Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ghosts from the Past

This last week I have been roaming the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains, trying to wrap my head around how we will design a gravity flow water system for the community here. Yesterday, while walking the proposed pipeline, our team came across an unexpected site - a water tank, just like one we're proposing to build a few kilometers away. What was it doing here?

Turns out it's a reservoir tank for a defunct gravity flow system. The tank looked old, but when I walked around it I found plastic HDPE pipe sticking out of the ground. HDPE has only been used in these systems for the last 30 years or so, clearly dating the system as installed after 1980 or so. Not that old.

The tank (notice the pipe in foreground). Click for larger image
I then asked the headmaster of the school when the system failed. "A while back," he said in typical non-specific Ugandan English (I'm trying to get used to this and reformulate my questions to get the answers I need). He did tell me though that it was built in 1994. It's only 15 years old! And it doesn't work anymore.

Seeing the tank got me worried: why did the system fail? What could have prevented it? Will our system look like this in 15 years? These kind of follow up questions are extremely important for designing a better system than last time. Unfortunately, we don't have the time or the resources to investigate.

Lastly, some of our system will serve people that used to be served by the broken system. Is that the best use of resources? Might it not be cheaper to investigate why the old system failed and fix it? That would likely cost far less in materials. Unfortunately, such work is beyond the scope of our time and money. So our project will replace the old. It's perhaps not the best solution, but may be the only one available for now. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" has crossed my mind.

There is a good chance that our project will succeed where the previous one failed, mainly because of ownership. ACTS conducts its projects so that the community will claim ownership of the system for long after it's gone. Ownership is created in three ways: first, the community participates in construction through building the work camp, digging trenches for the pipe, and excavating for the storage tanks. Secondly, the community is asked to create a water committee for administration. The water committee is responsible for collecting user fees and conducting repairs when needed. The committee is setup before construction begins. Obviously, the user fees are critical to long-term operation. Lastly, ACTS provides training for health and agricultural workers to improve the overall health of the community. These workers will retain knowledge and skills after ACTS has left.

ACTS has been operating in Uganda for over 20 years, with every system built still operational. That's quite an achievement, given the increasing number of inoperative systems I've been finding here.

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