Cover image courtesy of NCM
–by Robert Hill & Brad Woolery–
Water is life. While many urban areas in Africa enjoy relatively easy access to water, people in rural areas often lack this essential resource. Illnesses due to poor water quality and sanitation cause severe loss of life in rural Africa. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries is one of many humanitarian organizations that builds new wells and provides sanitation services in hopes of combatting this water crisis. NCM’s goal is laudable, but how effective are their initiatives in impacting the multivariable issue of clean water availability in Sierra Leone and Liberia? The water crisis in rural Africa is far more complex than one might expect. A lack of infrastructure in rural areas; the difficulties of communication between aid agencies, governments, and people; and the existence of many now-defunct existing water systems make the water crisis difficult to address effectively. Taken together, these challenges reflect issues with the sustainability of water development efforts in sub-Saharan Africa by aid organizations such as NCM. This podcast discusses the current situation of these countries, details the projects of NCM, and considers the effects of their efforts in context of the overall water crisis.
Robert: Hello, everyone! This is the Urge to Help podcast from the University of Oklahoma Honors Program. My name’s Robert…
Brad: And my name’s Brad. Today, we will discuss access to clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa and the effectiveness of efforts by Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.
Robert: A few days ago, I was filling up my water bottle, and this cloudy, murky water came out of the water dispenser. I didn’t know what it was, but I poured it out and went to a different filling station. In America, we don’t have to think about getting clean water very often, but in many areas of the world, having clean water is an everyday struggle.
Brad: In this podcast, we will critically examine the availability of clean water in Africa through the lense of the efforts of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries to provide clean water to local people in places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The Need for Clean Water
Brad: We all know that water is necessary for life. In the United States, we have easy access to drinking water which is relatively clean and clear, and rarely will make us sick or hurt us. However, that isn’t the case in many other parts of the world.
Robert: Millions of people in Africa aren’t able to get clean water. In fact, a journal article from 2014 reported that “the number of people without access to drinking water climbed from 29 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2008…” (Wang 2014) This shows that not only is scarcity of clean water a significant problem, but, shockingly, the data indicates it’s a problem which continues to grow.
Brad: This widespread lack of access to clean drinking water in rural communities can result in many health issues and illnesses which harm local people in a variety of ways. As noted by the blog Africa at LSE, “80 percent of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation, and these illnesses affect primarily children. Around 2,000 children under the age of five die each day from diarrheal diseases, which are a direct result of inadequate water quality and sanitation” (Azoulay 2016). Besides these health issues themselves, there are other secondary issues that arise from health concerns.
Robert: One of these issues is simply that of time. A case study conducted in rural Ghana showed that on average, women spent over 6 hours a day collecting water before a certain initiative was implemented (Arku 2010). Imagine having to walk 6 hours each day just to get enough water to survive! This has significant impact on quality of life and the ability to prosper in these rural areas. Locals indicate that a “lack of access to water is one of the key causes of poverty” (Harvey 2008). When one is frequently sick because of water quality or when one must spend multiple hours each day getting water, escape from poverty is greatly hindered.
NGOs and NCM
Brad: Many non-governmental organizations, called NGOs, devote time to help combat these problems with water access. These organizations are generally non-profits seeking to provide humanitarian aid through supplying WASH, or “Water and Sanitation Hygiene” programs. One such organization is a faith-based organization that functions under the Church of the Nazarene. It is called Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, or NCM.
Robert: Like many NGOs working on water availability, NCM seeks to address this problem by building wells. NCM has humanitarian operations globally, and the Nazarene Church has a presence in 36 countries in Africa. In particular, their Africa Water Wells Project strives to build 10 new wells in Africa each year. At the moment, it is primarily focused on Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Brad: One unique strategy that NCM uses is working together with local Nazarene churches to determine where wells should be placed. They also work to train the church members in maintaining the well. The summer 2017 edition of NCM’s quarterly publication, NCM Magazine, tells a story which gives a bit of insight into the situations that guide the organization’s efforts. A drought swept Zimbabwe in 2016, and a local Nazarene church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe was able to partner with NCM and drill a borehole well (NCM Magazine Summer 2017, 6). It appears a simple solution to a tough problem, and in some ways it is.
Robert: Like many NGOs, NCM proposes to address the lack of clean water by building more wells. It’s an easy thing to advertise and sell to donors. However, like most big problems that face our world, the water crisis in Africa is much more complicated than a lack of wells (Harvey and Reed 2004). As Westerners coming into a situation in Africa, we often assume we know the answers better than the people we are trying to help. The water crisis in Africa is no exception.
Assuming Wells are the Solution
Brad: NCM has done their research and has several good reasons for drilling a specific type of well. NCM constructs borehole wells, which go down deeper than hand-dug wells to uncontaminated levels of the water table. In general, borehole wells are a drastic improvement over many current water sources. And by providing local water sources, people won’t have to walk for hours each day to access clean water (NCM Magazine Summer 2016 p.14). Wells can be vastly beneficial to local communities.
