The Challenge of Sustaining Sustainable Technology

One small step forward…

While I was serving as a teacher in the small town of Kankalabé (population: ~5000), Guinea in West Africa, the European Union financed a project to install a running water system in that town. The project, of limited benefit, was soon sabotaged and has since been nothing but a monument to unrealized progress. The rationale of the planners and managers, I cannot verify, but I will describe observations from the level of the townspeople during my time there.

I lived in the town for a total of two years from 1998 to 2000 serving as a Math and Physics teacher with the U.S Peace Corps in grades 9th, 11th, and 12th. Shortly after I arrived, construction began on a running water supply system in the town. Men dug trenches across town and up a large hill towards the sub-prefect’s residence starting from an existing well dug many years previously through a Saudi Arabian aid project. The workers laid pipe, set up four concrete stations or fountains with tap valves, constructed a large concrete tank at the top of the hill, removed the hand pump hardware from the well, and installed an electric pump. Since there is no electricity in Kankalabé, solar panels were installed to power the electric pump. Security fences installed around the pump and solar panels as well as the water tank at the top of the hill prevented tampering and vandalism.
Solar Powered Water Pump in Guinea, West Africa
Now, residents could collect water by going to one of the four stations in town and turning a valve, instead of pumping water by hand at one of the dozens of manual pumps around the town. I heard talk of possible expansion, even to the homes of individuals, if this phase met with approval. But, about six months later, all of the solar panels (valuable imported devices) were stolen. When I made a return visit seven years later, those solar panels were still missing.
Water Tower Installed in Guinea, West Africa
Prior to this project as well as afterward, the majority of the townspeople gathered their water from hand pumps connected to deep wells financed by the Saudi Arabian government. The deep well hand pumps drastically cut down on the instances of water-borne diseases. The hand pump or foot pump technology was common across Guinea. Maintenance was financed by community collection whenever the pump broke down. Years prior to that, the townspeople obtained drinking water from a nearby stream or from hand-dug wells by buckets and ropes.

I believe that instances like this have lessons for us as partners in development of poorer nations both for we who believe that we have the superior technology and education and those for whom places like this are their home. In the end, after the theft, all Kankalabé was left with was the loss of a hand pump and some useless hardware scattered around town. Before the theft, all they had gained was the reduced labor of pumping their water for those who lived close enough to utilize the new stations. Was the gain worth the expense? Were there more significant plans that were not carried out? Those, I cannot answer, but I believe that lives in Kankalabé could have been better served by those same European tax dollars.

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