Water is life… or is it?

November 17, 2017
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

Broken and disused water pumps all over the developing world stand as rusty testaments to the futility of the “easy fix.” Turns out, if you want to bring about meaningful change, it gets a bit more complicated — and a lot more interesting.

We’ve all seen the videos and images online and on TV — happy villagers pumping pure, clear water from a shiny new pump, all smiling and healthy. The message is clear and simple: “Water Is Life.” And it’s true… well, kind of.

Sadly, most things in life are not as simple as the marketers would have you believe. Just ask our man, Felix.

A hard job

Felix Kabemba is our project manager for something with the decidedly un-catchy title of DRC WASH Consortium. (Stay with us — this is going somewhere interesting. Promise.)

“This is quite complicated and frankly not that easy.”

Felix is the guy tasked with making those happy images a reality — and then replicating them over and over and over… in one of the world’s most difficult operating environments. With a small team. And a limited budget. And a tight deadline.

Felix Kabemba, Concern's project manager in DRC

Felix Kabemba, Concern’s project manager for the DRC WASH Consortium. Photo: Kieran McConville

The short story is this: Concern Worldwide teams up (that’s the consortium bit) with a bunch of other aid agencies in Congo (that’s the DRC part) and they launch a mission to radically improve the lives and health of tens of thousands of families in hundreds of villages, deep in the bush. They’ll do this by tackling the biggest problems in water, sanitation, and hygiene (there’s the WASH bit). Boom. How hard can it be?

“This is quite complicated and frankly not that easy,” Felix informs us, in a masterpiece of understatement. “It’s really not just a question of drilling boreholes and installing pumps.”

No easy fix

Bitter experience over many decades of development work has shown that the simple act of providing clean water to a community does not transform lives in any meaningful and lasting way. It simply means they have a source of clean water. For a while. Broken and disused pumps all over the developing world stand as rusty testament to the futility of the “easy fix.” We and others have put a huge amount of effort into finding a more lasting and effective solution. And, like it or not, a lot of it hinges on behavior change.

“Our job here is to leverage the power of community and help people own that power.”

You may be familiar with the phrase, “it takes a village”. In this case, that’s exactly what it takes — along with a team of trained engineers, health professionals, behavioral experts, business development professionals, administrators, community mobilizers… and so on. Here’s a glimpse at our all-star lineup in one Congolese village, Kachumbuyo:

The Chief

The Chief of Katchambuyu, David Numbi in DRC

The chief of Katchambuyu, David Numbi, who says the WASH intervention has made a big impact on health and wellbeing in his town. Photo: Kieran McConville

Nothing you try to do here is going to work unless you have buy-in from the boss. In this case it’s Chief Numbi.

“We are happy to do anything that will improve the lives of our people,”

Our team spent long hours sitting with him and other village elders, explaining our aim, seeking their input, and ultimately getting not just approval, but endorsement. “We are happy to do anything that will improve the lives of our people,” he says.

The Medic

Dbuyu Kalembe, a medic, sits in his clinic with a man and a young boy

Dbuyu Kalembe, who heads the health center at Katchumbuyu, says the general health of people in the village and surrounding area has improved markedly since the WASH intervention led by Concern. Photo: Kieran McConville

This town is lucky enough to have a health center and a trained medic to run it. Dbuyu Kalembe knows the value of good hygiene and sanitation — because he has seen the results of poor hygiene and sanitation every day for years. “In this village we were seeing about 90 cases of diarrheal disease and on average four cases of cholera per month. It was down to dirty water, bad sanitation, and poor hygiene practices.”

The Trainer

Albert Mukalay, a Concern Hygiene Promoter in DRC

Albert Mukalay, a Concern Hygiene Promoter in Tanganiyka province, holds a training session with Animateurs in Katchumbuyu. Photo: Kieran McConville

This is our guy. Albert Mukalay is one of a team of Concern employees who travel on small motorbikes along the sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy roads of Manono district, training teams of Hygiene Promoters (called “Animateurs” in French) in best practice and behavior change. “Our job here is to leverage the power of community and help people own that power.”

