Saturday, November 28, 2009

Clean Water, Almost There

Being an engineer, I find it extremely satisfying to participate in construction projects. As foundations are laid or equipment installed, I can take pride in knowing that I'm part of the team that put the infrastructure up. This satisfaction was the best aspect of my previous job, and one of my favorite parts of the work I'm doing in Uganda and DR Congo.

My last day in Goma was a day for construction, and we set about the work with great vigor. All the material had arrived for the water filter, and now it was time to get about putting it all together. The first step was to dig out rock for the foundation of the metal stand which was to hold the filter (the purpose of which is to allow the water to travel by gravity from the roof, through the filter, and into the 250 liter storage tank). To my great surprise, one can actually bust up lava rock if you hit it enough with a pick axe. It's something they're quite used to doing in the lava fields of Goma.

Not surprisingly, the digging took most of the day. Once complete, we erected the metal stand and placed the 500 liter water tank (filter) on top. We then connected the gutters and began adding gravel at the bottom of the tank (click here for more detail on how a slow sand filter works). Unfortunately, it became clear that we were a little short on gravel. The day was also running short, so our work had to come to an end. We left the drain valve on the bottom of the tank open to allow the coming rains to wash the gravel. If all goes well (fingers crossed!) the filter will be finished in the coming weeks by the Heal Africa technical staff. I hope to return in February to evaluate the work and verify completion.

With the enormous support of donors from the US and the technical staff here, there is now a filter to allow women to collect drinking water from their homes instead of walking 2+ km to fetch their water. While it will only be available during the rainy season, it should be of tremendous help. Very satisfying work indeed!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Most people know that when you go to do work in a "developing" country, things operate differently. Projects move slower, priorities are different, and you have to navigate a new and foreign environment. Unfortunately corruption is another common feature of doing work in such a region, and it costs a lot. The price comes in two ways: from the corruption itself, and when legitimate enterprises try to adapt in response.

I can give one example of the first: traffic stops. Being a mzungu with a foreign car in Goma means I'm a constant target for the traffic cops. So when they stop me, I have to obey. I talk to them, I negotiate, I call their bluff when they say I have to go to the police station. All this takes time, and it saps my ability to get my work done while I'm here.

Secondly, probably even worse than the corruption itself is the drastic measures that have to be taken to prevent it. For example, in the last few months I have raised enough money to have a large water filter constructed so that women can drink rainwater collected from the roof. The money was raised in the US, and then wired to HEAL Africa. But that's just the beginning - actually withdrawing the money from the internal account is a huge process, requiring special authorization and proof that each dollar has (or will be) properly spent. The delays in dealing with this have been painful, especially since I'm only here in Goma for a few weeks to get the project done.

A second (more humorous) example involves the police again. A few days ago, I was driving with a 500 liter (125 gallon) water tank on top of my truck. Having been stopped once by the police looking for a bribe, I had to travel along all sorts of back roads to get the filter to its destination. The back roads included traversing through a live soccer match! My car slowly ambled across the pitch with the large tank on top - it was quite a sight I'm sure for the spectators. That trip, funny as it was, took much longer than just driving on the main road. But when the alternative is an encounter with corruption, you do what you can to get by.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Failure, Success, and the "Way Forward"

I've been in Goma for the last week and a half, working with the HEAL Africa Technical Department to implement two projects. I knew starting and finishing two projects in so short a time was an ambitious goal, but I've been learning these last few days just how ambitious it actually was.

Firstly, I have been frantically finishing work on a solar refrigerator. There was more work to be done than I anticipated (seems to be a common theme!). I also worked hard toward a solution that in the end did not work out. Essentially, to provide thermal mass to the fridge I wanted to seal a large amount of water inside. Turns out making something water tight is easier said than done. In the end I had to give up using water and instead turn to using concrete. The thermal mass is about half that of water, but still should keep the fridge cold for several hours during a power outage.

Pouring the concrete was a nerve-racking experience. Once poured, my decisions permanent. If it didn't work, I couldn't do much to fix it. Success or failure! After drying, I plugged the fridge in and waited. 3 hours, no change. 5 hours, 1 degree C, but that was likely because the day had gotten cooler. It was looking like failure. And in one way it most certainly was, because I had run out of time - I had been planning on taking the fridge to a rural hospital the next day. I couldn't take it without knowing if it worked or not.

And so I traveled north to Rwanguba empty-handed. However, while there I did get some great work done. A few years ago the hospital had a small solar lighting system installed by the International Rescue Committee. Last time I visited in July it was not functioning, and probably hadn't been in a while. This visit I was determined to offer something, even if not what I had originally hoped for. And so, after a few hours work with the staff engineer, we got the lights back on. With lighting now for two wards, they will be able to run their generator much less, saving money.

Back in Goma, work is progressing on the second project, a water filter for a rainwater collection system. Gutters have been installed, and more items will be purchased and installed in the next few days. With any luck, it will be near completion by the time I leave next Sunday.

And so now I have to take stock of the next steps. The fridge is still being tested - it's now dropped 6 degrees C in 2.5 days, so I think maybe, just maybe, it's working. Apparently it takes a long time to cool concrete! The benefit though is that with high thermal mass, it will also take a long time to warm up, providing cooling even during power outages. Looks like my calculations were incorrect!

So much of this work is new for me, I have been learning a lot. The principle lesson is that success is quite unlikely the first time you try something. I'm trying to not be discouraged by failure, but to learn what went wrong and try again. I think we've all heard this before, but it's quite different to be told that than to actually have to go through it.