This description of Ajaya Dixit's work was prepared when Ajaya Dixit was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991.
Ajaya Dixit is a practical engineer working to bring safe drinking water within easy reach of Nepal's poor families, initially by conserving the rainwater falling during the monsoons on each household's roof. He is also bringing together other practical workers concerned with intelligent water resource management.
The New Idea
Getting safe drinking water to a family on a daily basis makes an enormous difference. Polluted water leads to chronic illness; if safe water is only available an hour's trek away in a stream at the bottom of the mountainside, a mother must add tiring hours to an already hard work schedule every day, which means that something else, very probably child care, suffers.Ajaya Dixit is applying his engineering and communications skills to help his country make optimal use of the ample rains that fall during the four monsoon months. He has created and edits Water Nepal, a practical journal reporting and evaluating actual experiments, written by and for practitioners like himself. He is also developing his own appropriate technological innovations.Ajaya's chief focus over the next several years will be the introduction of very simple, inexpensive household rainwater catchment and storage systems. In other parts of Asia, such as Thailand, catchment drains edging the roofs, simple filters, and large storage jars are a common sight. However, this idea has not caught on in Nepal and nearby areas.Ajaya thinks he can bridge the gap.He has begun by developing a new, extremely simple underground storage tank that costs only one-tenth as much as a low-cost, ferro-cement cistern of equivalent capacity. The key ingredient is a large tube of plastic sheeting, now manufactured in Nepal in substantial diameters, which is sealed except for intake and outlet valves. A brick-reinforced sloping earthen cavern protects the water from animals, the sun, and pollutants. Gravity is the only energy required.Given average roof sizes and typical rainfalls, Ajaya believes this simple technology can store enough rainwater to water a household vegetable plot during the dry two-thirds of the year, as well as provide a secure source of safe drinking water year-round.Developing and spreading this technology will take a number of years of considerable effort. However, it is only a part of a larger package of new ideas, technologies, and incentives that are needed if the country is to use its water more sensibly. Ajaya will pursue these other opportunities directly as time permits and indirectly by stimulating his fellow practitioners.
According to government statistics, only thirty five percent of Nepalis have access to adequate, modern water supply systems. Even those who have benefited from these investments, including much of Kathmandu's population, often do not have reliable, safe supplies. Some communities have not been able to maintain the systems that were installed. In other areas, an expanding population has outgrown the capacity of either the source of the water or the delivery system. Even where quantity has been adequate, quality problems are endemic. As the forests have been cut and Himalayan erosion has accelerated dramatically, turbidity problems, especially during the monsoons, have worsened. As the hills consequently now retain less water, stream volumes have declined during the dry months, increasing pollutant concentrations as well as reducing supplies.In this situation, household self-help through rainwater conservation offers one of the only options through which millions of Nepalis can solve their problem. Their doing so would have enormous social as well as private benefits.However, getting households to take such an initiative will not be easy. Nepalis, citizens of one of the world's six poorest countries, have very little capacity to invest. Moreover, they traditionally prefer to drink from running, not still, water.The country faces a huge water resources management challenge, as the need for household rainwater conservation illustrates.
Ajaya's strategic plan has two main thrusts: to build awareness and allies, and to identify and put in place some of the key solutions. The two thrusts are interrelated and interdependent. Ajaya is trying to bring practitioners together, first through Water Nepal and, second, by encouraging his colleagues to collaborate in the exchange and use of ideas. The necessary impetus behind this would be a growing group of professionals working together, discovering new ideas and tools, and eventually winning public support.However, professionals need clients. Ajaya thinks that the early clients are likely to be private citizen groups, especially those working to speed development, protect the environment, and improve public health. He feels they are likely to be major actors in spreading his rainwater conservation model after he has demonstrated it successfully. Consequently, he is actively reaching out to find the right supporters in these organizations.Ultimately, Ajaya hopes that the government will put its weight behind his and his colleagues' ideas once they have been more fully demonstrated. Because some of the needed innovations will have significant public as well as private benefits, he plans to argue for appropriate incentives to further speed the needed changes.For all this to happen, however, Ajaya must first prove his ideas. He is starting with the two regions of Nepal with the worst water problems: first, the foothills closest to the plains because their streams are the first to dry up and, later, the high mountains where villages are located near the top of terraced slopes, far from the small streams below.In these areas, he will seek out particularly enterprising families and encourage them to be the first to try his conservation model. Not only do they have the resources, but others will feel comfortable following their lead. These families' intelligent use of the model, moreover, should lead to helpful evaluation and suggestions by the families and the community.As these early demonstrations proceed, Ajaya will share the results broadly through Water Nepal and with his own contacts with support groups and allegiances he has formed. They, in turn, will become key distributors of the model, quickly followed, it is hoped, by commercial emulators.
Ajaya's seriousness and sense of service began at an early age, as members of his family were dedicated public servants. More telling, when his father died in a plane crash, he took up the responsibility of educating his younger siblings.Ajaya earned a B.S. in civil engineering in India and later a master's degree in hydrology from the University of Glasgow. He has published a book on hydrology and taught at the Institute of Engineering in Kathmandu. Ajaya's familial responsibilities kept him at the institute for years. However, he never fit the scholar's mold. Although he wrote and published, his energies were directed toward teaching (he was recognized as the best teacher at the Institute) or to the actual application of his profession toward the country's pressing needs.He is finally free to provide the leadership Nepal needs to make more intelligent use of its critical water resources.