As basic as water


Steve Portigal was observant enough to take this photograph of the commodes at the Asilomar Resort where we’d had the Overlap Unconference and it started a train of thought. On water, naturally, as a natural resource. And how different societies approach it, depending on their infrastructure for it’s availability.

For my part, I just wished I’d thought to take a photograph of it too. As soon as I saw it, I thought "Cascade" – a design that was launched very successfully by the Indian sanitaryware manufacturer EID Parry’s. The Parryware brand is ubiquitious in India. [yes, I must confess to having filed away numerous different brands I’ve seen over the years, there are usually only one or two major brands in any geographical market]

So I tried to look for the one that Steve describes in his blog, since it’s inability to control the amount of water used is what made me realize it wasn’t a Cascade. Anyway, I digress, and it made me think about why the Cascade had been such a hit in India.

It was the first product launched that focused on a very fundamental need in the Indian market – the lack of consistent pressure in water supply, and also consistent water supply in most places. Most major cities like Mumbai, New Delhi or Bangalore have certain hours when water ‘comes’ in the taps from the municipal corporation or body responsible for the city’s water. The supply for regular flushing in homes that use the ‘English’ or ‘Western’ style commode is then dependent on the amount in the overhead or other water storage tank. [an unusual design market in it’s own right that took off with a branded product outperforming the cheaper, unbranded competition] For most homes, until the water supply again comes the next day (usually for just an hour or two, and in some locations for an hour every two days!) they must conserve the water in the tank along with whatever else they may save for drinking, washing and cooking. Yet here in California, the cistern design [apparently one of the most efficient, consuming about 70% less water than the usual flushing system] was unusual and rare.

Water is treated differently, as an abstract concept. It’s a commodity, unless branded at a premium, but a plentiful and harmless commodity nonetheless, in the United States. This cultural difference in the way I approach water, particularly for drinking, as say, an American friend the other day, who calmly drank the water from the tap. That was when I realized the message that had been ingrained in me as much as the old "look to the left, look to the right, then look to the left again" refrain used to teach me how to cross the road as a child.

"Don’t drink water straight from the tap. It can kill you" was the message. "Don’t waste the water. Don’t throw it away. Find out how you can reuse it."

When I was doing research on the Whirlpool World Washer case study, I found that if someone could just design a water tank attached to the bottom of the washing machine that would recycle the rinse water and reuse the soapy water for two or three loads of wash, these machines would fly off the shelves in India as soon as they were placed there. Hmmm, I wonder if capturing the thought in a blog is as admissible as a signed and dated notebook entry for patenting purposes? 🙂

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4 Responses to As basic as water

  1. An earlier toilet post that you may have been looking for is

  2. Niti,your sensibilities about the use of water are analogous to ours here in South Africa. Steve, as usual demonstrates a rare ablity to be objective about things most Americans take for granted. Here (and remember, South Africa is not “Africa”; the difference is acute most of the time) we’re used to drinking straight from the tap since the water supply is consistent and clean. However this is a dry country where conservation and rampant materialism driven by rapid economic growth clash every day. I’ve seen water-aware inventions of all sorts, particularly low-water or no-water toilets but few of them gain acceptance. There are many reasons but two of the most visible are a lack of the sensibilities the three of us share about conservation and an aspiration that prizes Western-style waste as a measure of success.

  3. niti bhan says:

    Thanks, Steve.
    Tasos, you have identified, I believe, a key issue here, one that I believe, would require a change of attitude at the source level, for it to filter through to other societies.
    You said:
    “an aspiration that prizes Western-style waste as a measure of success.”

  4. Satya says:

    I guess sometime ago, there were views from C K Prahlad about detergent powders which use less water. Few products did come up and they did good.
    I find your idea of water conserving washing machines brilliant.

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