Women, Data & Tech: Enabling Smart Water Management in India
In honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th, 2021), the SWAN Forum and SWAN India Alliance collaborated with new partner Safe Water Network on an event highlighting the intersection of women, data and technology. This event was inspired by the recent Jal Jeevan Missions (JJM) to achieve water access and equity across India. Another key part of this policy involves a greater role for women in understanding, creating, deploying, and operating water services.
This event featured leading women practitioners from Safe Water Network, Grundfos, Honeywell, USAID, and FRANK Water, who highlighted the value of digital solutions and shared pragmatic approaches for women’s roles in scaling and ensuring the resilience of India’s water supply. Unfortunately, women are often excluded from these roles, despite evidence that their inclusion leads to better social and business impact. Poonam Sewak, VP Programmes and Partnerships (Safe Water Network) reflected on this during her opening keynote, stating that “technology is one of the saviours for the delivery of services” in a rapidly changing world, as aggregated data can inform strategic, long-term planning and solutions. The interactive discussions that followed highlighted the benefits of gender inclusion, strategic partnerships and business models, and smart, data-driven technologies and trends in the water space. We explore some of the high-level findings and overarching trends below.
From Water Consumers to Resourceful Managers: Shifting Societal Mindset
There are many historical causes and social norms that reinforce the exclusion of women. Ritika Chopra, Acting Gender Advisor (USAID) remarked that women often do not participate due to limited access to information or skills, but that “women should be seen as more than mere water consumers.” This will require a societal shift in mindset that starts at the household and community levels - but should be supplemented by a top-down approach, through government policies that elevate women as “leaders, changemakers, and resourceful managers.” Chopra also urged the active involvement of men in this process which was echoed by other speakers, with Sewak stating that isolating women in leadership is a defeating factor, and Pia Yasuko Rask, Director of SafeWater (Grundfos) adding that “alienating men could be detrimental.” Mutual respect and cross-sectoral collaboration are fundamental to success.
Innovative Business Models and Private Sector Engagement as Smart Water Drivers
Pooja Thakran, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (Honeywell), discussed their corporate-level business drivers to address India’s water crisis. Honeywell conceptualised a four-pillar approach consisting of, 1) improving public health, 2) helping local businesses in their communities, 3) creating goodwill to improve their brand positioning in the market, and 4) enabling the right connections in business and government. This CSR approach for supporting water development in India aims to spread the economic and social benefits across diverse stakeholders.
Thakran added that technology plays a pivotal role in creating a holistic approach and that women must be seen as central to managing the water ecosystem to ensure innovative perspectives are considered. She stated, “technology ensures there is a regular supply of water and remote systems can lead to less than 2% downtime.” When asked about the impact of COVID-19, Thakran highlighted that many of Honeywell’s supported water ATMs were already remotely monitored and the impact was less drastic.
Pia Yasuko Rask commented that Grundfos is still trying to identify the best role to contribute. Rask argued that in supporting the world’s most vulnerable, the private sector should be prepared for their business model assumptions to fail. She referenced a public-private partnership in Ghana where customers were not able to pay for their water, leading to a critical question - who has the responsibility to pay when customers do not have an income? One alternative solution identified includes cross-subsiding water systems. Rask suggested the private sector should set the expectations and use data to back decisions.
Importance of Local Awareness and Cross-Sectoral Collaboration for Integrated Water Resource Managem
Praveena Sridhar, India Country Coordinator at FRANK Water, introduced the WASH Basin Connect app, a collaborative mobile phone GIS solution developed at a grassroots level by women for water monitoring that also leverages people as data sources (i.e., “human sensors”). She described the fragmented water sector in India, and suggested water “should be governed in unison.” Sridhar also warned that “while it is easy to get excited about the next big trends, everything should be considered within the context of the community” - women need strategically designed solutions relevant to their local situations and available assets.
From the insightful conversations, we discovered the increasing importance of collaboration as a key to enabling women, data and technology to thrive in the water sector. The development of collaborative solutions can help identify and address several challenges, while data management is imperative for the consolidation of information for actionable decision making.
Ultimately, cross-sectoral partnerships and an understanding of the local social dynamics are critical to delivering a wider and more inclusive impact. Yet, it should be noted that organisations in this space require funding to continue their efforts of integrating women, data and technology. This event clearly demonstrated the need for women to be an active part of the planning, deployment, and overall management of water services.
At SWAN, we explore use cases of how data sciences are contributing to smart water systems, with a growing interest in emerging markets and the role of women in the water sector. We invite you to learn more about the SWAN India Alliance here.