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Monday, March 24, 2008

Using Microfinance to Bring Safe Drinking Water to Rural India

By Rob Katz

PureItGuest blogger Mallika Ahluwalia works for ACCESS Development Services, an Indian firm providing inclusive and innovative livelihood solutions enabling the poor to ovecome poverty and live with dignity.

By Mallika Ahluwalia


Yakalakshmi lives in Nekkunda village, part of the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, with her husband and two children. Though she has water piped to her house by the village panchayat, her entire family fell ill for a month last monsoon season by drinking water directly from the tap. "We all got high fever and severe diarrhea," and as a result, "we had to spend around Rs. 4000 ($100) on health care, which was very difficult for us." So, when Yakalakshmi got the opportunity this past January to buy an effective water purifier through her Self Help Group (SHG) on an installment basis, she was one of the first to sign up.Yakalakshmi is just one of the beneficiaries of a unique tie-up between ACCESS Development Services, an Indian microfinance technical services non-profit organization, and Hindustan Unilever Limited, one of the country's largest producers of fast-moving consumer goods, to provide safe drinking water to rural poor. "Most of these villages have piped water or boreholes," according to Padma, Project Coordinator at a local NGO; "the problem is that tests by UNICEF in this district show that up to 70 percent of these sources are contaminated." The contamination gets even worse during the rainy season, especially due to poor sanitation and waste-management practices.

Though local bodies have been working to raise community awareness on the importance of safe drinking water, the major penalties of affordability and access remained. Enter the innovative partnership between ACCESS and HUL. HUL has designed a household water-purifier, PureIt, which uses a four-stage filtration process to remove all bacteria, viruses, dirt, and pesticides resulting in water that is 'as safe as boiled water.' It does not require electricity or running water. ACCESS facilitates loans for rural women to be able to afford these water purifiers through its partner microfinance institutions (MFIs).

"ACCESS's involvement has helped poor, rural households overcome the affordability barrier," says Yuri Jain, General Manager - Water in HUL. PureIt costs Rs. 1800 ($45). Through their SHGs, women can pay installments of Rs. 100 to 200 ($2.50 to $5.00) every month plus interest. In the three short months of this pilot project, 1500 SHG members have purchased the filter. To date, the loan repayment rate has been 100 percent.

Based on a public-private partnership model, this exciting tie-up is financially sustainable. The project has already been extended to 11 of ACCESS's partner MFIs in Andhra Pradesh. HUL and ACCESS are now looking at expanding the initiative countrywide through the ACCESS Microfinance Alliance, which has a 110 partner MFIs across India, potentially bringing safe drinking water to a large proportion of the 2.4 million clients served by these MFIs.

According to ACCESS CEO Vipin Sharma, "This is a huge step forward in ensuring access to safe drinking water for our microfinance clients, and it is part of our vision to alleviate different aspects of poverty." Clients will save money on health care and reduce absenteeism from work and school due to water-related illnesses. "It is also an innovative use of existing MFI distribution systems to deliver products, besides financial products, that have a social value and to target micro-loans for specific health initiatives," he adds.

In a country where around 150 million people are estimated to lack access to safe drinking water (unofficial estimates are much higher), diseases like jaundice, cholera and severe diarrhea abound. Every year, 500,000 children under 5 years die from diarrhea alone, according to a report by the Planning Commission. Women like Yakalakshmi are thus more than willing to make an investment in clean water; "we are very concerned about the health of our families, especially our children, that is why we have opted to buy the purifier through these loans" summarizes one of her peers.

In addition to convening the pan-India ACCESS Microfinance Alliance, ACCESS is also the anchor agency for organizing the second largest microfinance event in the world, "Microfinance India Summit," and publishes the annual "State of the Sector" Report that has established itself as one of the most important reference documents in the Indian sector. ACCESS also works in the sustainable livelihoods sector. By 2011, ACCESS hopes to support over 3 million poor through its initiatives in both microfinance and livelihoods.
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