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WaterHubs: modular infrastructure for urban slums

Water & sanitary community infrastructure solution for high-density urban slums that can modularly scale to serve 1000-50,000 people.

Photo of Saurabh Saraf
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

Over a billion people live in slums worldwide with little or no access to basic infrastructure services including improved sanitation or drinking water. With increasing urbanization tremendous negative consequences on the environment, society (health, education, crime and livelihoods) as well as the economy will be put on cities. Conventional infrastructure, especially in developing countries is not in a position to deal with this change and hence WaterHubs as a solution is an imperative for sustainable growth of developing cities (including slums) and their inhabitants. WaterHub, is a modular infrastructure solution that enables community to get access to basic services in a decentralized fashion. We focus on closing the water, food, waste and energy loops by integrating novel technologies in a system It therefore combines: - Community services (toilet, shower, healthcare, education etc) - Sewage treatment & water recycling - Nutrient & energy recovery from organic waste The solution ensures resource sustainability, caters to basic services, reduces open defecation and the associated health & environmental risks, while decentralization enhances the resilience of the area. WaterHubs for individual neighbourhoods can serve 1,000 to 50,000 people but as decentralized, distributed networks they can cover slums even up to a 1 million population.

WHO BENEFITS?

WaterHubs would benefit slum community with access to affordable services and resources, cities by ensuring environmental and societal benefits, and also governments in helping them meet their goals. The idea will be implemented in high-density urban or peri-urban slum communities where there is a need for the services we provide along with presence of basic infrastructure. We have started with India.

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

WaterHubs will be implemented in partnership with different stakeholder groups. This includes the community itself, local government and community based organisations. Although we have our expertise in engineering (technology) we feel that social engineering, community mobilization and support are equally important elements for the success of WaterHubs. We are also open to new technologies from suppliers that can be one of the modules offered by the hub and enhance its function. In our current efforts we have started with approaching community based organisations in India along with potential financiers. These organisation have the trust of the community and in-depth understanding of issues. This helps us in better co-creation. From design perspective we have prepared a list of factors that should influence the design (in a specific cultural context). For e.g., we want to offer a systemic solution (and not narrow down on one aspect) with a modular approach (implying flexibility of scale as well as function). On a technical level we focus very much on how resources can be utilised within the boundaries of the system with less wastage while overall we choose modules that are needed by the community (and not just imposing something).

IN-COUNTRY EXPERIENCE

  • Yes, for two or more years

EXPERTISE

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for between one and two years

GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS

  • Yes

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF

I am currently leading the development of WaterHubs in partnership with a Hungarian water technology company Biopolus. The development is also supported by other organisations viz. University of Toronto, Imperial College London and Climate-KIC.

IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?

I am devoting fulltime in development of WaterHubs since the last 1.5 years and its currently in early stages. We don’t have a WaterHubs prototype yet and that’s where most of my efforts are being spent. We have, since the last six months, started speaking with stakeholders in India (relevant municipal representatives, sanitation service providers, slum dwellers etc) to refine our offerings in order to cater to the market needs. The initial year was devoted to developing a basic understanding of the market, selection of appropriate technologies, identifying relevant stakeholders and zeroing down on locations.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?

In our research we have found many enterprises, organisations and even NGOs that are working in the slum development and sanitation sector. Although they do cater to different parts of the problem but none has offered to holistically deal with urban sanitation and water infrastructure the way we do. Rather other approaches, to our assessment are piecemeal solutions to a significantly bigger issue of resource crunch, environmental degradation and societal development. The idea to integrate resource flows into a bundled infrastructure product, based on biological manufacturing, is itself unique and has till now only been a subject of discussions in high level meetings of multi-lateral organisations. What we are providing is a one-shot tangible solutions to plethora of problems and issues faced by millions living in slums today. We believe our approach is league apart compared to the status-quo for the following reasons: • Effective decentralization • Circularity & Integration • Modularity (attached pics of a slum community block (TPM) in Santacruz, Mumbai who are trying to integrate social services with sanitation).

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

What we are still struggling with: 1. Defining the exact business model since different locations differ by culture, geography and relative importance of stakeholders. 2. What strategy to adopt in terms of the spread of WaterHubs. For e.g. focusing on one location/country for some years before moving to other locations or simultaneously targeting different countries. 3. What are the costs that aren’t prohibitive for our customers, in terms of establishment of WaterHubs. 4. to focus on developing the designs/technologies for establishing WaterHubs only or also involve ourselves in its operations?

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Over 800 million people still live in urban slums worldwide and are expected to grow. Governments have failed to provide these people with adequate access to resources and infrastructure services. This along with economic and space constraints slum dwellers have to adopt unhealthy means to meet there basic needs. WaterHubs intends to be an alternative infrastructure hub for such slums grappled by space constraints. We want to provide multiple services & resources in community infrastructure blocks. Rather than going the conventional way of building things from scratch by displacing people, WaterHubs can be pre-fabricated and installed at locations of choice.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?

We focused on India for community feedback. In particular we visited slums in the cities of Mumbai and Pune that lie in the western parts of India. All together we visited 4 slums and multiple community toilet blocks. We spoke with the following stakeholders 1. Slum community members 2. Sanitation service providers 3. Municipal authorities. The methods used to elicit information were: a. Observatory tours b. One-on-one interviews a. Open and general questions b. Deeper questions 4. Group interviews 5. Activities We gained a lot in getting feedback from stakeholders and it won’t be possible to pen everything down in this space on our methodology and results. None the less, many of our assumptions were validated and new insights gained that will only help us in making our offerings better and more suited to the actual beneficiaries. In essence, lots of community and public toilet facilities which are slowly facing the tides of time and water is running out and rather becoming a scarce commodity. It is also expensive to get regular supplies of water as, 1. Water tankers cant get inside all the urban slums. 2. Municipal supplies are intermittent and dependent on rain 3. Space is a general issue faced by community blocks. We are thus focused on developing a low cost sewage recycling unit that is frugal in terms of space requirements. Apart from that we have come up with design factors that should guide the development and operation of WaterHubs.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

What if urban slums could be served with basic infrastructure services like sanitation, water, energy and social provisions just like in a developed urban area. What if it this could be developed without conventional methods and high investment costs? What if we can put an end to open defecation and ensure basic living standards for all? These are a few things that we intend to achieve with WaterHubs.

Attachments (1)

WaterHubs_2015.pdf

A concept note explaining WaterHubs and the team behind.

This inspired (1)

GaiaBones

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Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Saurabh!

Below is some feedback from our experts who have reviewed your idea. We'd love to hear your response!

This type of idea has been tried with varying success across the developing world. Sanergy, Clean team, etc. I would love to know what you are doing to learn from the successes and failures of the myriad models out there to ensure they are doing the best practices in an existing field.

How are you connected to the communities you intend to serve with this idea? Have you piloted or tested any part of this idea so far? 

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