Community engagement ?

I’ve written several posts about community visits taken on our WIL-India trip – now I’m going to look more critically at these and offer some reflections. Thankfully we also had the opportunity to discuss our thoughts with the group also, so this is informed as well by my learning from other participants. 

It was awkward going into communities that need development solutions and not offering anything. It was also awkward to think critically about that village when it’s a place that people genuinely live their lives, despite challenges. Without having deep connections or understanding of context, there is nothing I can offer besides a kind face and a listening ear. I really was a tourist on these visits. 

The other awkward part was that the trips were meant to be experiential learning. I was experiencing something, true, but it was more voyeuristic than hands on. I didn’t live with them, cook with them, work in the fields with them. 

This learning was supposed to lead to understanding of problems in order to propose solutions to complex problems. So it was going back to my time in international development (I was in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders in 2008 – for more on that see the equally originally named blog How do I really know anything as an outsider (I don’t)? And is it even useful at all to take foreigners around to tour village life, just for the sake of their personal learning? Could I learn this in another way? Could I have the same understanding and compassion if I read a really good article about it? 

What I learned from the facilitators of WIL-India is that practicing your intention can make an impact on communities visited. The first step is to “look with an appreciative gaze”. Seeing abundance and beauty , instead of problems and solutions, allows for a faster and more open relationship to develop. People are happy to share their lives and what they are proud of. 

The appreciative gaze practice can be criticized for its lack of critcism. Isn’t this just glossing over and ignoring problems? The reason it’s a first step for newcomers is that we have been there too short a time to understand the social and cultural dynamics at play. And for us who are on tours, we are also not there long enough to do anything about the problem. If you can’t spend time to understand and work on the issue, you shouldn’t bring it up, because really that’s just rude! 

So the appreciative gaze is a perfect first step for brief visits, and means that a short tour can be a learning journey for me and a chance to teach and brag for a community. 

Doing anything deeper though requires strong facilitation. Our trip facilitators are also involved in warriors without weapons – a non profit that uses facilitation processes to determine and realize the collective dreams of a community. 

All in all, I learned new things about how development could be done, and practiced techniques for community engagement on a small scale. It felt beautiful. 

My community visits were summarized in yhes blog posts :

Lessons from a Fishing Village

Making salt in the desert
Tribal village visits in Rajasthan


Tribal village visits in Rajasthan

The last of our community visits were to tribal villages around Udaipur. These were facilitated by the NGO Wells for India. The main theme of Wells for India is about getting communities mobilized to solve and fund their own projects. 

In the first village we visited, we met with farmers who had decided efficient and judicious ways of irrigation from groundwater. Two large reservoirs were built, and one groundwater pump is used to fill that reservoir. 12 families divide that water, and irrigation is distributed on a rotating schedule. Excess water in the tank is infiltrated back into the ground to recharge the groundwater. A number of traditional water management techniques are used as well, such as stone walls to terrace sloped fields, which help reduce runoff from the fields. 

This community also invested in scientific information. They fundraised amongst themselves and received donor funds to build a weather station. Indra, a 19 year old girl, explained to us how the weather station works, where she keeps her measurements, and how her information is used to help farmers determine when to take action, such as protecting against frost or when to sow seeds. She was a confident speaker and was so clearly proud of her contribution to her community. It’s beautiful to see people empowered like her.

The second village we visited was even more remote, causing us to finally abandon our bus and walk a kilometer (though they were kind enough to also send some men on bikes to fetch us for that short leg!). Aleppan village (spelling not verified) is very mountainous and has several monsoon streams. They pooled money to build a small dam on the stream in order to be able to retain more water after the monsoon season to use for irrigation. The birds were clearly happy with this situation – we saw many beautiful egrets, cranes and possibly a flamingo. 

I have been amazed on this trip to see how welcoming villagers are when we visit. I think it’s a mix of curiosity about outsiders with a genuine pride in their work. What more could someone hope for, really, than to be proud of what they’re doing in life? 

