« The War On Christmas: Special Reptilian Messiah Edition | Main | Another Death I Find It Hard To Get All Broken Up Over... »

December 20, 2006

Comments

Fascinating: yet another little-known chapter in the Hilzoy Saga - maybe you can answer a question which your post brought to mind: Just why are the road systems (and the roads themselves) so godawfully bad in Africa? Is it the climate? Terrain? Lack of infrastructure capital?
That rural roads in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly rutted tracks of the sort you picture is pretty much a given: but one would think that even in a capital-starved country like Mozambique, someone would find the time and effort to improve the roads - the improvements in transportation time alone would probably make it worthwhile for economic development: what is stopping them?

Basically: the Portuguese never bothered; then there was a long civil war; since then, and throughout, basic poverty. I mean: even after years of decent growth (most recently at 7.7%, poor old Mozambique still has a per capita GNI of $310/year (which is a big improvement from when I was there.) Life expectancy: 41.8. HIV prevalence: 16.1%. Average health expenditure, per capita: either $12 or $45/year, depending on which exchange rate you use. It's just desperately poor.

Mozambique, like California, is much longer than it is wide. There are several roads that cross the country east to west, some of which exist mostly to take Zimbabwean goods to the sea (back when there used to be Zimbabwean goods), but there was, when I was there (1999) no paved road that ran north to south the length of the country (or anything close to it.)

I forgot to add, among Mozambique's problems, its inept socialist government during the 70s and 80s. I mean: it wasn't really socialist in any US/European sense; when Portugal pulled out there were next to no people with any education or skills at all, and the idea that the people running the country had any detailed idea what socialism was, or of what else they might do, is afaik just wrong. The Portuguese just abruptly decided they didn't want to have an empire anymore, and pulled out, leaving the basically well-intentioned but economically clueless people who had been waging what had until that point been a not so successful war against them in charge of the country.

They tried to get help from the USSR, but (I think) didn't get much, despite their attempts to be Marxist -- no one was all that interested in Mozambique except for the Rhodesians and S. Africans, who funded the other side in their civil war. (The end of the cold war was great for Mozambique, but the fall of the apartheid regime was downright glorious.) As I think I wrote somewhere, Mozambique even tried to join the Warsaw Pact (?!), and I believe got closer than any other non - Eastern European country, but without avail.

The results of all this were not all that great. To put it mildly.

How hard is it to build a well? Come on. This is not tantamount to building one of the wonders of the world. If they won't even do that for themselves, how exactly do you think building one for them is going to help in the long run?

Don't give them fish, teach them to fish. And if they refuse to learn even that...at some point you have to turn your back on these people. Resources are scarce, spend them where they have at least some plausible chance of helping.

thetruth: How hard is it to build a well?

This is one of those questions that you could actually have answered for yourself with a quick google. Here's the state of Florida's guidelines in a PDF file on drilling a good quality water well (you'll note the emphasis throughout on the importance of hiring a licenced contractor and the risk, if you don't, of water contamination). The National Ground Water Association also does a basic webpage on planning a well. South Dakota's website on drilling a well explains with a diagram the importance of going deep enough into the aquifer to get an adequate water supply even during drought, and planning wells with regard to sharing the available water.

In short: drilling a well, as a little research would have told you, is not difficult given you have the equipment, you have a geographical map of the area and a good idea of the depth of the aquifer, you know how to construct and locate a well to avoid the water being contaminated, and you know where and how many other wells there are in the area so that everyone is sharing the available water.

Does that answer your question why the people in the village Hilzoy visited couldn't just dig their own well?

One can tell it is thetruth because it is so banal...

One thing I never understood about US/Mozambican relations is why the Reagan Administration didn't support the Renamo guerillas. Instead, to my great surprise, they opposed it on the grounds that Renamo's atrocities put them in the same league with the Khmer Rouge. That was true, but Savimbi and his Unita thugs weren't much better and they were numbered among Ronnie's freedom fighters.

