Following a recent trip to Uganda, former Irish Water managing director Jerry Grant is working with GOAL and Ireland’s water engineering community to put a framework in place to support Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programmes (WASH) in developing communities, and believes that this will not just help people in desperate need but also reflect well on Irish engineers.

On an early December afternoon, we arrived at the site of the new handpump in Bugiri, in southeast Uganda, to a friendly and colourful reception from the village community – mainly women and children.

Working new handpump in Bugiri, Uganda.

They were there to queue behind a long line of yellow containers, waiting their turn to fill the 10 litres of clean water available from the village handpump facilitated by the GOAL Uganda team.

As if a manually operated handpump was a novel invention

The lady taking her turn at the pump was happy to indulge us as we admired and tested the pump, as if a manually operated handpump was a novel invention. What was certainly novel was the control on the pump, which required a credit token to release the valve that would deliver each precious 10 litres of clean safe drinking water.

No token no water, ensures that the money is in place so that this pump can be maintained and kept operational long after GOAL has departed. This addresses one of the central weaknesses of the historic efforts to provide sustainable drinking water in developing countries: the lack of commitment to operation and maintenance by communities, civic authorities and indeed donors.

For me, after six years at the centre of the establishment and running of Irish Water – with all of its controversies and challenges – retirement is a time for perspective.

The capabilities and expertise being deployed in managing and upgrading Ireland’s public water services are evident today to the objective observer, as services slowly improve in response to investment and better management.

Public gives little thought to water or sanitation except when service fails

Its future success, of course, is conditional on an annual exchequer commitment of €1.3 billion in good times and bad. A key reflection from my time in Irish Water is that the Irish public gives little thought to either water or sanitation except when the service fails.

By contrast, in this rural community in Uganda, after paying the toll and physically pumping the water to fill the containers, it has to be carried distances of up to two kilometres to the family homes.

This involved either a couple of containers tied to a bicycle being pushed home, or the alternative of carrying the container (all 10 kilogrammes) balanced on a lady’s head. Access to clean safe water for drinking for health and hygiene remains a daily challenge.

It was a privilege to visit the enthusiastic and committed GOAL team working to facilitate basic water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to these densely populated rural regions in southeast Uganda close to Lake Victoria, near the Kenyan border.

Village regions, each of perhaps a hundred families (with typically five or six children) survive on subsistence farming without electricity, clean water or sanitation. Part of life’s daily chore, primarily borne by the women and girls in this patriarchal society, is carrying water in drums, often from polluted surface sources.

They describe suffering with swollen bellies but have little knowledge of the threats from waterborne bacteria and parasites that present life-threatening health impacts.

While billions of dollars have been spent on water-related projects, the lack of focus on repair and maintenance has left millions of people at risk of avoidable illness, while there is little understanding of the role of hygiene in healthy living.

The major challenge in many developing countries is to generate the technical capability, institutional structures and financial resources to maintain water and wastewater systems, such that health and hygiene can be assured.

Access to water is chronically deficient in East and West Africa. In Uganda, with 44 million citizens, UNICEF estimates that 47 per cent of water facilities are either not functional or partially functional at any time.

GOAL is seeking to address this by linking new water supplies to a firm community commitment to operation and maintenance, including developing local private sector partners to provide the service.

Benefit from sustainable, secure long-term water supplies

In turn, this requires the collection of fees from users to pay for it. Without this holistic approach, these communities cannot hope to benefit from sustainable, secure long-term water supplies.

In Uganda, with 44 million citizens, UNICEF estimates that 47 per cent of water facilities are either not functional or partially functional at any time.

This requires a huge engagement effort by the GOAL water project team interacting with village community, local civic leaders, identifying and training local market entities all as an integral part of the water programme.

The Bugiri borehole and handpump is now managed by a local community committee, with a comprehensive set of rules covering its maintenance, the payment of the fees, measures to avoid contamination and access for use.

A sun shelter and seating has been provided to accommodate those waiting in line for their turn at the pump. As we left the site, the lady in the bright blue dress who had patiently indulged our interest, retook her position at the pump and resumed the serious business of bringing home the water for her family’s needs.

Distance from a clean borehole

Meanwhile, travelling a short distance to the shores of Lake Victoria, another group were engaged in filling containers directly from the untreated lake. Despite the acknowledged pollution, they chose to rely on this source, probably due to the distance from a clean borehole.

We couldn’t determine to what extent the charge of around €0.25 for 1,000 litres was a factor in using the lake water. The general consensus of local GOAL staff was that it was affordable and that there was a willingness to pay, provided everyone contributed. Elsewhere, systems have failed where equity in collection could not be assured.

We also visited a 1,300-pupil school where GOAL provided a handpump, boys and girls latrines and a washpoint for hand washing. Despite coping with only 13 teachers and classrooms into which the children were crammed, everyone was in great spirits and we were treated to enthusiastic renditions of the anthems of Uganda, East Africa and the local region.

Jerry Grant and GOAL also visited a 1,300-pupil school where the NGO provided a handpump, boys and girls latrines and a washpoint for hand washing.

The children are learning and practising basic hygiene. A key objective of the programme is to end the practice of open defecation, develop the practice of hand-washing and understanding of the risks for disease transmission, within a holistic approach to hygiene.

A selected group of the children read a poem on the topic of good hygiene practice. Better health has cut absenteeism and enabled girls in particular to stay in school past puberty, with availability of private washing facilities.

‘Teach a boy and you teach the man, teach a girl and you teach a nation’

This is seen as critical to the future of their communities, with other important benefits such as delaying the practice of early marriage. To quote the headmistress, ‘teach a boy and you teach the man, teach a girl and you teach a nation’.

A key objective of this visit to Uganda was to investigate the potential for the Irish water industry to help with the work of our NGOs in developing countries. Cross industry contacts have confirmed a real appetite to help.

Provided this help is tailored to the local realities, there is undoubted scope for the sector to support Irish NGOs – such as GOAL – to deliver sustainable solutions in Uganda and similar places.

In return, the sector in Ireland would benefit from the shared experience, positive staff morale benefits and a shared corporate achievement.

Over the coming months, I hope to work with colleagues to see how structures can be put in place capable of leveraging funding, personnel, research, design, equipment and training services from the sector.

Clean water and sanitation is a critical dependency for health, with children especially vulnerable to water-borne disease. But it is also a critical enabler for nutrition, education, social progress and economic advancement.

By working together, the Irish water sector has the potential and, I believe, the interest in helping to make a difference. In particular, highly motivated individuals, many with personal experience of working in the developed world, are ready to help our dedicated Irish NGO teams to expand the scale and reach of this life-enhancing work.

In turn, this experience will help to keep us grounded in the real importance of water and sanitation to our lives.

Author: Jerry Grant, chartered engineer, is a director of Jerry Grant & Associates and a former managing director of Irish Water, and RPS Group. He specialises in providing strategic business advice in the utility sector.