Trying to Maintain

Over the past couple years, EWB has shifted from a individual placement approach to a team approach. This means that my past work in Thyolo, and the work I’ll be doing in the future, is not stand-alone. It’s part of a team effort, involving 2 other current volunteers, and several past volunteers too.

The issue we’re working on is called operation and maintenance (O&M), and when you get into it, it’s really a nightmare. O&M deals with the ability of people or institutions in Malawi to repair and maintain water sources. Right now, that ability isn’t too hot.

Researchers estimate that in Malawi, at any given time, 30%-50% of improved water sources (e.g. protected shallow wells, boreholes, taps from gravity fed systems) are broken down. My own field experience has confirmed the number at around 50%. Imagine…50% failure!

For every $1 that gets put into water, $0.50 ends up wasted – contributing to nothing more than a few years use and then a broken pump or tap. Worse, almost no one is dealing with this issue – which is why EWB is trying to step up to the plate.

The following pictures is my foil, my nemesis, my torment – a broken handpump. (In this case a broken AfriDev handpump, installed in 2004).

SDC14591

The aforementioned broken handpump / arch nemesis.

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The date of installation, just so you know that I’m not making this stuff up. (Unless you think I’ve got a lot of cement, and a lot of free time).

There are waaaayyyyyy too many reasons why these once innocent and wide-eyed handpumps end up in this kind of mess. So, welcome to a new post series: “Why Pumps Fail”.

(Bonus points for submitting more creative title suggestions. My first tries: “Pumped Up – Let Down: Distress and Disappointment in Community Water Supply”. Or maybe: “Washed Away: How Dreams of Safe Water Turn to Dust”. Anyways.)

With no further ado, the brief introductory issue of:

Why Pumps Fail (Part 1) or

Pumped Up – Let Down: Distress and Disappointment in Community Water

Today, the thing on my mind is community ownership versus private ownership.

In Malawi the target for people/pump is 250, meaning 250 people are responsible for using and maintaining 1 pump. Ok. What if they don’t all know each other? What if the pump is between two villages, and there is no coherent “community”? What if no one in the community feels like going to the trouble of collecting monthly payments, and doing repairs? What if the village headmen is an irresponsible drunk, and sabotages the whole process? What if the four most active and responsible people in the community are already on five other committees? And the list goes on.

Studies have shown that even if people feel “ownership” of their water supply, that doesn’t mean they’ll maintain it. Ownership does not eliminate the million problems that are created when that ownership is collective ownership.

Individual ownership – household level water supply – typically works much better. If you promote household level water technologies, and get households to pay for them, you’re much more likely to see them maintained.

Just think about it in Canada. If the tap in your kitchen breaks, you’d probably fix it. But if the watermain on your street broke? What would it take to get you and all your neighbours out on the street, chipping in money, buying spare parts, and fixing the problem. I’d be willing to bet just about anything it wouldn’t happen. But you’d all fix your kitchen sinks. Ownership, not collective ownership.

But hey, not every household in Malawi can afford to pay for its own water supply. And now how could we ever promote something, like household water supply technologies, that could actually work, if it won’t benefit everyone. That’s not the development way. Water is a right. Better to build a community managed hand pump that has a 50% chance of failure than to even think of promoting household level technologies that will be unevenly distributed. After all, since we’re not trying to make money, we have no real incentives anyways, so who cares if our project fails. At least we tried to do the right thing.

Ok, I’m being facetious now, and maybe even dangerously sarcastic. Community managed water can work. Right now it just doesn’t…50% of the time anyways. Where else but the African development sector could you have failure rates like that without losing your funding. But I digress. (Oh, and as a further digression, the “we” in the previous paragraph was a hypothetical “we” representing the development sector, not a specific “we” representing EWB or anyone I’ve worked with here).

Anyways, if you’re still interested in this stuff, then check out a short, powerful, and tangentially related read from a former EWB volunteer. I’m becoming more and more sympathetic with this kind of thing every day. Enjoy.

http://www.cashewman.com/2009/08/8-reasons-to-charge-people-for-your-development-solution/

Ok, enough. Happy reading.

Owen

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