UWE Global Water Security Project: A reflection at the start of the next cycle

Elena Suckling and Olivia Beale conducting interviews in Kanungu

In the next few weeks we shall be inviting UWE students to apply to undertake placements with partner NGOs working in the water sector in Uganda or Kenya. We are also pleased to announce that a private sector company working in the agricultural sector, but especially with smallholder farmers converting to irrigated commercial farming, has also offered places in countries in southern Africa. We are now halfway through our second year so it seems like a good time to reflect on the achievements of the project so far.

In 2013, three second year undergraduate Geography and Geography and Environmental Management students joined Volunteer Uganda, based in Kanungu, south-west Uganda. Each student was part of a team that collected data as part of a longitudinal study into the factors affecting poverty levels in this isolated mountainous region. However, within this study, each student was able to embed different aspects of a water-related research theme that added to the coverage of the central study, but which also enabled them to collect specialist data relating to their individual dissertation topic. The topics included: a study of how water quality affected household members and crucially, how the storage and handling of water in the household could create risks even where the original water source was uncontaminated; factors influencing the local governance of water resources by local community members; and how access to water varied within the region and seasonally, and the impacts this had on the household’s ability to avoid poverty.

lucy and grace
UWE students Grace Elliott and Lucy Morrell

All three dissertations were of high quality and the first was joint winner of the IWSN Student Prize. Bristol Water’s Environment Manager Patrick Bulmer commended Grace Elliott’s investigation, saying: “This study of water and health in an African community setting gives much insight into how people use water and the risks posed by human behaviours around water disinfection.”

As well as writing their individual dissertations, all three students were part of the writing team of the Great Lakes College/Volunteer Uganda Study of Multidimensional Poverty in the Kanungu District, South Western Uganda: Initial Needs Assessment Report which has now been used by the officers in the District to begin to identify priority areas for intervention to begin to address the worse aspects of poverty within the Kanungu District.

Two other students also undertook placements in Uganda in the 2012-13 period. Grace Wright, based in Rukungiri, to the north-east of Kanungu, undertook an evaluation of WATSAN’s (a WASH NGO) intervention to improve school WASH facilities and to improve the knowledge of schoolchildren about the importance of personal hygiene in reducing the incidence of water borne diseases. Oscar McLaughlin, working with the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), based in Kampala, undertook a study of the impact of domestic water harvesting on household water security. This also was a joint winner of the IWSN Student Prize with the judge Eiman Karar of the Water Research Commission of South Africa commending it as, “An innovative study, based on a strong methodology, of rainwater harvesting and water user groups focusing on the most vulnerable.”

Oscar McLaughlin in Uganda
Oscar McLaughlin in Uganda

In addition to this output, Oscar was also instrumental in producing, with NAPE, a handbook for Water User Committees (WUC) which has been distributed to approximately 200 of them and the independent evaluation of its impact has been extremely positive. It provides an easily accessible guide to the rights and responsibilities of WUC members and helps to overcome a fundamental weakness in the community-based management structure where large numbers of committees functioned badly because they were unaware of these basic facts. Oscar’s work has been published by the Institution of Environmental Sciences in the October 2014 issue of their journal Environmental SCIENTIST and he has also had a paper accepted for publication by Oxfam’s Development in Practice.

Both Liam Davies and Grace Elliott have returned to work as research leaders with Volunteer Uganda during the summer and winter of 2014. They have therefore been part of the team that has worked with four other UWE undergraduates who undertook placements in the period between July to September 2014.

Taking a sample from Standard Academy's water tap for a coliform bacterium test
Jared Joseph-White taking a water sample for testing

These include Charlotte Whitmarsh who studied the links between water availability and farming, including the perceptions of farmers on climate change and how it is beginning to affect their farming practices. Jared Joseph-White, Elena Suckling and Olivia Beale are all studying a variety of inter-related aspects linking water to education. Their ideas and comments can be seen in this booklet.

This takes us back to the start of this article as the experiences and enthusiasm as well as the impacts they have had on people in Uganda are, we believe, the best recruiting sergeant for next year’s placement students. This year, we are hoping to recruit from a wider range of courses within the university so that a greater range of skills and knowledge can be brought to bear in applied situations which have social benefits for our NGO partners and the communities with which they work. We are hoping that more students will choose longer placements and we hope that a wider range of our NGO partners will receive students than in the first two years. However, many students enjoy the structured environment that is provided by Volunteer Uganda and the positive feedback from students who have worked with them should ensure that we maintain excellent links with the organisation.

We have been impressed with the ability of all our students to react positively to the challenges they have undertaken and to produce high quality research that has the ability to improve the lives of Uganda’s poor. Given the positive attitude of this year’s cohort, we are looking forward to sifting through their applications over the next few months.