More water tours

A friend of Swaraj’s developed a water tour of Udaipur City. He generally runs tours, but adapted this one to focus on water. Really I’m starting to think I should request water tours everywhere I go, it’s just so fascinating!

Udaipur is known as the city of lakes. Before the city was developed, which was done because it was a good defensive area, the lakes were created by building dams. So those dams have been in place for ~500 years! 

Udaipur has a good groundwater resources and pumps are located throughout the city for citizens’ use. These were implemented long before water was piped into homes. Water tanks for animals to drink from were placed next to wells, and citizens would fill up these tanks as they went to fill up their own water, which helped with maintaining the wandering city animals. 

Many housing compounds in the city were built for extended families, so several homes would overlook a courtyard, and the courtyard would have its own wells and water tanks. 

There are two sewer systems : wastewater and combined grey water and storm water. Such a water smart way of dividing wastewaters ! 

Our other water touristy adventures :

We visited the UNESCO world heritage step well – Rani Ki Vav. This is a huge underground structure which was used to obtain ground water. A queen commissioned it and she is said to have bathed there secretly. The structural ingenuity and artistry that went into it was just stunning. A temple in the ground, all for worshipping water. 

And we went to Mt Abu, a former British hill station and now a popular Indian family summer vacation. Nakki lake at the top of Mt Abu is just stunning. I climbed a hill on top of the lake and meditated near some bamboos also enjoying the sun and view. 

Making salt in the desert

Last week we visited the community of Adesar in Gujarat to see how salt pan workers live. The local word for making salt is “bhor”. In this area, it involves extracting briney groundwater (which is the norm there) and letting the water evaporate out in large “pools” that were built by creating earth walls. Water is pumped from the ground and rotated around several of these pans. The final salt product is raked, excavated, piled and sold in large quantities. 

You can imagine that this is a very hot and sunny job. Workers have built day time shelters for rest. They retire to villages nearby, away from the desert. From these villages they also engage in agriculture when it is no longer the dry salt making season. 

Drinking water for these villagers cannot come from groundwater. We saw one village where they had built a lake to retain monsoon rainfall. They also could receive tap water trucked to them from the government. 

We visited a community that worked as a collective to keep their land. There is a challenge in this area, a fight with government over land. Many small salt pan workers have seen their land snatched up. These salt pan workers , with the aid of NGOs , have managed to keep their heritage and livelihoods by banding together and opposing government claims to their land. 

Unlearning and Appreciation 

We spent the last 4 days of WIL-India at Swaraj University, the global centre for unlearning. This is a rural centre, where “students” live communally in dorms and keep up the maintenance of the centre. The land is farmed and there is livestock. It’s a beautiful and peaceful area, perfect for deep exploration and learning. 

What is unlearning ? I’m not sure that I’m the best person to explain it, despite my time at the centres. It’s such a big topic. I think it’s faith that the answers are within us and not within institutions. Manisg, who founded Swaraj, describes going to Harvard and noting that his village grandmother knew more about sustainability than his Harvard professors. There are many theories that are touted, but take those professors out for a drink or two, and they will admit they know nothing! 

Unlearning is also about removing our connections to objects. It’s not about seeing scarcity – which leads to greed – but seeing abundance – which leads to sharing and gift giving. I don’t know what else unlearning is – my brief glimpse just inspired me to learn more, and to start by removing my attachment to things. 

This is practised by living simply – which was a challenge to participants as many of us were quite used to comforts. A solar hot water heater provided warm bucket bath (no shower) water to some folks on chilly mornings, toilet paper could only go in the composting toilet, not the flush toilet, beds consisted of wooden platforms with a thin mat on top. Everything was outside and evenings were quite cool. Rules included: absolutely no garbage allowed, carry out any garbage you produce, clean your own dishes, no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking. 

