This reviewer should really keep his big mouth shut, since he has a stake of sorts in this, the world's so far most extensive water supply, sanitation and hygiene programme, albeit most of the time since 1970 through 1990 at respectful distance in space and time. That notwithstanding, I would like to take the opportunity of this forum to highly recommend, nay, urge, anyone interested in the development, use and care for the world's increasingly overused freshwater resources, to procure and carefully peruse this book.
This warm recommendation goes not only for water and sanitation specialists, including health and hygiene educators, and medical minds -- it should be heeded by anyone, interested in making life more livable and enjoyable for fellow man, woman, and child. No matter, where you live or work, whether in India, where the action of this remarkable history is taking place, or anywhere else in the world.
Maggie Black's and Rupert Talbot's very recently (2005) published "Water -- A Matter of Life and Health" is a combination of development history, a major evaluation, and, by implication, guideline and handbook. It deals not only with the giant efforts, now sustained for almost forty years jointly by the Government of India in close partnership with a number of national and international organisations, non-governmental (NGOs), bi- and multilateral. Foremost among the latter is UNICEF, United Nations Childrens' Fund.
Apart from amply and convincingly explaining what connection there is between a distinctly humanitarian body, such as UNICEF, and, initially, mundane technical matters, such as pneumatic and hydraulic drill rigs, and latrines, sorry, I mean toilets, this well-written book shows on the one hand the complexity of any attempt to improve the quality of life of the poorest of communities. On the other hand, it shows the doability of seemingly impossible aims.
A third aspect is that of the many pros and cons, which cropped out successively in India, as they have done in other regions of the world. Among the pros, the will-you-won't-you integration of water and sanitation with an ever widened scope of community action, the all too slow, but increasing acceptation and empowerment of women to do work, theretofore a firm masculine prerogative.
Volumes could be written as for comments on this, at first sight modest-looking volume. I would leave it to the avid reader to explore the rich food for thought it contains. The final chapter, though, should be especially commended for its emphasis on what concerns should be addressed in the continuation, not only in India, but all over the world. Against the background of the continued global population increase and pressure on the natural and human resources, that chapter, "Water, Life, and Health: Where next?" deals, among the cons, with the ever diminishing quantity of freshwater available, and its deteriorating quality.
One needs not be a doomsday prophet to feel apprehensive about the future for people in India or elsewhere in the world, when fresh water, the most basic of commodities for life on our planet begins to dwindle, and become poisoned. Neither are Maggie Black, one of the most savvy writers ever on human development, nor Rupert Talbot, one of the best practitioners for water and sanitation in development, any purveyors of doom and gloom. They do not provide any patent solutions, but they derive distinct recommendations for remedies to a difficult situation, not always well known to the world outside the villages and shantytowns of the increasingly impatient humanity, which half of the world's population is confined to.
"Water -- A Matter of Life and Health" should be in the hands of everybody involved or at least interested in making life easier and more pleasurable. For that sake, one would hope for some benevolent donor or donors to fund translations into other languages, as well as to help lower the price or even get it distributed for free for the readership in the developing countries. This may be utopian, but the cost would probably not exceed that of a howitzer or a truckload of Kalashnikovs.
Finally, in the light of the ongoing public debate around the justification and need for reform of the United Nations [system], this little book shows, incomplete and inadequate in many respects that institution may be, what with relatively modest means can be achieved by single nations and their people with the support of the UN system. Not the least -- as for the more ferocious critics among politicians and media moguls -- that'll learn them!
In that context, there are a couple of other highly valid books I would recommend for good supplementary reading about the aims, achievements and future potential of the fragile UN. without shying awary from its problems: Maggie Black's two histories of UNICEF, "The Children and the Nations" (UNICEF, New York, 1986), and "Children First" (Oxford University Press, 1996), and (Sir) Brian Urquhart's biography of Dag Hammarskjold, along with the same author's own memoirs, "A Life in Peace and War". They could or should all be found, no doubt, through Amazon's good services.