Visit to the DR Congo in collaboration with UNICEF strengthens Fontes Foundation’s Director’s conviction that sustainable development is key, but it must be done in the right way.
In February 2014 Andreas Koestler, Director of Fontes Foundation visited the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for UNICEF for a supply chain analysis of hand pumps. The following diary entry of his visit provides important insights into the lack of sustainability in many development projects. But there is hope for the future thanks to committed and hard working local people.
The visit today was to a community more than twenty kilometres from the main road towards Lake Albert. Our focus today was hand pumps because they are still considered a sustainable technical solution to bring groundwater to the surface, making it accessible for the population. In the community we visited, as in many other regions, NGOs and International Organizations have invested millions of dollars to establish water supplies for communities – but the result is frustrating. While visiting a hospital and talking to the doctor we learned that there was a hand pump installed close by. However, it had only worked for two months in 2010 and had been out of service since then. The hospital remained without water. I am still struggling to grasp how health services are provided at this hospital with no water. The only answer the doctor could come up with was a shake of the head and a resigned “this is how it is”. Immediately one though came to my mind: How is it possible that such an admirable project of providing water to this hospital failed after only two months and has since not been revived? Walking in the hot sun, talking to local people and visualizing many of failed hand pumps seen during my field visits, I came to the frustrating conclusion that it is not the technical solution which is wrong nor is it lacking maintenance by the local people. It is the failed starting point taken by us as donors, by us as supporting nations of the UN, by us as implementers of water supply projects.
Totally isolated in a community of 6000 people only one hand pump out of three is working properly, installed in 2013. This hand pump serves around 450 people. What about the other 5550 children, youth and adults? Who made the choice to put in one well with a hand pump in this particular location, using 12’000 US Dollars but forcing the rest of the community to continue to collect partly polluted water at poor springs and seasonal rivers? Following the main stream of development now, a business concept is looked for to maintain this pump. How can you build a business on an isolated asset which requires spare parts every second or third year? This is like establishing a business for providing spare parts for a single car on a Pacific island which only has a diameter of 1 km.
Why are we not starting with a general approach staying in an area to provide safe drinking water for all? This would really be following up the Millennium Development Goals. This could be the starting point of many businesses. Because water supply to everybody means that everybody receives a service and a necessary good. This would also mean that everybody gets involved. Businesses are only started from individual initiatives where there is a demand and a market. Water supplies create many things: jobs, businesses and importantly a common understanding of resource accessibility for everyone leading to a common management of this valuable resource. As seen and experienced within projects, this sows the seeds of a democratic understanding of the management of a common good. It also teaches through specific actions the importance of the contribution of each individual for making necessary means available, the first step for a functioning tax system. Taxes mean sharing and managing a common load for the benefit of all.
Back to the failed hand pump at the hospital… You find a frustrated population, a medical doctor who has given up thinking and working for development. This doctor, like many other people, needs our help in better managing the resources available and importantly he crucially depends on our comprehensive understanding and thinking in supporting channels to consider the big picture instead of spending money on an isolated hand pump, which is lost in the wide landscape of north-western DRC.
There is hope for the future as we were able to see on the following day. As we were told by our guide Roger from Oxfam, about twelve hand pumps had been installed in the settlement of Djegu about two years ago. We picked one to visit some 50 metres beside the road, where women still were filling their yellow jerry cans. A young woman with laughing eyes immediately approached us, speaking to us in French – and there we were conversing about life and her future. She told us how the water committees function, how much money they have already collected, how they manage to maintain the pump, and even how they get help from Uganda just over the border for more difficult repairs. She told us that she attended at High School in Bunia and that she dreamed of going to University or complete a nurse training to become a head nurse. Only 21 years old, she was very focused and determined – and very impressively she even uses her time while preparing for her life’s way for meaningful and socially necessary activities such as supporting her community in keeping the water running.
When I remember her determined, sparkling, eyes I feel humbled and inspired to devote more of my time and energy to support my environment.