A sister site, without sleeping facilities, exists in the city of Udaipur, Shikshantar. Udaipur, in addition to its title as “city of lakes” is also a city of social justice activists. Anyone can partake in activities at Shikshantar. It has a community library and kitchen and beautiful spaces for meetings.
We deepened our group work and facilitation practices at Swaraj. We did a round of open space, we worked in teams on projects, and we presented our projects to our friends at WIL-India. We conducted one community visit and used the circle spaces to go into deep discussions on how to do community engagement and what made us uncomfortable about our visits. Our group really bonded here. 

One beautiful exercise that Manish facilitated for us was called “appreciation shower”. A portion of participants sit on chairs in a circle, blind folded. The rest of the participants wander around and whisper praise and compliments in their ears. There were a few rules which really made this work : hands must always be on the blind folded person’s shoulders, only nice things about them (not you!) can be said, and it must be whispered. This did a fantastic job of removing all of my insecurities about receiving compliments – mainly by comparing myself to others who may be receiving more or less praise. I didn’t know what was happening to anyone else, I only knew about me and all the nice things being said to me. I cried. And I loved sharing beautiful things in other people’s ears too. Rarely do we give ourselves enough opportunities to appreciate others, but when forced to think about it, all you come out with is love and gratitude. Showering appreciation makes everyone feel better. I love this practice and need to bring it elsewhere. 

Bhuj and deepening our group

Yesterday we arrived in Bhuj after quite the ordeal at the Mumbai airport. That place is mayhem, then add to that that we are a group of more than 40 people – and eek! All worked out and we arrived at our hotel and had more mayhem as each of us had to hand fill in 4 things and have our passports scanned. So 4am-11:30am was just lineups for all of us. We managed and it maybe made us all a bit stronger. 

We have used our down time well, and we visited a craft market, Prag MahalAina Mahal and climbed Bhujia Hill. Bhujia hill was a beautiful little hike and at the top we could see a park containing many water wells, and apparently this was built to commemorate victims of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. 

Our group processes are kicking off. We are doing open space. We had a session where participants pitched their projects followed by a “marketplace” where we could all ask questions or offer resources. We shared our talents and skills. A few resource guests ran sessions on the topics of: creative thinking to explore problems, leadership and collaboration, and entrepreneurship. 

I am always happy to learn new facilitation technologies and jot down these many ways of bringing groups together. I am deepening my learning of facilitation at the same time as participating in these activities. 

My main take aways so far are:

  • Successful collaboration needs lots of small wins 
  • Getting collaborators means coming from a place of shared understanding first 
  • You don’t have to do it all at once, break down what skills you need and develop one at a time 

From the pitches within our group we have seen:

  • Collaboration is needed, and it’s a complex thing to achieve 
  • Many of us are looking for business modelling help 
  • Community engagement and empowerment are at the root of many projects 
  • Solutions we have are whole systems solutions 

    And I will end with some photos!

    Lessons from a fishing village 

    We visited a fishing village that is located on the sea side of the Bhandra neighbourhood , which is a posh neighbourhood with coffee shops, a dog park, a jogging lane, and lovely promenades along the sea. Where Bhandra didn’t look beautiful was on the sea side – you could see piles of garbage, sewage coming through pipes into mangroves, and this fishing village where dogs and pigs scavenged through the garbage.

    We divided up into small groups and had conversations with inidivuals and asked them their thoughts on where they live. Many expressed a deep love of where they live , mainly due to the beauty of being by the sea. People were more than fishermen, other jobs included teacher, sandwich-seller, fence-maker. One 12-year-old girl showed us her home and told us about her family and school and that she wants to be a doctor some day. Very little was said by them about waste or sanitation. There have been efforts in the past to clean up the beach but that hasn’t lasted, and they open defecate outside among the litter. They have built community spaces for themselves, like a shelter for hanging out in during the rains and a cover over their water source. 

    It felt a bit at first as if we were being voyeuristic and judgmental. But asking questions and listening and sharing in small groups broke down barriers between us and them. The musicians in our group asked if they could learn a fishing song, and in turn sang a fishing song from Canada. We then gathered and danced to their music and laughed at each other. 

    As the sun was setting we left, said goodbye, and continued talking about how amazing that experience was. 