 The “Animateur”

Joelle and Adele go through a hygiene flip chart outside Joelle's home in DRC

Joelle Inamulongo (left) getting hygiene information from Adele (right), a community volunteer, or “Animateur,” trained by Concern. Photo: Kieran McConville

Adele has a pivotal role. She is a mom, a small farmer, and — most importantly, from our perspective — a community volunteer. We have trained her and hundreds of other “Animateurs” (Hygiene Promoters) all over Congo to engage with their own neighbors and impress upon them some key concepts and actions, which have been proven to lead to lasting change. Things like exclusive breastfeeding, hand washing, properly covering water containers, hygienic toilets, a clean environment, good nutrition, and quick reaction to signs of illness. These are the things — combined with clean water — that make the difference.

The Technician

Pump technician, Ilunga Wailungabje, and supervisor Daviens Ngoy Wangay (on right), doing maintenance work in DRC

Pump technician Ilunga Wailungabje (left) and supervisor Daviens Ngoy Wangay (right) carrying out maintenance work on a water pump in Katchambuyu village, Tanganyika, DRC. Photo: Kieran McConville

The pumps we use have evolved over the years to become highly reliable and easily maintained. But you still have to know what you’re doing — and you still have to have a supply of spare parts. We have trained Daviens Ngoy and others to do top line maintenance and repair on the dozen or so pumps now dotted around the community. And we have hooked him up with a supplier, who we assisted in acquiring an initial supply of parts, which the villagers can buy…

The Treasurer

Ngoy Francine, Treasurer of the Water Committee in DRC

Ngoy Francine, Treasurer of the Water Committee in Katchambuyu, Tanganyika, DRC. Photo: Kieran McConville

“If people can’t afford to pay, there is no charge. The community supports the most vulnerable.”

You can’t buy spare parts without money, so the village has a water management committee, which charges users a small fee. That goes into the kitty for ongoing maintenance and Ngoy Francine looks after the books. “If people can’t afford to pay, there is no charge,” she tells us. “The community supports the most vulnerable.”

The Student

Tibu stands at the top of his class, demonstrating good hygiene procedures with flip chart

Tibu is a member of a school group in Katchumbuyu, DRC, that helps to educate fellow pupils about the importance of good hygiene. Photo: Kieran McConville

Tibu is eleven years old and leading from the front. He and a group of other enthusiastic youngsters are hammering home the messages of hand washing, good toilet practice, and general hygiene at every opportunity. “We are trying to protect ourselves,” he declares. One method these young hygiene warriors are promoting is the idea of “PAFIs” or petits actions faisables (importantes). That translates into “small (important) doable actions” — a series of simple everyday solutions to basic hygiene hurdles.

Small (Important) Doable Actions

The children of Mulombwa in DR Congo show us how they're using a simple method to improve the health and well being of their village.

The Mom

Truth be told, Joelle might be our favorite. As well as having the bestest smile for miles and miles, she also has a steely determination to improve not only her own family’s situation, but also the wellbeing of everyone around her. She has enthusiastically embraced the drive for a collective change in behavior and has become a role model for neighbors and strangers alike. “We are not wasting time fetching dirty water and my children are not missing school through illness.”

Joelle Inamulongo stands in the doorway of her home in DRC with her 3 children

Joelle Inamulongo with her children at their home in the village of Katchambuyu, DRC. She is involved in the WASH project implemented by Concern and says its had a big positive impact on family life. Photo: Kieran McConville

A true transformation

What has happened over the past couple of years is that Kachumbuyo has gradually transformed from a scruffy, disadvantaged town in the middle of nowhere, with a polluted water supply and a significant public health problem, to a substantially changed community. In fact it has become a model for others.

“The number of cases of diarrhea has fallen from 90 to 10 per month and there is no cholera at all now.”

Chief Nimbu points out the general tidiness of the village, Jean Baptiste joyfully shows us how the number of cases of diarrhea has fallen from 90 to 10 per month and there is no cholera at all now, Joelle highlights the precious hours she and her daughter save in fetching water, Daviens proudly stands by his pump, Adele reflects on her elevated status as an important community influencer, and Tibu and the other kids mostly play and go to school.

As for Felix, well, his thoughts are elsewhere. He points up the road and says “There are a lot more villages that way. We have work to do.”

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