Taps and toilets have the ability to change lives in the developing world. As an engineer, I have spent the majority of my career to date working in countries across Africa and Asia developing sustainable solutions to one of the world’s biggest crises. One in three people lack access to a toilet, while a tenth of the world has no access to safe water. Together, this leads to the deaths of around 900 under-fives every day.
There is no such thing as a ‘sustainable’ technology in engineering. Instead, the sustainability or appropriateness of technology depends on its fitness for purpose in a local context, as well a suitable introduction process.
By this definition, a single technology can simultaneously change lives for the long term and promote economic growth in a community. Alternatively, it could lead to wasted funds and resources, an increase in reliance on external aid, and a lack of trust between local stakeholders. In some ‘worst case’ scenarios, badly introduced technologies can have extremely negative effects on the health and wellbeing of a population.
Let me give you an example.
Maintenance skills save more than just equipment
I have spent the last 3 years working in rural Mozambique. Sometime last year, I was visiting a community called Chimbilo, where we were shown to a disused hand pump hidden in tall grass. We were told that this pump had been out of action for 15 years after just 2 years of operation.
This particular type of pump is common all over Mozambique and parts are readily available. The pump is specifically designed to be operated and maintained by community members with little to no formal education. You might call it a sustainable technology.
Unfortunately, in this case, the NGO that had installed the pump had not trained the community in maintenance, nor left any tools for them to use. As a result, the community had assumed that once it stopped working, that was that. They had gone back to taking water from the river, and the prevalence of diarrhoea – and diarrhoeal deaths – was once again high. The community lacked motivation and their crop production was low due to the distance to access a water source.
During our visit we opened up the pump and luckily, perhaps because of its hiding place behind the grasses, all of the parts were still in place. We replaced a small rubber seal, which had simply reached the end of its 2-year design life, and for the first time in 15 years we pumped safe drinking water from the ground.
A major goal for the team I work with is not to let this happen again. Our project trains hygiene committees in basic maintenance and repairs so that they area able to fix problems when they occur.
Harvesting clean water as a community
The biggest aspect of my team’s work is to harness the skills and aspirations of the communities we work with. Our role is to facilitate their own transformation through emerging natural leaders and to provide people with new skills where they are needed.
At a school in a village called Njema, we helped build a rainwater harvesting tank where the entire community was involved in the construction. Children contributed by bringing 5 litres of water each morning for the cement. Young men and women learnt how to mix this cement and render the walls of the tank – a skill which will be needed to make repairs in the future. Village elders coordinated groups of volunteers to make local bricks and carry them to site; and teachers and religious leaders helped develop a community usage policy for the water during the dry season.
The whole effort aimed to ensure that students would always have enough clean water to drink and to wash their hands, hopefully leading to fewer sick days and subsequently to improved education in that community.
Engineering has the power to change lives wherever in the world you choose to apply it and it is a privilege to be a part of this. How an engineer implements their work, however, and ensuring it is appropriate to a local context, is critically important. Used wisely, the engineer’s privilege can transform lives for good in unimaginable ways.