Want to engage with wetland communities? Start with sanitation!

An interview with Dr. Ritesh Kumar of Wetlands International South Asia.

Loktak Lake fisherman, Manipur, India

Loktak Lake fisherman, Manipur, India. Photo: Sandro Lacarbona. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every morning at four o’clock, thousands of men wake up to go fishing in Loktak Lake. When they return home in the early afternoon, their wives take the fish to the market.

Loktak Lake in Manipur is the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India. This unique ecosystem is both a source of water and livelihood for around 100,000 people living on and around the lake. Loktak Lake is famous for its phumdis or floating islands. The lake’s Keibul Lamjao National Park is the only floating park in the world.

Poor sanitation threatens livelihood

If the lake’s fishermen or their wives fall ill, or if there is less fish to catch, they earn less. In both cases, poor sanitation is often the culprit. Fishermen risk getting skin diseases from polluted lake water. The whole family gets sick if faecal waste leaches into their drinking water sources. Water hyacinths thrive on faecal nutrients, choking the lake and the fish.

Wetlands International worked in Loktak Lake for several years up to 2013. “We are ‘accidental learners’ when it comes to sanitation”, says Dr. Ritesh Kumar, Conservation Programme Manager – South Asia.

Providing twin pit toilets to fishing families seemed like a simple solution to improve their health and protect their livelihood.  “Later we realised that soil conditions caused faecal waste to leach into water sources”, Dr. Kumar tells me from his office in New Delhi’s Defence Colony. Moving the toilets away from the houses to rocky areas solves the leaching problem, but gives rise to others, Dr. Kumar admits. The toilets are less accessible for the ill, disabled and the elderly; women and girls feel less safe to use them after dark.

Community engagement

Dr. Ritesh Kumar standing in front of photo of Loktak Lake.

Dr. Ritesh Kumar standing in front of photo of Loktak Lake. Photo: C. Dietvorst/IRC

We also learned that our policy of providing free toilets did not lead to behaviour change”, Dr. Kumar continues. To improve sanitation, you need to talk to communities. Community engagement may be standard practice in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, but it is less common in the field of ecosystem restoration.

Waste is a diffuse challenge. Not only faecal waste from community toilets threatens Loktak Lake but also domestic sewage from Manipur’s capital city Imphal.  Another major threat to the lake is the upstream Ithai barrage. Construction of this dam caused flooding, and loss of fish population and biological diversity.

Environmental organisations like Wetlands International cannot deal with these multiple threats on their own. They can only do this in partnership with local government, private sector and the affected communities.

Empowering communities

Building the capacities of civil society to engage effectively with communities, local government and the private sector is at the heart of the Watershed – empowering citizens initiative.  This strategic partnership between the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and IRC, Simavi, Wetlands International and Akvo will work in six countries, including India, over the coming five years.  Wetlands International, in collaboration with IRC and Akvo, leads the Watershed country programme in India.

Wetlands International’s work in Loktak Lake shows how sanitation is an excellent entry point to engage with communities, giving them a voice.  Whatever new challenges emerge, empowered communities supported by civil society stand a better chance to tackle them.

Read more about Watershed at: watershed.nl
View Dr. Ritesh Kumar’s profile on Linkedin

This blog originally appeared on the IRC website.

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