    Being a tourist and water nerd in Mumbai 

    The Water Innovation Lab India team has been going for a few days and I am excited for more. Here is what we have done so far and what I have learned! 

    Connections are best made through shared experience. On my first day a few of us had a great experience of seeing the sea in a neighborhood near our hotel – Bhandra. Our taxi driver told us repeatedly how amazing his car is and forced me to take this driving selfie: 

    Our first evening was about getting to know each other and the facilitators. We told people about our dreams, learning goals, countries, and exchanged gifts. I love the attention waterlution pays to making a space beautiful, it’s very conducive to openness and sharing:

    On our first full day together we visited a storm water pond (which started out as a recreational lake), a water treatment plant and a wastewater lagoon (prior to outfall to the ocean). All good stuff, the municipality does a lot for this crazy huge city. One of the lessons I learned was that the distribution system is the reason tap water isn’t safe to drink – the water is treated well at the source. Water doesn’t flow under pressure 24 hours a day (what a huge challenge to get enough water for this massive city!) So there is a lot of chance for water pipes to get contaminated (intrusion of seawater or accidents during construction of new infrastructure). 

    I also learned that locals have found it difficult to get information about how their water and wastewater is managed here – one participant told me that he has been trying repeatedly to get tours of these facilities with no response. Also they are very reticent to discuss challenges for fear of political repercussions. 

    The storm water pond is Powai Lake. It should only be receiving storm water but also has some illegal inputs of sewage and their plan is to put a weir in the outlet pipes to divert dry weather flow (aka sewage since there is no groundwater infiltration) back to sanitary sewers. Simple. But it left me with the question – why not disconnect the illegal connections and offer to connect them to the main sewer line instead ?

    I am taking things in and listening actively. I find the speakers so far have been thin on answers, but participants from India have deep knowledge and many of my questions and more. 

    And we also spent a good deal of time having fun in central Mumbai and seeing the sites ! 

    7 themes

    I am writing this while in transit to Mumbai to start Water Innovation Lab India. This is my first time blogging on a smart phone. 

    There are 7 themes that make up the WIL experience, and our “resource guests” (aka experts who provide the knowledge context stories excitement etc) have provided us with readings on the 7 themes. I read these and these are my initial thoughts. Before I delve into my reflections, here is what my mobile work desk looks like! (Shout out to Maricor – you got me this notebook!) 

    1. Water scarcity: water use and conservation 

    Scarcity of water is a result of humans, mainly unsustainable practices over the long term. Extracting water, interrupting rivers by building dams, climate change – all are ways that humans are causing water scarcity. 

    2. Groundwater 

    When climate/hydrological factors lead to decreased water levels in the ground, this leads to drought, but only defined as such when it impacts human water issues. Seasonal droughts may not be a big deal, e.g. dry season agriculture requires more groundwater then it becomes replenished in the wet season. So context is important. And groundwater varies with climate, topography, geology, etc. 

    3. Impacts of industry on water resources 

    Mining, oil and gas traditionally are heavy water users. This is well known. Currently local populations are opposing these industries to protect their water. I have some fairly strong opinions on this area already. Regulation needs a heavy hand on industry. I love that people are empowered to protect their local environments.  On the business side, this is leading to “stranded assets” as promising projects are not being developed. 

    4. Urban water quality and access 

    I learned from a report about Mumbai’s environment that 60% of its population live in slums. There are water treatment plants in Mumbai but not potable water everywhere. Who do these plants serve? Why some and not others? 

    5. Climate change impacts on agriculture 

    India is very dependent on agriculture – 70% of its population gets their livelihood from this industry and 43% of land in India is dedicated to it. Food yield is directly linked to monsoon rains. There are two agricultural seasons : khalif (summer) and rabi (winter). The more monsoon rain, the greater the food yield, unless flooding damages plants. Climate change, monsoon and el nino all interact, changing these knowns. Climate change, if we continue emitting as per status quo, will reach or exceed 2C of warming by 2030-2045. 

