Local entrepreneurs drive a major West African water program.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A set of water and sanitation projects implemented by a well-funded water and sanitation program in Ghana, Mali and Niger has gone far beyond boreholes and pit latrines to improve public health. The efforts of 12 entities that have formed the West African Water Initiative broadened their community health goals with a variety of projects. Farmers are selling cat-sized rodents that are popular fare in big-city restaurants; women in fashionable boubous stand guard over standpipes along the roadside; and high-yield lettuce patches are turning significant profits in the dry season in Mali.

The shift to integrate local entrepreneurship into the installation of water faucets and pit toilets is more than creative. It makes these public health improvements sustainable.

“Basically, we are saying that if you are looking for improvements in health by providing access to clean water and environmental sanitation,” says Bismark Nerquaye-Tetteh, “you need to add a little more of the livelihood issues and then you can expect a quantum impact.” Nerquaye-Tetteh directs the project from an office in Accra.

The West Africa Water Initiative is a $42 million, six-year partnership of 12 organizations created in 2002 by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The water initiative’s objective is to invest in small-scale potable water supply and sanitation activities in rural areas and in the newer settlements on the fringes of cities in Ghana, Mali and Niger. These water initiatives serve as the entry point for an integrated approach to water resources management and related development issues. Mid-way through the six-year project, the three-country program has built over 2,700 latrines and drilled 340 water wells serving an estimated 200 communities.

The three-country initiative grew out of the successful implementation of the Ghana Rural Water Project, which was funded by the foundation and World Vision U.S. As the architect of The West Africa Water Initiative, the foundation has given the WAWI partners $19.1 million to support their work and spread it to Mali and Niger. World Vision committed $16.3 million to the project and the U.S. Agency for International Development added another $4.5 million. Other partners who joined – some with matching funds – include: the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture & Development, the Desert Research Institute, Helen Keller International, the International Trachoma Institute, the Lions Clubs International Foundation, UNICEF, WaterAid, Winrock International and the World Chlorine Council. The Carter Center advises on Guinea worm and trachoma projects.

The full range of activities undertaken by all partners includes enhancing local governance and an enabling environment, well drilling and rehabilitation, alternative water source development, construction of latrines, household and school-based sanitation and hygiene education, community mobilization, hydro-geological analysis, policy development, income generation and food security, information management and gender mainstreaming. Other partners take their water- and sanitation-based initiatives in other directions: Cornell works on environmental conservation and land use planning, the Lions promote annual public education campaigns about trachoma in Mali and Niger, UNICEF mounts school-based sanitation and hygiene campaigns, and the World Chlorine Council donates pipe for well construction.

The project began with a search for clean water. In the midst of the 1980s droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, World Vision U.S. used a U.S. Agency for International Development grant to provide access to water: they bought two pairs of drilling rigs from Sweden’s Atlas-Copco to drill boreholes an average of 100 feet deep, installed polyvinyl chloride pipes, lined them with the gravel and cement and capped them with hand pumps centered on concrete pads to create clean water supplies in drought-plagued communities. Five years later they had drilled more than 455 wells in Ghana alone. Around each community pump they developed programs to build the capacity of the community to maintain the pumps and to teach health, hygiene and sanitation.

A quarter of a century later World Vision has drilled more than 2,000 boreholes in Ghana. But this newer and larger initiative has grown in support, concentrates on fewer geographic regions and increases its emphasis on latrines, health education and hygiene. The six-year program targets three regions: northern Ghana’s semi-arid Voltaian Basin, and smaller more arid regions in central Mali and southern Niger. “We’ve selected clusters of communities in certain districts where we will be working for 10 or 15 years on integrated development projects,” says Braimah Apambire, a water and sanitation team leader in World Vision’s Seattle office.

The West Africa Water Initiative is considered a very large and promising model for new ways governments, development agencies and foundations can have a lasting impact on the health of under-served communities around the world.

One reason for that optimism is the integration of income-generating activities that make the health practices sustainable.

Here are some examples:

Villagers have established large income-generating gardens watered by efficient drip-irrigation techniques and in the process have established a thriving market for high-value lettuce, tomatoes and green peppers among the hotels and restaurants 30 kilometers away in Tamale, a district capital in Ghana’s north. This Winrock International project is being expanded to other regions where hotels, restaurants and government offices offer good vegetable markets.

Women dressed in earth-tone floral-print boubous now hold positions of power in villages and towns along the roadsides near Bamako, Mali, where WaterAid has established public water systems. Typically, a woman who lives near each community tap sits by the concrete-enclosed water faucet as her neighbors come in the early morning and late afternoon to buy water by the bucket. She charges the fees, locks the tap at mid-day and during the night, and reports to a local water council. The council pays the national government for the village’s metered use of the water and local profits maintain the system.

Farmers who traditionally hunted grasscutters by burning the bush in the dry season learned from Cornell and World Vision Ghana staff how to raise their own herds of grasscutters to eat and turn out a cash crop. They now conserve the bush and sell grasscutters to city restaurants where the rodents appear on the menu at a substantial price. “It tastes a little like venison,” says Nerquaye-Tetteh. “It’s a delicacy and quite expensive in the city.

Nerquaye-Tetteh says many of these livelihood projects were suggested by local villagers. “The grasscutter project was suggested by farmers,” he says. “We were talking to them about the reasons why they burn the bush. They stopped burning the bush, a natural resource was saved, they now make some money and have improved human nutrition.”

“I feel very proud that we have experienced progress in these efforts, but more important is the fact that the communities are participating and bringing their own ideas to the whole process,” says Nerquaye-Tetteh.

Source: WorldView Magazine (link opens in a new window)