Published: April 8, 2022
Climate change is here. Now. It is not a matter of an occasional snowstorm, hurricane, tornado, or short heat wave. In other parts of the globe, it is now part of the daily struggle for existence.
Friendly Water for the World, a Quaker-founded organization, partners with communities, schools, and families in parts of subSaharan Africa and India. We have seen what is happening at close hand. In central Tanzania, among the Maasai, women, who are used to walking for water every day, leaving at 3 a.m. and returning at noon, now walk as much as 13 hours each night, leaving at 11 p.m., with their daughters taken out of school for this purpose. Each and every night. In western Kenya, a Friends school reports that half of the children are leaving classes to walk for water. In some places, while rainfall hasn’t diminished, it has been concentrated into shorter, more intense periods leading to serious flooding. At the same time, dry periods are becoming longer and longer, leading to crop failures. In Chennai, in southern India, the entire city of more than seven million ran out of water for several months. People couldn’t take showers for weeks; clothes couldn’t be washed; factories shut down; restaurants closed because they couldn’t supply water to their patrons. People left for the countryside, where there was also little water to be found.
Why We Don’t Do Wells
The typical way international development organizations and funders have addressed situations like this in the past is to dig more wells and boreholes. After all, there is water underground (sometimes), and if you dig deep enough…
That’s the way it has always been done. But in many if not most circumstances, as Friendly Water for the World has seen firsthand, it is no longer sustainable.
In many places, aquifers are quickly being drained. Wells are being dug deeper and deeper, in some cases so deep that they are bringing up dangerous levels of arsenic and fluoride, poisoning entire communities, especially children. On the outskirts of cities, water recharge areas are being paved completely over, and rampant deforestation has resulted in quick water runoff, rather than slow percolation through the ground. In shallower boreholes, more of the water is contaminated with animal (and human) feces, increasing the spread of waterborne illnesses like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. And as more and more people sink wells, they end up unintentionally stealing water from each other, and pitting the needs for water for agriculture and water for personal use in competition with each other.
Wells are expensive to drill. In many places, drilling is controlled by virtual monopolies, placing the cost of drilling beyond the reach of poor communities and families. When they are drilled, in our experience, they are often abandoned after just 2-3 years. Sometimes it is for lack of water. Sometimes because anaerobic iron bacteria are breaking down the underground shafts and pumps. Just as often, however, communities are not given even the least training to perform simple repairs on boreholes or pumps, rendering them inoperable. We have literally scores of photos of abandoned wells put in by well-meaning churches, missions, Rotary Clubs, and others with no money for repairs, and no plan for monitoring or sustainability.
Then, the community comes to agreement as to what they want to work on. They prioritize among our seven technologies: rainwater catchments; interlocking stabilized soil bricks (ISSBs); soapmaking; rocket stoves; PerrmaGardens (an adaptation of permaculture for growing food close to one’s home); composting toilets; and water filtration. Or put another way: Water Security; Building Better; Good Hygiene; Clean Water; Improved Sanitation; Safe Cooking; Sustainable Food. Since we expect to be in each community for 3-5 years, it is likely they will get to many if not all of them, provided they become self-sustaining.
Matsakha is a sub-location with ten villages. Representatives of each (most of whom had never met each other before) attended the community engagement. Half of them were women, who bear most of the burden of water- and health-related activities. The chief of the sub-location attended the engagement process and noted that in the 17 years he has been a leader in the area, this was the very first time an organization asked the people what they wanted, before starting. Most other organizations had started programs without consultation, and seemed to come and go as they pleased, with no serious effort at engaging the community.
Somewhat to the surprise of local Friendly Water representatives facilitating the process, the Matsakha community chose to start with soap. The schools were about to reopen post-Covid, and the government required that every school have access to handwashing – with soap – for the students. In addition, it was discovered that there was virtually no soap already in the community. Almost no one washed their hands after using the latrines (the few there are), or before meals. Yet handwashing alone has been shown to reduce the incidence of waterborne illnesses by at least 35%.
Just as critically, the community recognized that producing small quantities of affordable soap to begin with would gain them access to all homes in the community. Everyone would feel included. Following training, the Matsakha Development Group (MDG) was formed (led by two men and two women), with one group of people manufacturing the soap, and the other – mostly young people – taking charge of marketing it. The soap was approved as meeting government standards, labels were designed, and the product quickly earned an excellent reputation. All members of the MDG are paid, and they set up a “table banking” arrangement whereby they could pool their wealth and invest in other community needs. For the first several months, production was subsidized; now they are regularly profitable, with community members having a new source of income they never had before.
There is another way. ISSBs, made with a combination of subsoil, a small amount of sand, and a small amount of water, are several times stronger than fired bricks, and fit together like legos. Compressed manually, with machines that are entirely portable and utilizing raw materials found at the building site, three people can make up to 400-500 highly uniform bricks a day. Bricks, which cost 23 cents each including paying for labor, can be used to build homes, schools, latrines, clinics, etc. as needed.
In southern Zambia, Friendly Water for the World works with Friends of Monze, a Welsh Quaker organization, which in turn partners with the Zambia Women and Girls Foundation (ZaWGF). Through them, the village of Mungolo contacted us about their desperate need for a school. They live two hours away from the main road, and the Zambian government, already very stretched, said they could not send teachers unless there was a proper school building and houses for two teachers. “School” then consisted of perhaps 50 children sitting under a tree several times a week. With training from ZaWGF and funding from Friends of Monze, with three presses and three teams, and training taking only one day, the community fabricated 16,000 ISSBs in two weeks. Masons trained to use these bricks in under a week proceeded to build a school and two houses for teachers. It took five months in total, with materials sourced from the site itself. There are now 400 children at the school, which is also used as the village’s community center. Not a single tree was felled in the process of brickmaking.
from David Albert, Olympia Friends Meeting (4/1/2022)