Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don't these people want clean water?

I frequently find it difficult to understand a Ugandan's motivations. Some behaviors are just odd. Like when four people are killed in a rural village for plotting to steal some bicycles. Like when a woman is assaulted for stealing a few watermelons. And like when half of Kampala riots because the ceremonial king isn't allowed to visit a particular district.

I chalk up the confusion I have from these news pieces to a lack of information. But I'm also confused by the way people behave in our project areas, where I have information, and where I understand what's going on a little bit better. I've spoken previously about how hard it is to get people to dig, even when they stand to gain so much. Turns out it's also difficult to get people to pay for what they've got.

Now you can call me captain obvious - of course people don't like to pay money! Especially the poor, who have little to begin with. But what baffles me is that in this case they need to pay very little, and receive so much in return. The situation is this: the beneficiaries of a gravity-flow water project agreed to pay 1,000 UGX (~ $0.50) per family per month to use a water tap, which is within a maximum of 500 meters of their home. The money goes towards system maintenance, replacing pipe, taps or cement that breaks down. Small as they are, these contributions are necessary to keep the system running. Because as simple as a gravity-flow system is, it will break down if not maintained.

But at one project site, few people are paying, and it's starting to show. Many of the taps are no longer functioning. The fix is cheap and simple, but there's no money to buy spare parts. So women and children, who used to fetch water close by, now walk to the next functioning tap, or to another source of water (which likely isn't clean). Why do they put up with such hardship rather than shell out the $0.50? I mean, even if you make just $1 per day, you only need to pay 1.7% of a month's wages to provide clean water to your family. What gives?

Speaking with friends and colleagues, their theories seem to break down into four catagories:
  • They don't have the money. In rural areas many people have almost no money at all. Families eke out a living, feeding themselves with what they grow. In such a situation every shilling is precious. They manage to survive, but are completely removed from a formal, cash-based economy.
  • They'd rather spend it on beer. Essentially this implies that priorities are elsewhere. Alcoholism is a rampant problem (I recently had to deal with a drunk village chief - not fun), and men are usually in control of the money. And since men control the money, they don't really care if the women or children have to go fetch water.
  • They don't think the money does anything. Even when paying, the system will break down. The money goes to repairing it when it does, not necessarily in preventing failure. So users may not realize that their money is going to repairs, so they don't pay because even if they do, things will break.
  • They don't like taxes. Because the fees for the water system resemble a tax, they refuse to pay. Taxes here are frequently squandered by corruption, and no one wants to give up what little money they have to fatten someone else's wallet.
Whatever theory is true, the end result is the same: system maintenance is a problem. The solution seems so simple, but so difficult to achieve. Don't they want clean water?

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