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Uganda: Fresh Water in a Village Called Death

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Villagers in Walumbe, Uganda access safe water from a solar-powered filtration system provided by Water Missions International, a South Carolina-based organization of missionary engineers. Image by Samuel Loewenberg. Uganda, 2014.

Lake Victoria is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, and it is at Agnes Nansubuga's front door in the village of Walumbe. So naturally, that's where she used to fetch her drinking water. Unfortunately, it is also a place that many of her fellow villagers also use as a bathroom. When she drank water from the lake, "I used to get stomach pains," she says.

Now, though, Ms Nansubuga not only has access to clean water herself, she also provides it to others. She works as an operator on one of the pumps that provide clean water to her village, part of a system installed by a South Carolina-based Christian missionary organisation, Water Missions International. Water is drawn from a pipe placed about 150 metres into Lake Victoria, then run through a solar-powered water filtration system back on shore, where the villagers access it through five different pumps in the community.

"The community has come to understand the value of safe water," says Chrispus Oguti, the chairman of Walumbe's water committee, as he proudly explains the workings of the multi-stage filtration system, a series of three large chambers connected by PVC tubing dotted with switches and filters, all housed in a small shed. Mr Oguti was preparing to go out into the lake to replace the mesh guard around the main water pump. Before the new water system was put in, if villagers didn't use the lake water, the only alternative was a borehole well, which was shared by several villages, and took two days to reach by foot. "We were really suffering," says Mr Oguti.

In fact, the name Walumbe itself means "death" in the local language, a reference to the sleeping sickness that used to infect the region. These days, water-borne, hygiene- and sanitation-related diseases are one of the main scourges in Walumbe, including diarrhea, malaria, scabies, trachoma and bilharzia (the latter may even be linked to the high rate of HIV/AIDS here, say scientists). The same dynamic is present throughout most of the largely rural country, where the lack of basic water and sanitation infrastructure contributes to an estimated 75% of the country's disease burden, according to the Ministry of Health.

Getting water to poor communities may sound straightforward: dig a well, put in a pump and hand out water filters. But as many NGOs and aid agencies have found, it is a lot more complicated than that. A simple broken bolt on a handpump can render it useless—there are not a lot of hardware stores in the bush. Borehole wells can feed flocks of animals and families living in arid land, but when the pump machine breaks down, there is usually no easy way to get it repaired. Home water filters are fine in an emergency, but not practical for the long term—especially when fetching water may take hours of walking each day. The list of failures is long. A review of ten years of EU-supported water and sanitation projects in sub-Saharan Africa, together worth more than $500m, found that more than half failed to perform, due to issues such as lack of financial sustainability, poor oversight, and not regularly testing water to make sure it was safe to drink.

The Water Missions project in Walumbe seems to address these issues, at least for now. The organisation was founded in 2002 and now works in 49 countries. Its model requires villages to run the water systems as a business, charging a minimal amount—50 shillings, or 2 cents—for every 20 litres of water. The money pays for chlorine and alum (the latter is a chemical compound used since Roman times to purify water), pump operators like Ms Nansubuga, who get 10% of sales, and contributes to a savings account designed to provide maintenance for the next 20 years. Water Missions replaces the parts for the first year; so far the Walumbe project has needed two repairs. Initially, the group provided the water systems to communities for free, but found that charging meant that villagers had a stake in the system and so kept up with maintenance.

The Water Missions system is not cheap: projects like this generally cost around $30,000, or between $10-$30 per person in the community. This includes the hardware (mostly plastic parts similar to the kind used in swimming pool filters), training and shipping costs. Water Missions sends out a small team of volunteers including engineers, community development and hygiene specialists, and sometimes a pastor. Evangelising about their Christianity is part of the programme, but they say they serve communities regardless of their religion and that no one is forced to convert. "We feel that God has called us into the work that we are doing," says George Greene IV, Water Missions' president. "Part of the responsibility of Christians is to help people that are in need (loving our neighbour as ourselves)...We do this through water and sanitation."

Indeed, as Mr Greene and the members of his organisation learned, putting in an effective water system requires more than good intentions, or even engineering knowledge. In the first four years of their work in Uganda, Mr Greene estimates that about half of the 30-something projects failed. But since 2010 they have developed a system that seems to work, and the more than 40 projects they have started since then are still up and running. "Our big thing is to encourage our staff to try things. We accept ahead of time that there will be failures...and do our best to use them to refine and improve our methods," he says.

The key to successful water projects in rural areas is that they be "locally-operated and can be maintained over the long-term, and that they are the most cost-effective option for the community," says Daniele Lantagne, an engineering professor at Tufts University. She notes that there are potentially less expensive and easier to maintain options than the Water Missions model, such as locally repairable hand-pumps or locally operated, market-based centralised water kiosks. At the end of the day, though, "What's really needed is to build the basic infrastructure to deliver affordable and accessible safe drinking water to each household," she says.