Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Putting the "what?" in WatSan

What are the benefits of household pathogen removal, how are these benefits perceived, and how do they enable households to lift themselves out of poverty?

I've spent a few days in the field and I've tried to make my mind a sponge - there is so much to see and learn every time I step out of the taxi. A world of activity awaits me every time my feet leave the Toyota taxi and connect to the red soil of the Ndola compounds. Now I am trying to process all my observations - from the notes in my moleskin notebook, from the photographs, and from the thoughts and feelings within.

I remember my first visit to the Mackenzie compound vividly - my mind was racing with question after question; I didn't get to see the look on my face but I imagine it was one of perplexed thought. Peri-urban dwellings are places I had only read about in a case study or a book, or perhaps I have heard about different dwellings from one professor or another. I had received some brief and fleeting details about the community and the 'interventions' that had happened in it before arriving.

As I mentioned in another post the first thing I noticed was a borehole and a young boy filling up a container. The taxi cab came to a halt just in front of the clearing where the primary school stands - incomplete gray brick extensions standing beside it - a tree for shade and of course the borehole. As more children gathered around the borehole I couldn't help but steal the moment on my camera - the cliched scene you will see in TV commercials and pamphlets that pronounce the successes of whatever NGO's watsan strategy by showing a group of happy kids using a bore hole - right before they ask for sponsors. {I misplaced my camera cable back in Toronto, I'll try to upload this and all my field photos in short order . . . } The borehole became a focal point for me as I entered Mackenzie. Many questions race through my mind as I see this borehole, this object of great happiness for children, and watch as they laugh and cheer as they work the hand pump.

Is this success? What structures/systems are in place to ensure that this borehole will stay an object of happiness for these school children for years to come? Why was this borehole placed here of all places? What happens when this borehole breaks? Can this borehole serve all the children - and what of the community encircling the school... do these house holds also get unfettered access to the borehole? More importantly - how is this borehole serving to lift these children out of poverty? What will be done to ensure it continues to do so?

It seems that a lot of the work I have seen and read about looks at WatSan projects as means for giving access to something - be it training or a new tool (borehole, filter) - with the hope of lowering rate of water borne disease. But what about the bigger picture? Do these projects look at how reducing pathogens/disease will actually improve a household's livelihood and enable it to escape poverty?

I suppose the key question I am pondering is: are those who are intervening in communities looking at the link between water and a household's livelihood? Are they adapting their strategies to suit the unique links in households and communities? It seems the indicators used for "success" are number of boreholes, filters, wells ect... installed - the quantity of people served. But what of the quality of life of this quantity? Are we looking too much at water as a problem to be solved from a trick bag of solutions and as a result missing the big picture? Is water viewed as something to be provided or as a mechanism for improving livelihoods?

We spend a lot of time looking at how well something works - how many people use the borehole? 3000? okay. How is the filter doing? It reduces pathogens? Okay. And so on. But do we spend enough time looking at WHY things work?

So if these WatSan strategies are benefiting households perhaps the more important question is "how do individuals, households... families and Dorothy perceive these benefits?"
And for the the why: what characteristics do households and individuals have that enable these benefits?

Each time I walk through the communities - be it Mapalo, Mackenzie or any community really - I am left with many questions.

I am not sure if I am just being skeptical but I feel that there are so many unknowns to me about the work that is being done in the WatSan sector. Each field trip raises many questions -some may prove to be a challenge to answer. But it is my commitment to bring the "What?" to WatSan - questioning my actions, learning from the perceptions of communities, and asking what my partner is doing every step of the way.

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