Robert: This points to the first major assumption that NCM and other NGOs make: that more wells are needed in the first place. However, it is estimated that as many as 50% of the rural water systems in Africa are currently not working (Harvey 2008). Are more new wells needed, or do the existing ones simply need fixing? The answer to this question likely varies based on the specific circumstances of each local community.
Brad: Dr. Gaathier Mahed, a prominent hydrogeologist, researched into the disrepair of water systems across sub-Saharan Africa. He discovered “$360 million [had] been spent on rural water supply schemes which are now dysfunctional” (Mahed 2015). So much money has and continues to be invested in creating new water systems while ignoring the many that have fallen into disrepair. It seems that focusing on repairing these past water supply schemes could be a better investment of funding for NGOs. Instead of simply assuming that more new wells should be built, NGOs should communicate with local people first to see about other, potentially better options for the community.
Robert: So, why do NCM and other NGOs focus so much on building new wells? One reason may be the ease in advertising. Peter Harvey and Bob Reed are managers for the Water, Engineering and Development Centre at Loughborough University. In a book entitled “Rural Water Supply in Africa,” they claim that part may be “the simple desire for the neatness and ‘donor-appeal’ of providing new facilities. Also, where several agencies operate in one area, a new agency may want to ensure that credit for rehabilitation works is not given to the original implementing agency” (Harvey and Reed 2004). Where the rubber meets the road, building something new sounds more grand and impactful than maintenance, increasing its appeal to organizations like NCM and to donors in general. All too often, NGOs assume that communities need certain things without first consulting them to see what they truly need.
Brad: Let’s talk a bit about some of the consequences of poorly maintained wells.
Robert: A blogger, Annie Kelly, tells this story in an article for the Guardian…
“This problem has arisen in Katine sub-county in north-east Uganda. In 2007, before the African Medical and Research Foundation and Farm-Africa began their development work in Katine, worms were found in the polluted water supply at the village of Abia, next to the Emuru swamp. A badly constructed and poorly maintained shallow well, dug by a charity, was full of soil and animal faeces and was making local people sick.” (Kelly 2009) What an sad irony! A charity, seeking to help people, had built a well that was hurting more than helping, mostly because of bad maintenance.
Brad: Our research has indicated that sustainability is the most important attribute to seek in a water project. NCM’s strategy to encourage sustainability is a reliance on local Nazarene churches. Let’s look at four specific areas of sustainability and how NCM strives to address those.
Robert: The first issue that can arise with well sustainability lies in mechanical failures. Like any mechanical equipment, wells have moving parts which can wear out and break over time. Once these parts are no longer functional, it is often difficult for a local community to fix the well and make it an accessible source of water again.
Brad: To address this issue, NCM is testing approaches where they train a local group of people who are trained to be able to service the well and repair it once things go awry. We spoke over the phone with NCM’s global WASH advisor, Zekarias Asfaw Shenkut. According to him, NCM also seeks out local companies to drill the wells for them. This leads to a bolstered local well-drilling economy in which people are trained and able to continue servicing wells.
Robert: The second key component of sustainability is community involvement. The water projects that have lasting success are those where the community steps in to take responsibility for the well. One significant gaffe in involving the community is thrusting a well upon people without discussing it with them beforehand. Kelly states in her post for the Guardian: “water points are often built by donors, governments and NGOs without fully consulting local people and finding out just how much it will cost to keep the boreholes clean and functioning over a sustained period of time” (Kelly 2009).
Brad: NCM’s global WASH advisor indicated that they talk with the local churches before building a well. This is more engagement than many NGOs have with local communities, but that sense of community ownership is vital. From our research, NCM seems to have an effective system by relying on the local Nazarene church to maintain the well. However, we’re also left wondering if NCM engages with the rest of the community. After all, NCM claims to help the entire community, not just their churches. Plus, church members may not know as much as other community leaders about the overall water situation of the area. Overall, there is little data on the churches’ success at managing water systems. More research into this is warranted.
Robert: Community ownership can be overemphasized though. NGOs operate under the assumption that communities have the resources and ability to maintain wells. In impoverished areas though, residents may not be able to do so. Harvey in a journal article states: “Community management is based on the well-intentioned principle of empowering communities… but the way in which it has been adopted in most countries abrogates responsibility for sustainable service delivery away from Governments and implementing agencies” (Harvey 2008).
Brad: A lack of local government support may impair sustainability more than anything else. In that same journal article, Harvey reported a shocking discovery…
“Of the 20 sub-saharan African countries studied, only 6 had a sufficient focus on water. 14 didn’t mention it in their plans to help their nation combat poverty and advance” (Harvey 2008).