Of course, Reagan's opposition to Renamo didn't stop other Republicans from wanting to support them. Robert Dole among others--

http://openweb.tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/1987-6/1987-06-04-NBC-13.html


I remember stuff like this when my rightwing Christian friends start blathering about Muslim support for terrorism. Someday when we can access the web by talking to the wall and pointing to holographic pictures floating in the air I'll start winning a lot of political arguments.

"talking to the wall and pointing to holographic pictures floating in the air "

I do this now, of course, but I find it adds nothing to my credibility. Doesn't detract from it either, mind you, because I think a lot of people can't distinguish between outrageous claims with no evidence (9/11 conspiracy theories) and outrageous claims that are beyond dispute (mainstream American politicians have supported mass murderers).

one ultra-short version of sub-Saharan African history:

people were living as they had since time immemorial. then they were occupied by people who killed all the leaders and anyone with education. then the occupiers left. then there were a bunch of wars caused by the grudges built up during the occupation.

as a result, there are STILL lots and lots and lots of places where there is no engineer, no pipe, no digging tool, no ... etc.

a municipal water well in Southern California costs about $1 million to build, test, get licensed.

Jesurgislac: To follow up on what you just posted...

I was recently looking for jobs this past summer and looked at several openings with humantiarian and relief agencies working in Africa. A good number of those jobs were specifically for setting up new clean water wells. I thought, well, this is really important and sounds like it could be fun, so I decided to apply. I was rejected from all.

I was a little unsure as to why I was rejected so I questioned those in charge. Their basic response was that it can be so difficult and requires such expertise when the water table and bedrock maps are virtually unknown that they really needed people with years of experience. Which, when I thought about it after finding this out made perfect sense. This also is without considering inherent difficulties with aging machinery that also requires someone with considerable know-how.

In Niassa province, Mozambique (where the pictures are from), some villages are near lake Malawi, so have no problem, but others are sitting on some very hard and rocky soil, and it requires some pretty serious equipment and planning to dig a good well. If you click here (link from 'contaminated water' above), you'll find a story of wells that didn't work, and then wells that did. The villagers dug the well that did work themselves, but they needed the digging equipment, and also the well itself, and the expertise of the NGO, to make it work.

As to why they couldn't just save up for the well themselves: we're talking about people who are desperately poor, who live in villages in the middle of nowhere and have only the slightest interaction with the money economy to start with. How on earth would they so much as find out how to buy a well, let alone put together the cash to buy one?

Drilling a well requires machinery, frequently. In some places the water table is high enough that one can simply dig a well, but the risks of getting contaminated water are also elevated. And, I'd guess that in most of Africa the water table isn't high enough for a dug well.

And, needless to say, it's practically a lock that well-drilling guides for Florida are not going to apply in Africa. In Florida the problem is not so much finding water as finding sweet water. Florida aquifers tend to contain lots of iron and sulfur dioxide, and so one must pick and choose. The water table where I live, for instance, is always closer to the surface than eight feet or so. Of course, one must go deeper for drinking water, but the bedrock here is all limestone, which is a fairly predictable problem.

Which brings us to well-drilling equipment. No village is going to simply build themselves a drill out of...well, mud and spare bicycle parts. Even if they could do so, there's no sense in it, because it's going to get used once. And then there's pumps and such to purchase and maintain. Maintenance is probably minimal with such wells, but there's no getting around the initial purchase, and there's no getting around that the pump will be manufactured somewhere other than the village in which it's used.

Right offhand I can remember quite a few clean-water projects that are busy in third-worldish countries. Google yields a whole bunch of references, lots of them in Zimbabwe. Thanks for this, hilzoy; specific projects like this are much more attractive to me than monolithic charitable organizations. I'm going to do a bit more googling and write a check.

If anyone has a favorite they'd like to recommend, please let me know.

