The Grand Challengers Podcast Episode #7

There are no silver bullets for the toilet, city or life’s journey – just keep rowing

Guest: Abishek Sankara Narayan

March 28th, 2023


“Enthusiasm, unfortunately, as I realise, is also a scarce commodity, so while you have it, you really have to do something.”

In the face of an unpredictable future, we are all called upon each and every day to think of out-of-the box ways to tackle challenges to our environment, wellbeing or how to row row row your boat gently down the stream.

My guest today is Dr Abishek Sankara Narayan, a research scientist at the Department of Sanitation, Water and Solid Waste for Development at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology. Abishek is very active on research in the WASH Sector and has been working on integrated approaches for sustainable sanitation practices in the global south.

Today on the show, we learn more about how sanitation planning is rapidly evolving beyond the toilet and that integration is necessary if we want clean water for all. Abishek shares his experience with life plans and destiny and his hopes to one day row in a clean river in his home town in Chennai, India.


Dr Abishek Sankara Narayan is a researcher at Eawag. His research focusses on planning water and sanitation in the context of low- and middle-income countries. He primarily works on the topics of urban water management, citywide inclusive sanitation and integrated basic service provision. His transdisciplinary work has been in collaboration with several international organizations including the UN, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, SDC, GIZ, and the Gates Foundation.

Abishek finished his PhD on water & sanitation planning at ETH Zurich and has a background in engineering and water management from Anna University in India and Oxford University in the UK. He is also a visiting/guest lecturer at Oxford, EPF Lausanne and IHE Delft. He leads the working group on Cities at the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) and is on the board of the Swiss Water Partnership, where he coordinates youth activities.

Abishek particularly supports science communication and youth engagement in the water sector. His passion for all things water came from founding the Clean Adyar Initiative, a citizen action group for restoring a river in Chennai, India. He is a recipient of the Green Talents Award, Commonwealth Scholarship, Skoll Fellowship, St. Gallen Leader of Tomorrow Award, and is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

Resources Related to the Episode

(Disclosure: Links on this page to “View on Amazon” are Affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.)

  • The meaning of a silver bullet for those who are unfamiliar with the term
  • A quick few infos about Liechtenstein:
  • The geography of Chennai, India [Wikipedia]
  • The geography of Zurich, Switzerland [Wikipedia]
  • SANDEC Official Page from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (known as Eawag for short)
  • The WASH Sector
    • UNICEF Page on WASH [Link]
    • World Health Organization (WHO) Page on WASH [Link]
    • Eawag’s MOOC Series on WASH [Link]
  • The Clean Adyar Initiative [Facebook Group Page]
  • Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS)
    • Abishek’s Introduction to CWIS for an online course [YouTube]
    • WorldBank’s Page on CWIS including some nice examples [Link]
    • Abishek’s policy brief: Lüthi, C. and Narayan, A.S., 2018. Citywide inclusive sanitation: achieving the urban water SDGs. Perspectives Integrated Policy Briefs: Urban Waters—How Does Water Impact and is Impacted by Cities and Human Settlements, pp.11-13. [Link]
    • Narayan, A.S., Maurer, M. and Lüthi, C., 2021. The clean plan: analysing sanitation planning in India using the CWIS planning framework. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development11(6), pp.1036-1047. [Link]
    • Schertenleib, R., Lüthi, C., Panesar, A., Büürma, M., Kapur, D., Narayan, A., Pres, A., Salian, P., Spuhler, D., Tempel, A. (2021) A Sanitation Journey – Principles, Approaches & Tools for Urban Sanitation [Link]
    • More about Christoph Lüthi [Eawag Profile Page]
  • The Swachh Bharat or “Clean India” Mission [More info] [Wikipedia]
  • The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (GatesFoundation) [Link]
  • Other Projects mentioned happening at Eawag:
    • Container-based Technology – the Eawag Toilet that Abishek discusses [Project Page]
    • Small-Scale Sanitation Scaling-up (4S) Project at Eawag [Project Page]
  • More about the Technology Readiness Level [Wikipedia]
  • Project WABES, all about integration: Narayan, A.S., Marks, S.J., Meierhofer, R., Strande, L., Tilley, E., Zurbrügg, C. and Lüthi, C., 2021. Advancements in and integration of water, sanitation, and solid waste for low-and middle-income countries. Annual review of environment and resources46, pp.193-219. [Link] [YouTube] (official page coming soon)
  • “Failing to plan is planning to fail” – variants of the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill [Link]
  • Abishek’s Podcast Recommendations:
    • The Huberman Lab Podcast [Link]
    • SDG Talks Podcast [Link]
    • The Stream with Will & Tom [Spotify]
    • The Seen and the Unseen [Link]
  • Some recommended books on Meditation and Yoga
    • James Nestor. Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art [View on Amazon]
    • Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever you go there you are – Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life [View on Amazon]
    • B.K.S. Iyengar. Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga [View on Amazon]
  • The 5 Balls of Life – often attributed to Sundar Pichai, but actually appears to have been mentioned in 1991 by Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson [Link]
  • Notion Notetaking App – Abishek and I use this app quite a lot, check it out here
  • Ikigai Philosophy – the Japanese secret to a long and happy life [View on Amazon]
  • Abishek’s Other Book Recommendations:
    • Tim Marshall. Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Politics of Place) [View on Amazon]
    • Fred Pearce. When the Rivers Run Dry: The Global Water Crisis and How to Solve It [View on Amazon]
    • Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies [View on Amazon]

Connect with Abishek Sanakara Narayan