Immersion Impact: Securing Sonoshi’s water future
Sonoshi. A small tribal village nestled amongst the Western Ghats Mountains of Maharashtra, in the midst of a region steeped in the legend of freedom fighters. A proud history of overcoming seemingly overwhelming adversaries, yet, in recent times this community has faced an altogether different battle. As with much of the state of Maharashtra, Sonoshi faces ongoing water supply and quality issues, with severe shortages during the long, hot, dry season.
Drishtee Immersion is a social business, which connects people from around the world with rural communities to create meaningful change. Over the last two years Drishtee Immersion has partnered with Sonoshi to investigate access to water, exploring community needs, identifying root cause issues in support of positive actions forward. Recently, these efforts culminated in the launch of the ‘Sonoshi Paani Filter’ system, a significant step towards securing the community’s water future. This article will showcase the unique empathy-based approach undertaken as the foundation for equitable community engagement, self-determination and new self-efficacy for overcoming the complex issue.
Sitaram and Declan exploring water-related issues (June 2018) & Sitaram with son Shivam at the Sonoshi Paani Filter inauguration (January 2019)
Helping humans understand each other, a powerful force for good
People everywhere are different, with communities reflecting unique social and cultural points of humanistic distinction. In India, such difference can occur between villages placed just a few kilometers apart. No two communities are the same, neither should solutions be for tackling their complex issues. Drishtee Immersion is taking on this challenge, utilising the potential of diverse collaborations based on empathy to spark energy and self-efficacy towards critical community needs. Over the last five years Drishtee Immersion has pioneered a unique empathy process, which enables meaningful empathy-level connections between the most diverse individuals imaginable; such as a 22-year-old female student from an inner-city suburb in Australia with an elderly gentleman farmer and traditional medicine healer from a small tribal village in India. Such a connection, if built on shared pro-social and predominantly selfless intentions, can provide the platform for sustainable, community-driven development.
Stark contrast between sympathetic and empathic approaches to community development
When two people collaborate together, with shared pro-social intentions and training in cross-cultural understanding, there is an empowered platform for generating sustainable development. This goes against the prevailing top-down, self-full approach to development in economically disadvantaged communities all around the world. Such organisations may have desire to help those less fortunate, but it equates to a sympathy-driven approach based on the world-view and perspectives of the organisation, not the community they seek to serve. It has been shown time and again that such processes result in resources being allocated to ‘solutions’ that do not empower those intended to serve, focused on areas which are not priorities, and are unlikely to ever solve the problem. In other words, useless efforts projected onto a powerless community. In stark contrast, the empathy process facilitated by Drishtee Immersion enables real, human relationships between community members and students from around the world, who develop a shared understanding over time. These efforts are successful in fostering community empowerment and self-efficacy, as participants are motivated to support others, not solely seeking self-focused outcomes. Communities respond positively when sensing efforts are for the greater good, not primarily for personal pay-off, ego-boosting or box ticking. The equal power platform fostered by an empathic organisation enables self-determination by communities.
Establishing an authentic, grassroots platform for supporting self-determined communities
First and foremost, for this approach to have any chance of success, the community itself must initiate it. Having been invited by leaders of rural communities, following rigorous risk assessment and general due diligence, Drishtee Immersion partners with the community to facilitate small groups of university students to be hosted by the village for three weeks. This time is structured to maximise cross-cultural engagement at an individual level, to foster empathic understanding on community-identified issues, which ultimately leads to positive actions by both partners towards overcoming the need in focus. It is not realistic, nor desirable, that students would attempt to randomly produce answers to engrained, complex issues when visiting for a relatively short period of time. Rather, there is a focus on developing new awareness within communities, contributing to long-standing community projects, and activating wider participation in local efforts. A unique empathy process including many purpose-designed methods supports empathic transformations for authentic connections followed by sense-making of experiences. With this platform, it is possible to see and feel real-lived experience to elevate local knowledge. Furthermore, this approach not only creates new awareness of complex issues, but the respectful process builds new self-confidence within community stakeholders, fosters motivation and momentum for new intra-community collaborations.
Various participants with community partners , various locations across 2017 and 2018
The long road to securing Sonoshi’s water future
In 2017, Drishtee Immersion began a partnership with Sonoshi to explore water-related issues. It was initiated by a connection between Michael and Sudam; a Business student from Sydney and a community leader and farmer concerned with the worsening water situation. Together, they were determined to uncover the extent of the issue, revealing many personal impacts of water scarcity across the village. With community leader’s support, Michael mapped the situation as a starting-point and foundation for further exploration. Crucially, Michael’s positive energy and selfless approach towards the issue motivated several people from diverse social groups within the village to take action. Soon after Michael’s program concluded community leaders approached Drishtee Immersion to support their efforts to further this research.
Returning in 2018 with a group of students focused on issues relating to water, Drishtee Immersion sought to widen understanding of community perspectives and real-lived experience from a diverse range of people across Sonoshi. Ideally for the task drawing together new insights, student participants themselves represented diverse perspectives of wide-ranging academic backgrounds such as Design, Political Science, Product Design, Business, Health and Communications. The team found there to be negative perceptions of access to village water supplies, including unequal use and distribution of water. Furthermore, perspectives relating to tribal identity and belief systems with significant baring on access to and use of water. Additionally, established practices to water harvesting, responsible water usage, family water-related health perspectives, and water for economic livelihoods, were all explored. These efforts uncovered wider and deeper issues than community partners had foreseen.
