We just saw it out of the corner of our eye as we were bombing down a dusty road in the district of Kamwenge. Out here in Western Uganda, it's so normal, that you'd just pass by without thinking anything of it. It was merely a pipe sticking up out of the ground overgrown by weeds. Unremarkable in its ubiquity. We slammed on the breaks and threw it in reverse, then jumped out of the van to see yet another broken well.
In this district, 43% of wells are broken.
(Photo: Kyle Westaway)
We take clean water for granted. We turn a faucet and clean water magically appears. That's not the case for over a billion people around the globe. Their daily routine includes filling up five jerry cans - 20 liters each - of water everyday and hauling them back to their homes to drink, cook, wash and bath with. If a well breaks, they have to use the next best option, which is a "scoop hole" - an open water source, like a stream or unimproved spring, of contaminated water. At such a scoop hole, I witnessed a group of women dipping their jerry cans into water that had a layer of diesel fuel sitting on the surface. This is the water that they will be drink and give to the very infants strapped to their backs.
Why are so many wells broken?
Imagine this scenario. Say you and your neighborhood of fifty households desperately needed transportation, but you didn't have the money to buy a car. Then one day, out of the blue, somebody you don't know comes from another country and gives you a car. There is great fanfare and people are taking your pictures. And then they're gone, and you have a car. Which is great! You figure out how to use it and share it, and for the most part it works. Your lives are improved because you have access to transportation. But unfortunately, none of you have the knowhow or money to change the oil. So eventually, after a year or so, the engine seizes up and you can't get it started again. So it just sits on the side of the road where it broke down. And you and your community are back to walking.
Digging a well is incredibly important (and more are needed), but it's not enough. This sounds obvious, but is so often overlooked - wells need to be maintained, or, just like the car without an oil change, they will eventually break down.
The reality on the ground is that governments don't have nearly enough resources to maintain all the wells, and NGOs have moved on to dig the next well. Digging wells is sexy. Donors get excited about that, but it's way less sexy to ask donors support the maintenance of wells. So they just keep digging more wells. And they continue to break. The typical life for a well in this district is less than three years. The governments aren't able to take ownership and the NGOs are unwilling. So the community must.
As a member of the board of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit focused on innovative solutions for poverty, I joined our team on this trip to search for the answer to one simple question... What does it take to ensure consistent, long-term access to clean water?
Enter Diana Keesiga.
Diana grew up in a small village in far Western Uganda close to the border of Democratic Republic of Congo. As a child, she, like so many others, had to resort to drinking from a scoop hole when her well broke. Due to her wit and hard work, she was able to attend great schools, where she rose to the top of her class. She earned a scholarship to the best university in Uganda where she graduated with a first-class degree in civil engineering. Rather than take a job in the capital city of Kampala, she chose to take a position with Water For People in rural Western Uganda to train and empower local entrepreneurs to take ownership and maintain wells.
Diana is working with the local district government to institute a "pay-as-you-fetch" system. Under this system, a water entrepreneur is granted responsibility for individual wells by the local government. He or she has the authority to charge a fee of 100 Ugandan Shilling (4 cents) per Jerry can, which is five percent of household income. The water entrepreneur has the responsibility to maintain and rehabilitate the well. Since a well needs to be completely rehabilitated about once a decade, half of the revenues are placed into a savings account that can only be tapped for this purpose.
A key aspect to the pay-as-you-fetch system is the installation of a low tech, but innovative piece of technology. Each of well is fitted with a tamperproof water meter that tracks the flow. This ensures that revenues are collected and the proper amount is set aside in an account for future repairs. Surprisingly, the transparent measurement of water flow at the source has never been done before.
The net result is consistent access to clean water. Last week one well broke down, but rather than being abandoned, it was up and running in a matter of hours. Wilson, a local resident commented, "when you transfer ownership from the government to a human being, he makes sure that the water keeps flowing, because if it doesn't flow his family doesn't eat."
This approach creates jobs for the water entrepreneur catalyzing for upward social mobility for his or her family. Their children are healthy and stay in school and have better opportunities for the future. Most importantly, the community moves from dependence on NGOs or the government to independence.
The pay-as-you-fetch model is still in an early stage pilot, so, there is still a great deal to learn. As with any new innovation, there will be challenges along the way. But Diana is not content to sit idly by and watch her country return to the scoop hole. She is committed to charting a new course for sustainable access to clean water in Uganda for generations to come.
(Photo: Becky Straw)