan, CRS regional information officer in India for the past three years, provided the questions.

What’s exciting about your work?

The most exciting part about my work has to be meeting basic water and sanitation needs with innovative and appropriate designs. It is that moment when you open the tap stand for the very first time and see smiles all around that gives me a thrill.

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Children who have been displaced by the flood each get a stick with a red flag before going on their game to search for areas of open defecation. Photo by CRS staff

Many of the children looked happy in the pictures. Can you describe the emotional state of families – children and adults? How are they coping?

The children were really excited to be a part of the red flag game….even though the activity involved poop! In reality I think that the kids are just so excited to be involved in something engaging and semi-structured. For more than one month kids have been out of school and living in confined spaces along embankments and camps.

From surveys and informal conversations, we are actually finding that even more adults are traumatized by the floods than we realized. Many families have lost everything and now exist in a small plot of land with only the bare essentials. Now that the initial shock has passed, I think that more psychosocial issues will become apparent.

How does building water and sanitation facilities in India differ from doing the same in, say, Kenya ?

Ground water in Bihar, India is everywhere. You can be pretty certain that within one day of manual drilling you will reach water. It is finding suitable water for drinking that is difficult. In Kenya on the other hand, reaching the water table can be a difficult endeavour. Even after days of drilling hundreds of feet into the ground, you just may come up empty-handed. Fortunately in Kenya, the water quality at these depths will likely be reasonably safe for drinking, whereas in India, bacterial and chemical contamination is widespread. In a neighbouring district in Bihar, CRS has recently identified arsenic contamination as a significant concern.

How do you know when you’re successful?

My job as water and sanitation engineer is to identify how I can design a system of safe drinking water or sanitation to fit the needs and practices of a community. If they use it and maintain it, I consider that they like it, and in my mind that is a success

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