    6. Interface of traditional wisdom and modern water technology 

    Wells for India provided some local context readings for this theme. In arid and semi arid areas of Rajasthan, many traditional methods for storing water existed. There are specific words for each container and each use of water! E.g. kua for individual dug wells, kohars for community wells, and baolis for step wells / philanthropic wells. These practices fell away during colonial times and are now getting a resurgence as population and agricultural pressure require it. 

    7. Making water technology more accessible: frugal innovations & water financing 

    The readings for this section were mostly cool and cost effective water treatment systems. Over many years of involvement with engineers without borders, I learned to be wary of technology solutions in developing countries, and instead I learned to think in terms or systems instead. Many technological solutions have failed before for simple reasons – didn’t fit local practices, replacement parts were not available, maintenance tips unknown or not taught… And on and on. It is unfortunate to see these problems repeat again and again and I hope this will break that mold. 
    OK those are just some initial and random thoughts! Please forgive poor writing – I need to sleep! But I will wait until Mumbai to do that. 

    Me & Water

    For the Great Waters Challenge #1, I am telling you about me and about my connection to water. I’m sharing a video that introduces myself, and a mini photo essay about a very cool water story, which explains my passion for water: what we do on land affects our water.

    The Story of the Loss of Garrison Creek

    Maybe you never knew? Toronto has a long history of burying its waterways. It started with learning that there was a link between our sewage and people getting sick with cholera. Since rivers and streams were essentially open sewers, to get rid of illness, people needed to get rid of the streams that carried the illness. So burying of our waterways began.

    Then:  1878 Map showing Garrison Creek outline, and 1876 lithograph showing Toronto. The indented and ‘natural-shaped’ areas are Garrison Creek.



    This shows the sewers that have replaced Garrison Creek. These sewers combined storm water and sanitary sewage from nearby neighbourhoods. Source: Vanishing Point

    But just because it’s buried doesn’t mean the traces are all gone. There are a number of places that are proof of the creek that once flowed there. Let’s take this reach by reach:

    Christie Reach: this is from where two streams intersected at Davenport Road to Harbord Street to the south

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    The Christie reach was at the surface until 1915, and there was a large bridge at Harbord street that crossed Garrison Creek. The City buried this portion of the creek, when sewers for the nearby houses were put underground. The bridge was buried as well, but remnants of the bridge on Harbord Street can still be seen, but it just looks like a railing for the sidewalk. Christie Pits used to be a quarry, and now is a large park. The slopes (which are great for tobaganning!) are also evidence of the creek that used to be there. Some houses on nearby Shaw Street are having foundation problems and sinking slightly on one side, and this is because surface and ground water are still flowing through their old paths and undermining the buildings.

    Trinity Reach: between Harbord Street and Queen Street

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    Garrison Creek was above the surface until the 1890s.There was a bridge at Crawford Street, which was eventually filled in after the creek was buried. This reach is named after Trinity College, which was a private college. It joined with the University of Toronto and moved closer to the rest of campus (which is what we know as Trinity College now), and for some reason they took down the old beautiful building, and only the gates remain. Remnants of Garrison Creek can still be seen, mostly in the “dog pit” – aka the lowlying area where everyone brings their dogs! The river is now in a sewer underground, where there are several overflows, flow separators, and small storm tributaries. From the photos I can see of Vanishing Point’s work, it’s an old system that was added on to whenever problems arose, but was never planned from the beginning with a river’s capacity in mind.

    Fort Reach: between Queen Street and its former outlet at Fort York

    This was a very industrialized part of the City. Breweries and slaughterhouses were set up to take advantage of the clean creek water at their front doors. With creek burial and land reclamation, remnants of the creek and its tributaries at this reach are very difficult to find. Sewers at this point deliver combined sewage (storm and sanitary) to the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant (in the eastern part of Toronto), but during heavy rain events, these combined sewers overflow directly into Lake Ontario.


    Vanishing Point

    Lost Rivers TO

    City of Toronto Discovery Walks