Friday, July 3, 2009

while walking through the old west I heard thomas the tank engine toot "In theory communism works"

Biosand filters are hailed as a solution to the problem of contaminated water. Filters are basically a container - usually a concrete filter body - that has the right amount of gravel and sand along with water at the right height to allow oxygen to diffuse through the bio layer. The essential idea behind biosand filtration is that water will flow through the bio layer, the sand, and finally the gravel and emerge from the filter free of pathogens to 97%.

Lab tests have proven this, as have field tests. If a filter is fully functional and contaminated water is poured through then the water will emerge "clean". Concrete is a durable material, sand and gravel are available everywhere so some would say BSF represents a catch all solution to household water issues. The technology is sound and "simple" - in theory it works! So let's give everyone a filter.

However, the problem is not so simple that such a simple solution can solve it. Let's not give everyone a filter just yet.

In the field I have observed constantly that people use different buckets and containers for different uses. Some are used for multiple jobs - fetch well water, fetch borehole water, store water, fetch kafubo water . . . It's commont to see people at wells with three or so containers. Normal behaviour - afterall it's easier to fill up several containers at once than it is to walk back and forth. However, some containers are used to store mixed types of water -pre filtration and post filtration. These containers can be heavily contaminated. Once the filtered water is placed in such a container bacteria will propagate causing the water to reach a level of contamination comparable to the source. A colleague of mine has done coliform tests on filtered water and stored water and has seen the evidence quantitatively. The filtered water is clear of bacteria while the stored water is a proverbial playground for e.coli. BSF are rendered effectively dysfunctional by one simple action and a plastic bucket.

I believe that any development project can be undermined by one simple action. It doesn't matter if the theory or technology involved is "flawless" or even if it works and the people know how to use it - one auxilary practice derails the train.

So for a laboured metaphor: I heard once that putting a penny/rock/brick a train track can derail the train. Or that a fissure in the tracks can do the same. Do development organizations look for pennies/fissures/bricks, or are they too busy running trains down the track?

So I love westerns. I absolutely love "the good the bad and the ugly" - revisionist westerns. None of that cowboys and indians trite- the real stories that explore the human condition set amongst a back drop of the west. So imagine it's the wild west - that steel steam stallion is coming down the tracks. A marvel of nineteenth century engineering. Massive. Powerful.... and it derails because of one little fissure. One fissure! Something inconsequential to the mind of a train track engineer inside his comfy office. Even the conductor of the train's eyes are too far elevated on the seat of his locomotive to see such a thing. He is also moving so fast, so very rapidly in fact.

A simple solution: teach households to store water in one container! Not so simple. Human behaviour is complex. We can all relate to that, can we not? Just assuming that giving someone a big yellow container for storage and telling them once that the container, if dirty, will make them sick isn't enough. How is the message communicated? How will it be interpreted? Is it one of rote or understanding? Which is appropriate? Are links between sanitation and containers established? Not so simple. More thinking and planning is required.

What about the training to operate and maintain the filter...? That's a whole other beast. What about networks to make sure filter users have the support they need? A whole other issue. Do people continue to use the filter and trust it?

At the end of the day there is much more to functionality than just having a filter that is technically sound. Is it functional because it is in the house, or functional because it is being used as part of greater water/sanitation efforts in a household, properly maintained, and used with containers that are clean (among other ideas... just throwing a few out)? Just a few thoughts.

Not to push my metaphor any further - but any project "train" that comes into town needs to make sure it has the right cars - m and e, training, community involvement.... ect.

On community involvement: Remember that story, I think it might have been an episode 'little house on the prairie' or maybe it was another western movie (or several) where the greedy railroad company wanted to put a train right through the town or through some man's land?

I think in the movies that someone got shot and maybe the ending wasn't happy. Bloody in fact. In "little house on the prairie" I am sure Mr. Ingles exercised his prairie Confucianism and saved the day with no more than a sweat drop. He might have also called Doc Baker. I think I am making this episode up. BUT IT WAS A MOVIE!

Given the penchant for trains going through "lands that have no business being train lands" being quite messy...Maybe implementers should stop doing that. Run trains where they are wanted and understood, or at least try a town hall meeting before laying the rails... Okay enough laboured metaphors.

Random question - what's everyone's favourite Western?

(apparently pennies cannot derail trains, but fissures, rocks and bricks can.)


  1. my favorite western is the series Deadwood. Watch it. It is the best.

  2. nice metaphor!
    Favourite: the good the bad and the ugly. So, so good!

  3. Leilani I never knew why we got along so well. And now I know! We both love 'the good the bad and the ugly!' "Man with no name" Marathon on August 29th. (I don't even know what day of the week is)

    Haley - I have heard of that show but never watched it! I shall check it out when I am back on Canadian soil.