Lexington — The problem is massive. More than a billion people live without access to clean water and more than 2.5 billion don’t have access to sanitation facilities.
Lexington resident Lotika Paintal recognized the urgency behind the need of so many for accessible sanitation, personal hygiene, and clean water. For a year, when she worked for the Clinton Foundation, Paintal toured eight countries to see the extent of the problem.
To help change the problem and build a model for cultures to have better access to clean water and toilets, Paintal founded Water Centric, and opened an office in Lexington.
“We just started in 2008,” said Paintal who has focused her initial energy on helping schools. “It is an amazing amount of people who die and get sick from water born disease every day and every year. We started thinking about if someone was to make a difference, where would they start. Children in many countries come to school, theses schools don’t have water available. We thought that would be a good place to provide facilities and then teach them hygiene education.”
Paintal decided to develop a model in 10 schools in one of the worst parts of Delhi, India. Paintal said she toured one school, which taught about 1,000 girls. When she asked the school’s male principal what problems were facing the school, he took her outside and showed her.
“These girls are squatting outside, on the ground and I see four toilets that are locked up and that’s it. I asked him why these four toilets were locked up, he said, ‘they were built four years ago, they promised that the city sewer would be built but … it hasn’t,’” said Paintal.
To address the school’s problem, Paintal helped install a septic tank so the four toilets could function. She also built two additional toilets for the school. Which, according to Paintal, still wasn’t enough but was still much better than what was previously available.
The issue is especially important for girls. According to Paintal, in many countries, girls teach hygiene to their families and are also responsible for supplying water. The situation girls face when they don’t have basic facilities is harsh, intimidating, and can cause girls to drop out prematurely from school, according to Paintal.
“As far as school goes, if you squat outdoors, you can get rocks thrown at you from the males. When girls get older and they hit puberty, [the situation] is almost impossible … they don’t go to school for five days at a time, then they drop out.”
Sanitation, apart from being a source for human dignity, is a serious health issue. According to Water Centric’s website, diarrhea and other illnesses spread from contaminated water account for 1.8 million deaths per year. The vast majority of these deaths take the lives of children under five.
In many cases, basic equipment upgrades and education are better solutions than waiting for a large infrastructure project to be approved and completed, said Paintal.
“Rather than leaning towards some fantastic technology … or some big infrastructure projects, just the simple basics of water [are needed],” said Paintal. “Getting toilets to them, making it a priority in these developing nations.”
Water Centric works as a bridge organization between fundraising efforts in the United States and local NGOs on the ground in India. Paintal goes to India to oversee development and assist with the organization’s work three or four times a year.
“We work with a small NGO in India … they insure construction is done and they monitor hygiene. We have some collaboration with government officials who are in charge with the schools,” said Paintal. “We do training with the principals, we train teachers.”
Paintal has a Master’s in Education in international development from Harvard and another Master’s degree in intercultural relations from Leslie University. She has worked for Oxfam – one of the world’s larges NGOs – and was one of five people tasked with learning about the issue of sanitation for the William J. Clinton Foundation. She has worked in the non-profit field for 10 years.
“This problem really got to me,” said Paintal. “I couldn’t believe that systematically things weren’t being done.”
After talking to experts and traveling around the world to look into the problem, Paintal concluded that the best way to help impact the problem was to start her own NGO.
“It never really struck me how big an issue it is and how basic it is,” said Paintal. “Lets just get them water and toilets and a clean life.”