...and in Florida, one can dig an irrigation well with a piece of PVC pipe, some garden hose, and a few fittings. The soil here is sandy down well past the water table, and you can literally have a hose dig itself down to the water table just by leaving it running.

Which sounds absurd, given that how many people in Africa could be sustained just with the amount of water you'd use to do dig such a well. But that's how easy it is to get water here. Africa, needless to say, is way, way different.

Slarti: maintenance is indeed a big problem. As of 1999, it was a problem that UNICEF clearly recognized (I was tooling around Mozambique with them); and the link in my last comment is pretty explicit about it. It seems to me that you absolutely have to go very low-tech here, and most of the decent ngos are.

This seems like a good moment for a broader thought (not directed at Slarti in particular, or for that matter at anyone): there are a lot of things that ngos have done, over the years, that have been mistakes. One of them, in some (not all) cases, was failing to appreciate the need to maintain stuff, or (better) to provide stuff that didn't need any maintenance that local people couldn't provide.

When one learns about stuff like that, one possible response is: so much for good deeds. They don't work; they run unto unforeseen contingencies and go awry. For some less thoughtful ngos, that might be true: surely not everyone actually manages to learn from experience.

Personally, I've always thought of it differently. Giving aid to people in quite distant cultures is a relatively new phenomenon. It is, presumably, something that has a learning curve. I would expect there to be mistakes and screw-ups. And while I do not mean to just blithely say "go ahead, charitable organizations, waste my money!" (they should be trying as hard as they can not to, and as far as I know many are), I also assume that even if they try very hard, they will not get everything right right off the bat.

Therefore, I try to distinguish between (a) mistakes that are a sign of incompetence and (b) mistakes that are a sign of the fact that this is a complicated enterprise that we have to learn how to do, and while we might wish that we just did everything right automatically, and try as hard as possible to do so, sometimes, alas, we learn by screwing up.

It seems to me that you absolutely have to go very low-tech here, and most of the decent ngos are.

Letting the possible slur on the good dr. ngo slide, I'd imagine that low-tech would lead one to the hand-pumped well. More effort, but essentially zero maintenance.

In places where diesel engines are common and maintainable and where parts and fuel are available, you'd probably want to go with a highly bulletproof diesel-powered pump, but you'd also want to have manual backup for it. Something human-, wind-, or animal-powered. Anywhere else, you'd want the manual pump, and you'd want the moving parts where they could be easily removed and replaced, and you'd want a standard set of parts, and you'd want to train some of the village people (shut up, Ugh) to do the replacement themselves, and you'd want to leave them with a couple of decades' worth of replacement parts, and you'd want the ngos to have all of these places networked so they can go back and spot-check to see if the well was still running.

And of course you'd want the pump parts to be common between wells of similar capacity, so that replacements won't have gone out of production. And easy to recreate, in case they ever do go out of production. Basically you're going to want to have a pump that could be repaired by any decently skilled blacksmith.

and you'd want to train some of the village people (shut up, Ugh)

Hey that one probably would have gone right on by me.

Sorry...I had to lay the blame on something other than my mental image of oddly-costumed men making letters of the alphabet with their arms.

"Sorry...I had to lay the blame on something other than my mental image of oddly-costumed men making letters of the alphabet with their arms."

How much you want to bet the folks in Mozambique (or anywhere else, for that matter) would remember that training seminar long after they'd forgotten WHO's?

"In short: drilling a well, as a little research would have told you, is not difficult given you have the equipment, you have a geographical map of the area and a good idea of the depth of the aquifer, you know how to construct and locate a well to avoid the water being contaminated"

I'm also puzzled why more wells weren't hand-dug there.

To a rough approximation, in most places dig deep enough and you'll find water before you hit bedrock (you just hope the aquifer is a fresh, not saline, one). Even if it's too deep to dig directly, you could still use a hand auger to get you an additional dozen feet or so down. Tedious, but doable.

