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Team sees challenges of providing safe water

  • Story Highlights
  • Student visits India slums with translator to survey families
  • Families use water from bore wells that are often contaminated with disease
  • Many remain unaware of problem that exists in community, student says
  • Student says team must explore most effective, least expensive filters
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By Kimberly Lewkowitz
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: CNNU is following two student teams from the University of Southern California as they work to improve the quality of life in India. One team, Water Treatment, is working to improve the local water quality. Kimberly Lewkowitz is part of that team. The following is a column she wrote for CNNU about her experience. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN or its affiliates.

A young child sits outside his house in one of the slum neighborhoods where the students visited.

A young child sits outside his house in one of the slum neighborhoods where the students visited.

(CNN) -- One of the greatest learning experiences thus far was visiting the slums.

A translator, another Deshpande Foundation fellow, and I went on an outing to conduct surveys of numerous homes in the poorer area of town.

The purpose of the survey was to obtain data on the history of health in each household, particularly to gather an understanding about each family's access to drinking water and the health of children less than 15 years of age.

Most notably, we looked for the incidence of diarrhea or other symptoms in the households per month.

Our second interviewee initially hesitated, until our translator explained, "They are students from America. They would like to speak with you -- they are here to help."

We were invited to remove our shoes and sit inside.

The residence consisted of two rooms and had a diminutive area for bathing -- no toilet, no fan, no door, and no beds. It is in this home that in the couple raised four children. Only one of them has been lucky enough to attend school.

The three of us shared one mat, and the head of the household sat comfortably no more than two meters across from us on the other wall, in minimal light. With my back pressed up against the foundation of the dwelling, and my socks tucked under me, I tried to remain as small as possible in the tiny, dark space.

During the 30-minute interview, the man shared details of his personal life and that of his family's. In hearing about their lifestyle, I began to understand to a greater degree the importance for our work:

Translator: "What is your source for drinking water?"

Interviewee: "The bore well."

Translator: "Do you treat your drinking water before you drink it?"

Interviewee: "Haha! No. It looks clean-- Why should I do that?"

As background, bore wells are sites that provide drinking water for communities. However, many communicable water borne diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, etc arise when bore wells are not adequately maintained and remained uncovered.

The neglected site may be situated next to a garbage dump or may be affected by bacteria from nearby sewage piping. Bore wells then become improper areas to obtain drinking water and may carry water borne diseases. Furthermore, they may become sites that attract mosquitoes carrying malaria.

As an outsider, I realize the need to provide the people of Hubli with access to clean water, but surprisingly, many families remain unaware of the problem that exists in their own community. They understand, however, that it is the water that influences numerous disease outbreaks. The closing survey questions were also informing:

Translator: "Would you use a treatment method if provided with one?"

Interviewee: "Not necessary. Water is clean. Why would I need it? Filters too expensive."

It was in hearing the answers to these questions that it became clear that my team faces many challenges ahead. I realized it will not only be a challenge to physically implement water filtration systems into households, but too, be more of a societal challenge to convince the people why they need to use the filtration system.

I also learned that, in the future, we must explore micro-finance opportunities to disseminate the most effective, least expensive filters on a mass scale. This will be important to ensure that future filtration systems remain affordable.

My experience in the slums was an exceptional learning experience. It helped me to further understand the characters of these communities and catch an intimate glimpse into their lives.

As anyone may guess, it was eye-opening to see how the families live, with such few amenities. And while it was discouraging to learn about the challenges which await us, it is also thrilling to know that the University of Southern California team has the potential to positively impact the daily lives of many.

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