OK, so the team that I will be joining is the Water and Sanitation sector team in Malawi. Very exciting! At present I would have to say that my knowledge of the team mainly consists of reading and book learning, but I have confidence that will be changing imminently. Until then, here is some book learning knowledge:
Of all the areas that Engineers Without Borders is currently working on, Water and Sanitation is perhaps the sector team that people in the Engineering profession can relate to the easiest. Generally the idea people get when they hear ‘Engineers’ combined with ‘Water & Sanitation’ is some sort of infrastructure project consisting of drilling water wells, water treatment plants and sewage systems. As it turns out, the infrastructure component of water & sanitation is not going to be the focus of what I’ll doing while on this placement. The simplest way to describe the reason for this is that the problem is the software, not the hardware.
To elaborate, there has been development work taking place in Malawi for at least half a century now. Compared against many other countries in Africa, Malawi has reasonably good water resources present, and the technology needed to turn those resources into clean, safe drinking water has been around for decades, particularly the simple boreholes that work well for rural settings. Despite that, about 25% of boreholes in Malawi are non-functional, and a third of the people in Malawi don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: An NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) comes in on a contract basis to drill 50 boreholes at a cost of $10,000 each. The NGO goes in to the country, picks some locations, may or may not consult with the local village leaders, and then goes and drills the 50 boreholes and installs 50 waterpumps. The NGO is happy because they completed the terms of their contract, and the aid agency who funded them is happy because they have completed, easily verifiable project that they can promote in order to obtain more funding.
The people of the village, meanwhile, have woken up to find they have a new water well in their community. It works well for the first year or two, then something breaks. There’s no qualified mechanic in the village, and since the well doesn’t ‘belong’ to anyone in the village there is no one to take responsibility for fixing it. Further, if the well is a non-standard design there may not be spare parts available for it, and besides it’s not up to the village to repair it since it’s the ‘white-men’s well’ and it’s thus up to the white-men who drilled it to repair it. So the well doesn’t get repaired and the village is back to where they started.
A few years later a different NGO comes in that’s working for a different aid agency and drills a new well in the village, not knowing about the previous well since all the NGOs operate independently. Thus another $10,000 is spent on a new well rather than $100 to repair the existing one, and the cycle repeats itself.
So that’s the history of development that we’re trying to avoid. Instead, Engineers Without Borders’ approach on the water side of things basically has three focus areas to it:
- The Local Level: Work with local village leaders and local area mechanics to put in place strategies for maintaining and repairing water points. This could involve things like establishing a maintenance fund, establishing a budget and fee collection system, and promoting the use of standardized pump designs to ensure that spare parts are available.
- The District Level: One of the key focus areas here is a water point mapping and monitoring system which has the objective of identifying the location and current status of all the water wells in a given district. By doing this it becomes possible to do a proper analysis on which wells need repairing and where the need is for new wells.
- The National Level: At this level we’re using our contacts and credibility we’ve obtained from working at the lower levels to promote the idea of ‘evidence based decision making’ which is basically a way of saying that politicians should be making decisions on how to allocate water sector funding based on real data, and not which district has the most powerful politician.
The other area the team is working on is sanitation, but here as well the focus is less about building infrastructure and more about creating sustainable behavior changes that motivate the people in these areas to improve their sanitation situation for themselves. A such, the main initiative we’re focused on right now is called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) which is basically agents going in to villages and conducting educational ‘triggering’ events where the connection is made between open defecation and the transmission of disease into the food and drinking water. The idea is that once the villagers understand there is a connection between those two things, then they’ll be motivated for themselves to take steps towards improving the state of sanitation in their villages.