Michael, April, Declan, Belle, Norma and Molly collaborating with partners in Sonoshi 2017 & 2018
Respectful engagement free from judgment sparks sharing of personal and even taboo issues
Far from being cress-fallen at the prospect of tackling a seemingly insurmountable task, community partners overwhelmingly reported a sense of empowerment and motivation. This comes from exploring issues with an open mind, free from personal bias and judgement. Furthermore, many of the prevailing topics had scarcely been discussed between neighbours, due to the taboo nature and relatedness of the tribal community. There was palpable relief that these root-cause issues could be brought to the surface in such a way so to avoid blaming or worse, paternalistic finger pointing.
Wide engagement and empathy-level understanding an ideal base for co-creation of a community water action plan
Following this second student program, the Drishtee Immersion team led by Nathan Wiltshire and Sneha Karpe facilitated a series of co-creation discussions with Sonoshi’s community leaders to create a holistic water strategy and action plan. Priorities included accessing safe drinking water, distribution of drinking water for equal access, addressing water health awareness and hygiene, water harvesting, and regenerating the water table beneath the village. With a formal plan in place, work began towards the first phase of action, initiating a village water fund, with voluntary monetary contributions from dozens of village households. As a sign of solidarity, Drishtee Immersion contributed funds toping-up local efforts, enabled by a social business model, which sets aside 10% of revenue to support the implementation of community actions.
Collaborations continue towards tangible community outcomes, with empathy guiding the way forward
From this point, the Sonoshi-based Drishtee Immersion team including local/international expertise with Catherine Walsh, Popat Lahamage and Vishal Dange, along with adhoc support from Drishtee’s rural development experts responded to requests to support community leaders to plan the implementation and ultimately construct a water filtration and distribution system to provide safe drinking water to the village. Collaborating over six months, the team reviewed alternative filtration technology providers and on many occasions guided contractors to adhere to village needs, warding off temptation to take shortcuts. A key decision was the location of the filter system, requiring neutral ground already frequented by the entire community to overcome a perceived lack of access within some sections of the village. Furthermore, it was crucial to innovate the typical pay-per-litre model for filtered water, which was unlikely to succeed due to cultural attitudes and beliefs identified previously. Subsequently, the team in partnership with community leaders and technology providers developed a subscription-based model, whereby families pay a minimal annual fee to cover ongoing maintenance costs, but nothing more. Whenever confronted with a major decision, community leaders were able to make informed choices, considering root cause issues, thanks to earlier empathy work undertaken by students and their community partners. While community leaders drove the project, the Drishtee Immersion team was on-hand to support and mentor whenever unexpected issues surfaced, such as contractor performance, locating project materials, resizing filter housing and negotiating discounted household water containers. In collaboration it was possible to keep the project moving forward.
Sonoshi Paani Filter a symbol of action-orientated cross-cultural collaborations
Finally, Sonoshi had extra cause to celebrate the auspicious Republic Day on 26th January 2019, with the inauguration of their Sonoshi Paani Filter system. Excitement filled the air as the community rejoiced in the many self-less efforts, immense kindness and love from across the world. At that point already a quarter of households had purchased subscriptions, a clear indication of high levels of engagement and community ownership. Moreover, there was commitment from many additional households to participate once they had generated income from impending harvests.
Sonoshi Paani Filter inauguration day organised by community leaders, January 2019
Water issues are complex, requiring on-going community support with empathy
The work of Drishtee Immersion and community partners does not conclude with the Sonoshi Paani Filter system. When taking an empathic approach every step seems to reveal ever-more insights, with deepening trust and respect. With the entire community talking about water following inauguration it emerged that a large number of households lacked awareness of water-borne health issues. Fortunately, Health students were on-hand to explore these perspectives and co-create an appropriate water health education awareness program. Jenivy, a student of Nursing, created materials and successfully tested the intervention, with support from the Drishtee Immersion team and Fellow, Sharon Ung.
In the three months since launching the Sonoshi Paani Filter approximately half of households are participating, with new users added regularly. Meanwhile, feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive for great tasting water free from pathogens, agricultural chemical and heavy metal contamination. Furthermore, families are reporting initial declines in common water-borne illnesses. With water health education ongoing, the team aims to have awareness discussions with every household in the coming months. From an informed position families can decide to participate or decline the opportunity for pure drinking water.
Long term partnerships essential for sustainable impact
With the first major phase of their water strategy completed, Sonoshi’s community leaders have already begun taking steps towards longer-term goals of improved water harvesting and water table regeneration. The Drishtee Immersion team is supporting these efforts in a multitude of ways, from networking with national bodies, to guidance on government program applications, locating external experts in soil and bedrock composition, cataloguing and understanding cultivation of indigenous ayurvedic plants, even co-designing a way for local households to champion reforestation. In essence, the role of Drishtee Immersion and the many amazing student participants is to seed new understanding wherever it is required; sparking new community confidence and energy; supporting ongoing self-determined efforts to improve the lives of everyone in the community.
The journey towards success does not come easily and won’t happen overnight. Then again, neither did the revered freedom fighters of the region’s history reach their objectives quickly and without considerable struggle. Through this journey ahead, with a base of empathy, overcoming community challenges will be self-determined, empowering and for everyone.
Written by Nathan Wiltshire with contributions from Laura Martin, Catherine Walsh and Iain McKelvey