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Water

Deep Water in a Geography of Conflict

Water tap in Lesotho.  Photo for Sutika Sipus LLC by David Lazar, 2013.
I once watched an engineering team install a well in a high-traffic area of a refugee camp in Kenya.  It was an easily accessible public space and it was close to a road making the job easier to bring the equipment and install the well.  After installing the well, the team made sure it worked, and went on to their next project, I believe somewhere in Thailand.  But a few strange things happened during the project and for a long time afterward.

1.  Many mornings the team would arrive to the site and discover the well had been destroyed.  In the middle of the desert with few other working wells nearby, why anyone would repeatedly destroy this precious resource?

2.  At times while working the project, children would throw rocks at the team, and their parents would simply look on, allowing the children to abuse the people who had come to provide a better quality of life with clean, accessible water.

3. When the project team finished the project (clearly after many delays) they exited and people began to use the well.  Within a matter of days there were violent, physical fights among locals at the site of the well.

What does this mean? From the outside, it is easy to say that the engineering team was doing a good thing in the refugee camp and that the local population was disrespectful out of heathen ignorance. Unfortunately stories like the above tend to fuel racism and prejudice among people in developed nations more than actually teach the deeper lessons.

Unpacking the situation is not easy.  To break it down I've composed the simple table below.



Outcomes
Without realizing it, the engineering team had thrust themselves into the spatial center of a long-standing problem of inadequate government policy and local social tensions.  Not only was the project in the geographic center of two populations with a history of conflict, but a series of poorly implemented technologies in the past left these populations with an immediate distrust of any new intervention.  In addition, by not formally interacting with the people living near the well at the outset of the project, their project was seen as an intrusion not a benefit.  Certainly another place to access water is appreciated, but many in the community knew that it would be another finite resource to drive arguments and conflict, not an asset.  But why tell this to the project team?  After all, the engineers were not even polite enough to introduce themselves let alone ask for advice.  Clearly they were the experts.


Beyond
The lessons of this case study should be easy to recognize.  The most basic infrastructure project is not merely a technical process, it is also a social process.  There may have also been actions within the community to mitigate the future problems.  For example, it is possible that the nightly acts of sabotage were intended to force the engineers to create a better and more resilient water well, considering the long history of inadequate infrastructure in the camps (see the context of the chart).  Maybe previous complaints had been ignored?  Unfortunately we can't be certain.

If the team established valid, working relationships among stakeholders in the water well project it would have prevented many of the negative consequences.  It would not have required extensive work by the project team, but maybe one week of interacting with the locals, asking questions, and learning about their lives could have led to a more strategically located intervention with clear lines of ownership, and the cooperation of the community in the project creation.   

The community doesn't necessarily need to be part of the development process, but they certainly have the right to know the project process and objectives in advance. Where relationships cannot be established (such as the long history of conflict between the tribes), at least discovering and acknowledging those obstacles could have provided with the engineers the data necessary to create a better project design.  We cannot know if it may would have become more successful, but at the minimum, it would not have introduced new problems.

Looking for Water in All The Wrong Places as Somalia faces Drought and Famine


Today I noticed an IRIN  post concerning the present drought in Somalia.  Whereas people in Somali generally depended on water catchments for survival, most of these have dried up and now people are dying, as are their livestock.  Livestock that survives is often too weak to sell.  The most severe water shortages are in the southern regions, where pastoral livelihoods are a critical aspect of daily life.  Somalia's Water and Land Information Management agency, SWALIM, has reported in a recent bulletin that crop production has also been aggressively damaged by the drought.   Production of cash crops such as potatoes and citrus only continue in areas where farmers have access to river irrigation systems.

The draught is expected to last 2 or 3 months until the seasonal rains. Supposedly the draught is forcing people to migrate toward urban centers in search for water.  Accordingly, "Somalis had begun trucking water, 'but it is not nearly enough,'... one water tanker, with 200 drums (each200 L) costs between $200 and $250."  At that cost, 1 liter of water in Somalia is costing over 2 dollars per liter, on par with prices for bottled water in the United States, and it is certainly of much lower quality.

Reading this reminds me of some research I had done a bout a year ago, when it occurred to me one day, "How do people in Mogadishu manage to get water?"  I had asked some friends who grew up there, and they explained that water was purchased from vendors who would transport it via donkey cart.  Looking online, I happened to find an older article that some households have their own personal borehole while donkey cart delivery remains a common practice.  Another common approach is for many families to combine their resources and purchase a larger volume of water that can be then distributed using a pump as needed.  A  family may spend an entire third of their income on obtaining water.