Saturday, May 1, 2010

Water in Uganda

A little more about water here in Uganda. Where to start? I’ll try not to make this too long. Country wide, Uganda does have a very proactive and responsible National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) that is doing a lot to improve access clean water and sanitation to urban and rural populations. I just got back from a conference the NWSC held in conjunction with the African Water Association (AfWA) in Kampala about Africa’s water and sanitation problem, with emphasis on prospective threats to water and sanitation from climate change and energy issues. A lot of international water suppliers, governing boards, and environmental interest groups were present to discuss these issues, including the keynote speaker, Wangaari Mathai (Nobel Peace Prize winner from Keyna) who talked about the importance of conserving Uganda’s natural environment. Got a picture with her at lunch, it was great! It was also reinforcing to see that there is that structure in place in Africa, though most the work discussed was directed at much larger scale than which the Peace Corps volunteer works at. Oh well, interesting nonetheless.

At the district level in Uganda, there’s a lot of talk about what the government is doing to improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the area, you just don’t see them much. Again, a lot of talk, not a lot of money, and still a lot of rural populations lacking access to safe water and sanitation. In my particular area in Rakai Town, most people do have piped water from a nearby lake available at community or compound owned taps (very few, if any, individual taps) which are locked and metered, and bills paid to the local water office. Outside town, there are “free” boreholes which people use and “maintain”. Though, as the story often goes, there’s actually little maintenance here and user ownership attached, so when a borehole does break, or no longer produces water, they often wait for someone else (the government) to take the initiative to fix it. There a number of local organizations, including PC volunteers, trying to increase the formation of water committees for proven water sources. There’s also a major push for rainwater collection, which is improving, and provides a much cleaner source. Money is still the issue. When these options aren’t available, people revert back to open sources, which happens probably more than I see.

As for treating, the most common method people use to treat water is by boiling it. People here are well educated in that area (and have been for some time)…so much they almost neglect to think about other methods. I don’t think there’s anywhere in Uganda I’d feel safe even drinking tap water without treating it first, including the capitol, Kampala. I haven’t gotten much into water quality testing out in Rakai yet, but there is a volunteer nearby, who just attended a training which organized and provided WQ equipment to Ugandans to go out and test its water sources. Since most of our local water sources in Rakai come from deep boreholes, people here seem to accept that it’s relatively clean, and then still boil. As for slow sand filters, I’ve seen them built and sponsored by some of the aid organizations, though I really haven’t seen them used by anyone locally. I believe they definitely could be used at the household level in rural areas, but I don’t think people have a lot of trust, the proper training, or even the patience for it yet. I also notice that a lot of people don’t actually drink a lot of water. Rather, Ugandan’s drink a lot of tea (former English colony), so they boil anyway. I imagine I still don’t see the whole picture.

As for SSF with biological treatment, I think it is something which could improve here. The Centre for Affordable Water Supply (CAWST) provides trainings and has developed some promotional materials…check out their website if ya haven’t already. Otherwise, people that have the money and access have no problem just buying bottled water. So…the number of water bottles in this country, or plastic in general, with no readily available method of recycling or disposal, is just as important of an issue.

Another method of water treatment here in Uganda, which is very inexpensive and available throughout the country, is the use WaterGuard or PUR. Both are chemical solutions which are put directly into a filled water container for treatment. Water containers, 20-L “jerry cans”, are the most common water containers used in Uganda. They are also usually not very clean. After 20 minutes or so in these containers, both of these solutions do produce safe drinking water. Unfortunately though, people, and especially kids, will say they don’t like the taste of this chemically treated water, and that they prefer boiled water. One kid told me he rather likes to use the bleach like solution for cleaning his cloths. So continues boiling over charcoal stoves and the destruction of Uganda forests.

To wrap this up, I don’t believe Uganda lacks aid organizations trying to improve this situation, though it is hard to reach all 32 million people in the country, most of which are in rural areas and below the poverty line. If there’s anything else you’re interested in hearing about, I’m happy to share, and very excited about being in a place where I can relay this information to someone. Again, I appreciate your response to the email, it’s great to hear from friends and how things are back home. Drink some tap water for me!

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