It seems that few governments are prioritizing clean water access in a significant way.
Robert: Governments have other problems to deal with, though. An overall dearth in funding is experienced by many areas of governments, restricting the help they could offer communities. NCM claims to try to involve local governments but that governments normally aren’t interested in helping based on tight funding. In a study commissioned by NCM on behalf of the government of Swaziland, LCC Capital Consulting found that, “The World Health Organization [had] set a benchmark for WASH funding at 0.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Currently Swaziland’s WASH allocation has averaged 0.1% and there is need for the government to increase her commitment in this regard.“ Many other countries’ sanitation programs suffer from similar lacks of funding (LCC Capital Consulting p.51).
Brad: The fourth factor we’ve identified which effects project sustainability is nonprofit collaboration. Humanitarian aid to sub-Saharan Africa has become trendy for NGOs. Thus, many actively work there. Sadly, few of these nonprofits collaborate with each other to ensure that services don’t overlap. LCC Capital Consulting found that since collaborative forums between organizations were optional and did not foster coordination well on the ground in Africa, “gross functional overlaps” of identical work were entirely possible. (LCC p.51)
Robert: This is obviously a poor use of money, but how could collaboration between NGOs affect sustainability? Dr. Behailu with Tampere University of Technology in Finland suggests NGOs use similar parts to construct their wells (Behailu 2017). This would benefit communities in making spare parts easier to acquire and repairs less complex.
Brad: NCM has a history of collaborating with other organizations to drill wells, since they do not have their own well-drilling equipment or do not always have the resources to complete projects alone. NCM has collaborated in the past with organizations such as World Hope International and even Coca-Cola (NCM Magazine Summer 2016 p.18, phone call with NCM Global WASH Advisor). In the late 2000’s, a man named Fred Evans went to Swaziland on mission. While there, he was taken aback by a windmill-powered well which had clean water, but had fallen into disrepair and was unusable. He designed a solar-based water system to install at clinics and schools in Swaziland, and through coordination with NCM, received a $750,000 grant from Coca-Cola to install the system at 16 or so different sites (Swaziland Partners 2010).
Robert: Even though this coordination exists at some levels–as we can see through Nazarene Compassionate Ministries’ efforts–the overall issue still remains; organizations do not coordinate enough with each other. This causes improper distribution of aid, and reduces the effectiveness and efficiency of aid efforts.
Brad: In the past two and a half years, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries has changed much of how it goes about doing water projects. Like other NGOs, NCM has used many methods that seemed good on the surface but deeper investigation showed that they were counterproductive or even damaging. It is evident that NCM is working to improve their system of helping by adapting their practices, and hopefully they will continue to do so.
Robert: By continuing to critically evaluate the methods and the results of humanitarian work, we can have a lasting impact on the way NGOs operate. As we sign off, we want to encourage you, the listener, to research the non-profits you donate to, examine how they operate, and evaluate if the results of their efforts line up with their end goal. In the real world, it’s not just the thought that counts.
This is Robert,
Brad: And this is Brad…
Reminding you to consider the effects… of your urge to help.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
Anaelle Azoulay. “Africa: Some thoughts on how to tackle the water crisis.” Africa at LSE, 27 Apr. 2016, Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2016/04/27/africa-some-thoughts-on-how-to-tackle-the-water-crisis/.
Annie Kelly. “Money ‘wasted’ on water projects in Africa.” The Guardian, 26 Mar. 2009, www.theguardian.com/society/katineblog/2009/mar/26/water-projects-wasted-money.
Arku, Frank. “Time savings from easy access to clean water: Implications for rural men’s and women’s well-being.” Progress in Development Studies, Volume 10, Issue 3, 2010, pp. 233–46, journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/146499340901000303.
Behailu, Beshah, et al. “Service Failures of Rural Water Supply Systems in Ethiopia and Their Policy Implications.” Public Works Management & Policy, Volume 22, Issue 2, 2017, pp. 179–196, journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/full/10.1177/1087724X16656190.
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Harvey, Peter. “Poverty Reduction Strategies: opportunities and threats for sustainable rural water services in sub-Saharan Africa.” Progress in Development Studies, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2008, pp. 115–128, journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/146499340700800110.
Harvey, Peter and Bob Reed. Rural Water Supply in Africa: Building Blocks for Handpump Sustainability. Water, Engineering and Development Centre, Loughborough University, 2004.
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NCM Africa. “When Hunger Hits: Churches are Responding.” NCM Magazine, Summer 2017, p. 6.
Wang, Hongtao, et al. “Water and Wastewater Treatment in Africa – Current Practices and Challenges.” CLEAN – Soil, Air, Water, Volume 42, Issue 8, August 2014, pp. 1029–1035, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/clen.201300208/full.
Yuthye, Beth Clayton. “Drops of Mercy.” NCM Magazine, Summer 2016, p. 12-19.