The Humanising of Rural Water Supply in Africa
by Alan Malina
Attempts have been made over the last two decades to provide improved water sources to rural communities in Africa. Various stumbling blocks have prevented the rural populations from fully benefiting from these improvements, in part because what was seen as a technical problem is now more linked to a human problem.
Initially, the problem was thought to be purely technical/technological. The main technology adopted in rural areas has been the handpump installed on a borehole. Thus, the problems were thought to be associated with the drilling the boreholes, with handpump installation, with the quality of the handpumps. It was thought that the communities either would spontaneously organise themselves to collect funds and maintain the handpumps or the government would take on this task.
Gradually, it was found that the technical aspects were relatively simple to deal with, i.e. existing technology could drill the boreholes without major problems, many areas were found to have water at a shallow enough depth to allow extraction by the handpumps (less than 60m) which could be installed without significant difficulty .
However, despite this after more than two decades of rural water supply projects, it was found that most of the water points were not being maintained. The main reasons for this were apparently :
Thus, since the early nineties various approaches are being adopted to try to overcome these difficulties.
First, attempts are being made to have the beneficiary community involved in the decision making process from the beginning. These attempts include:
The initial financial contribution is used to assist in understanding the need for funds for keeping a water point functioning as well as for the water committees to be involved from the beginning in fund management and to have funds immediately available to carry out maintenance tasks.
Local mechanics (e.g. bicycle repairmen) are trained in maintenance and repair of handpumps for which they are paid by the villagers, whilst many of the minor maintenance tasks can be carried by trained village caretakers,. Handpumps technology has been developed to be VLOM (Village Level Operation and Maintenance) with very few maintenance and repair tasks needing to be carried out by centralised, specialised machinery and technicians.
Efforts are being made to standardise handpumps within specific geographic areas to facilitate not only training in pump repair but to try to make spare parts distribution an economically viable exercise for local commercial enterprises. Contracts for the supply of handpumps also include provisions for the identification of local spare parts distributors.
The link between potable water and better health is harder to demonstrate The provision of clean water does not necessarily mean improved health as so many other factors are involved. In fact, it has been found that modifying the hygienic behaviour, by hand washing at specific times, of the main food preparer has more effect on the health of the family than anything else.
Gradually, it can be seen, the users of the rural water supply systems are becoming central to the provision of these systems.
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