Despite decades of progress, almost 1 billion people around the world still lack access to basic water supply and sanitation (WASH) services. Since 2011 staff and students from the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at UWE, Bristol have worked with community members in different parts of Uganda to improve access to safe water supplies.
Our work is varied – sometimes focussing on rainwater or groundwater collection, sometimes focussing on basic water-related hygiene issues (such as hand-washing after toilet use), and sometimes focussing on influencing government policy around water services and water governance – but it is always locally-based. We do not spend much time sitting in back offices drafting plans, nor do we impose solutions on communities. Instead we work with communities that lack necessary services to develop a common understanding of the local nature of the problems and therefore the local nature of the solutions. Ultimately any solutions implemented – such as hand-washing stations or groundwater collection schemes – will need to be managed by local people, so capacity building in those communities is also critical. If local people cannot service, manage and maintain their own water services solutions, then these solutions will fail – more than a generation of otherwise well-intentioned development assistance for WASH has shown us this.
In 2013 undergraduate student Oscar McLaughlin developed an easy-to-use handbook for water user committees and then ran workshops with local communities to introduce the handbook and familiarise users with it. The first print run of the handbook ran out almost immediately and a second print run was ordered – reception of Oscar’s work has been strongly positive. Doing WASH development this way means that our relationships with these communities are long-term relationships – you cannot just go in, impose a solution and then leave again. Instead we need to take the time to get to know local people, understand both their common and their unique challenges and situations. Solutions then evolve, but they do so in a fully participatory way.