Sustainable? (Bah humbug)

I was fortunate, at the beginning of my career in the water business to have met and been advised by professor Richard Carter, who not alone advised us but also came to Malawi, at his own expense to help us with our fledlegling organisation. When I first went to meet him in Cranfield University he asked my ideas about repairs and maintenance and I feel I passed the test!.
My view was and is “don’t put in the pump unless you have a programme in place to keep it working”
In my first visit to Malawi, I witnessed major celebrations when new wells gushed water for the first time and the entire village attended and celebrated. Coming back a year later to the same places, really rattled me, the joy all gone when the pump had broken down and no one in the village knowing where to find or how to install the spare part required to get the water flowing again.
This is a story that is repeated thousands of times a year in developing countries where water pumps have broken down. Now, it’s not for lack of caring, but many pumps are installed by well-intentioned non-profit organizations, religious groups, philanthropic groups and individuals, who neglect one basic principle; always have an exit strategy! Maybe the biggest problem is that people appear, put in a pump for free, enjoy the celebrations and just as quickly disappear, fooling themselves that the pump will last forever.
The bottom line according to Prof Carter: the only thing that works for water in gravity, machines all fail at some time!!
Our Canzee pump which we manufacture in Mzuzu, has a great record of ticking most of the boxes. It’s design, the materials used and the ease with it can be repaired by village women makes it ideal for a low tech world.
But even this can suffer an odd wobbly and even though the women can fix the minor problems occurring, sometimes we need to return and we are always readily available to oblige. It’s part of our commitment to the communities we serve. Since we also work on irrigation and farming we have constant contact with communities anyway and are in a position to help with any pump problems.
We see catastrophic failure rates, in pumps, around Malawi, where we have now learned to fix the broken pumps, installed by others, we find, in cooperation with the communities. One organisation, we work with, estimates that only 40% of their pumps, installed over the past 15 years, work, on any given day.
Global estimates indicate that 50,000 water points in Africa are broken on any given day, equating to between $215 and $360 million in wasted investment.
Even now, in the early stages of our development, we are training people to fix pumps and restore or protect existing wells. Long term we see possible businesses for local plumbing entrepreneurs to take on the task supported initially by W4Z, but later on in private business. A strong bike, a few tools and a mobile phone with a solar charger and your off.
Naturally we will source and stock the various parts, for many pump types and encourage the communities to contribute. These MP’s (mobile Plumbers) can revolutionise the pump sustainability effort, even in remote rural Malawi, collecting a call out charge, and keeping the water flowing. The women will love the time they save by not having to collect water and, the businesses they are able to create will enable then to pay for the service
In August last, we identified 200 broken or non functioning water pumps, installed over the years with a maintenance contract. We have already looked after half, sometimes repairing, sometimes replacing and always doing little training workshops, mainly with the women, to enable them to understand how their pumps work and how to fix them. Unfortunately many pumps are not maintainable at village level which is a major issue. This type of work won’t get the banners, photo ops, singing, dancing and nice things surrounding the initial major impact developments, but we find new friends and give them clean water for life, teach them and let them know how to reach us.
There are two disturbing words misused, over used and abused in our type of work; sustainability and village level maintainable, words which are at best misleading and at worst plain lies.
We consider a pump to be sustainable when we go back after 5 or 10 years to find it’s still doing the job it was designed for. Village level maintainable (VLM) should mean just that. It should mean that the women (and they’re the real custodians) have the information, skill and simple tools to do the job. If any of these components are missing, forget it.
The answer is not more and more millions, but spending a little on fixing what’s there, for a start at least, and don’t use the word sustainable or maintainable, if you don’t know what they really mean (in a developing world, context)


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