"Thanks for this, hilzoy; specific projects like this are much more attractive to me than monolithic charitable organizations. I'm going to do a bit more googling and write a check.

If anyone has a favorite they'd like to recommend, please let me know."

Back when I was working for a water engineering firm, a U.K. charity called WaterAid was our preferred NGO to support. http://www.wateraid.org.uk/

Unfortunately, some of the engineers in our firm who worked with WaterAid came back with stories of one village receiving a well, and then people from a neighbouring village coming and vandalizing it.

Crazy engineering feats done with hand tools!

PVC pipe would be good way to move water from an existing source to a place closer to the village. May have to dig deep trenches to get continuous slope to the village cistern, but after that you don't have to rely on moving parts.

DaveC: at least where I was, the nearest source of PVC pipe would have been at least 100 miles away, if not all the way to Maputo (very, very distant). Also, no one had any money. As in: any at all. -- I mean, I did note above that the average per capita income was $310 a year, right?

Also, the nearest water source was the aforementioned shallow stream, in which people bathed, washed their clothes, and did various other less appealing things.

Wells were a lot better. But, as I said, the soil was really hard to dig through without equipment.

USA: some of the links in the last para. before the photos are to WaterAid. It seemed good, but I didn't check all the "assess this charity" web sites. I plan to, since, like Slarti, I'm going to donate once I finish the Christmas shopping ;)

It seems to me that you absolutely have to go very low-tech here, and most of the decent ngos are.

Letting the possible slur on the good dr. ngo slide, . . .

Very considerate of you, Slarti, since I don't need defense against this particular slur:

1) I am distinctly "low-tech" (just ask Anarch!)

2) On my good days, I like to think that I am decent.

Still, it's good to know you've got my back.

But seriously, folks . . .

I have no experience of Africa, and in Southeast Asia I was dealing with countries a good notch or two up the economic ladder from Mozambique, but I've travelled on enough roads (and seen enough markets) like those depicted to have some idea of what they're up against.

Besides the many problems others have mentioned, we need to think about the fact that these are the real tropics, which wreaks havoc on all kinds of building materials, particularly anything with an organic component or susceptible to being overgrown (almost overnight, it seems) by vegetation, whether huge vines or microscopic mosses.

In much of the region, in fact, all "traditional" building, up to royal palaces, was basically temporary. You built of wood and bamboo and fully expected to rebuild again after it was blown down in a typhoon or just wore out after a generation. Except for a few temples, cities were like stage sets, to be used/seen for one run of performances, then discarded. (It took archeologists *decades* to find the site of the capital city of the great maritime empire of Srivijaya, which eventually showed up as the remnants of the great wooden pillar-posts on which the actual buildings sat.)

Maintenance is the main problem with public works throughout SEAsia, and although I have no technical expertise whatsoever (see previous comment), it would be my guess that whatever you build is likely to fall apart, untended, at least twice as fast as the equivalent in temperate zones.

It's possible to overcome this by very disciplined institutions tasked with maintenance (e.g., in Singapore), but if there's any slippage at all in the political or bureaucratic system, things go visibly to hell pretty fast.

Italics begone!

And yes, preview is my (neglected) friend.

"USA: some of the links in the last para. before the photos are to WaterAid. It seemed good, but I didn't check all the "assess this charity" web sites."

Looking at their entry on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WaterAid), it looks like they get high marks: they were voted the UK's most admired charity in 2006. Their pumps cost ~$30, and it's probably even a bigger bang-for-your-donation-buck than even immunization.

If people want to give money to provide wells, can I recommend the arsenicum project or a similar project?

In for instance Bangladesh many wells were dug to help the local population - but they were found to contain too much arsenicum. People have been chronically poisened by the arsenicum in the water.

In the Netherlands I gave to an organisation that bought paint for Bangladesh - to paint the pumps of the wells either green (arsenicum free drinking water) or red (just for washing).

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad