Ghost Water Taps and the Failure of Development in Southwestern Uganda

Local spring in Kabashese (Spencer Huchulak)

Local spring in Kabashese (Spencer Huchulak)

By Spencer Huchulak

“One tap…two taps…three taps.”

This is what I was hoping to count to myself on Monday when I walked through town. Unfortunately, my optimism would be squashed.

The day before, mzee, my host grandfather, described the water project he hoped to start in Kabasheshe. Currently, the closest water source is located at the very bottom of the valley, at least 30 minutes there and back, up and down hills.

My host sisters make the journey at least once a day, but more commonly multiple times. Older sisters would carry a 20-liter jerry-cans on their head.

When full with water, these would weigh 20kg or 44 pounds! I barely managed when I tried. Younger children carry 10- and 5-liter jugs; one or two, depending on their strength. These feats of strength are more impressive when considering that a 2-year-old toddler may also be on a woman’s back.

A day's worth of water collection in Kabasheshe for a family of ten (Spencer Huchulak).

A day’s worth of water collection in Kabasheshe for a family of ten (Spencer Huchulak).

I should also point out for clarity that my household is somewhat lucky in that it is located directly uphill from the community spring. Other families have the dual challenges of living uphill and down the road from the water source, increasing their walking time.

If you walk 30 minutes up the road, towards the main junction, you find a completely different reality. The village of Rusoka seems to be an oasis of water projects – piped water, community boreholes, and others. On our way to see their current gem, my hosts and I passed a centrally placed hand pump. I was told that it was spoiled, not in use. I trust that this is true as I saw nearby pipes ripped out from the ground.

After months of no more flowing water, the plastic pumps are commonly extracted; these can then be used by families to illegally smuggle power into their homes or any other use that they can come up with.

A "not so fun" water play-pump in Rusoka -- in disuse (Spencer Huchulak)

A “not so fun” water play-pump in Rusoka — in disuse (Spencer Huchulak)

The Rusoka Primary School has another interesting feature – a play pump, age unknown. Play pumps are water projects that replace the typical manual hand pump with a circular merry-go-round, one intended for children to play on. These work when kids are nearby and willing to use it, but are problematic for a woman by herself.

It is also a sad part of development that many communities are conditioned to try and attract international donors, so children may come out to play for photos, but will stop once the abazungus (foreigners) leave.

It was interesting to see one, though. If I had more time, I might have tried to uncover its history and current level of use.

Successful pump-house and water infrastructure in Rusoka.

Successful pump-house and water infrastructure in Rusoka.

After walking through town, passing orphanages, training centers, and hair salons we arrived at the pump house. This relatively large building provides piped water to the entire Rusoka community. It pumps water uphill to a storage tank and then downhill to several taps. This is the model that my village hopes for. Built many years ago, it has run flawlessly.

A cynic might propose that Kabasheshe’s mostly Muslim population missed out on the charity that Rusoka received from Catholic organizations that visited it, being a majority Catholic population itself.

A realist might say that Kabasheshe’s location further down the dirt road has left it with worse luck. Rusoka is closer to the main road, which also acts as a pathway between Uganda and Rwanda.

Either way, my host village finds itself without easy accessible water.

Non-operational borehole in Kabasheshe -- missing handle and everything else! (Spencer Huchulak)

Non-operational borehole in Kabasheshe — missing handle and everything else! (Spencer Huchulak)

Eight or maybe nine years ago, they did get a borehole, supplied by the local sub-county government. But, after three years of use, it broke down and was never fixed. It sits there today, a skeleton of its former self, with all removable component scavenged and probably sold.

This is the start of Mzee’s plan. Three years ago, Rusoka received electricity and thanks to a politician who lived here, the line was extended to Kabasheshe. Him, his brother, my host family, and a few others now have power.

Power is quite a life changer. It means that you can own a cellphone, as it needs to be charged regulary, and connect with others far away. It means a steady, cheap source of light. And it mean that you can own a TV and relax while watching it, as my host family regularly does.

But it also means one more thing, more options for community project. Rather than the manual water pump that failed in Kabasheshe before, Mzee wants to install a motorized pump to provide piped water to his community. Just like Rusoka.

Going uphill, the water would be pumped to storage tanks, either polyurethane or concrete, and then downhill to various sources. Using storage tanks mean that water can still flow, even when there’s a power outage. Also, meters can be placed on the multiple tanks to track usage.

After seeing the borehole and location for future tanks, I was taken to see the community taps. There were three of them. Or, at least, that was what I was told.

One at the primary school. One at the trading center (local store and outdoor pool hall). And one near a home on the main road.

First, the school. Like what I saw in Rusoka, a plastic pipe was sticking out of the ground. After the borehole stopping providing water, someone dug up the line, cut it, and took it home. But, there was hope that a new line could be installed. It would be nice to see this school receive running water, as the alternative is children missing school to fetch water.

Broken water tap in Kabashese Primary School - with stolen pipes! (Spencer Huchulak)

Broken water tap in Kabashese Primary School – with stolen pipes! (Spencer Huchulak)

Next, the family home. We arrived at our destination, but I saw no tap. There was a hedge dividing two properties. A gated house on the left and a small business on the right. It turns out that this tap was demolished after the borehole broke and was in the way of the homeowner’s plan. All that is left is a memory of what was.

The third and final tap, at the trading center, had the same fate. It was demolished some time ago. Nothing left to signify that it was ever here.

This left me puzzled. Mzee told me about the three taps and my mind raced with possibility. But to have so much infrastructure missing, it would be a daunting project.

So, what can be done?

It is definitely possible to provide piped water to the community. The borehole is there. At least one tap (probably the most important one, in my view) is still in the ground and ready to be connect. And the community wants it.

How to do it?

As with most things, money is primary. Funding can come from one of three sources. It can be through the community, everyone pitching in and taking full ownership. The government could come in, but people have little to no trust in them. Or an outside source, like an international charity or aid organization, could be the one to manage the project.

In any case, some things would need to be bought and installed. A motorized pump at the borehole, connected to the power line. A house would need to be built to contain everything. A 200-meter trench would need to be dug, at least 5-feet deep to prevent the thievery of the past, and plastic piping laid. The hilltop would be leveled and a few tanks installed on concrete or other structure. More trenches and piping would go downhill. The school would be re-connected and new taps would need to be constructed elsewhere.

All in all, this would be a massive project. Probably the biggest one Kabasheshe has every received. But the questions of previous projects’ failures remain:

Will the village be able to repair future breakdowns? Will they be able to prevent thievery? Isn’t it better to wait and lobby the government to invest and follow through with seeing the long-term success of the project?

However the project unfolds, what the ghost taps and failures of past development projects tell us is that without community-ownership of a water project, the likelihood of infrastructure surviving past its first breakdown is low.

Community involvement in planning, implementation and maintenance is key to not repeating the mistakes of the past and providing safe, clean drinking water to people for the long-run.

By Spencer Huchulak

(Link to original story published on Spencer’s blog).

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