GRINNELL, Iowa — Water availability in Rwanda has become an increasingly serious problem in the region, especially for the poorer communities in more rural areas. Rwanda received designation as a “High-Priority Country under the U.S. government’s Global Water Strategy” in 2021 despite consistent aid from USAID and GlobalWaters. GlobalWaters also reports that, despite rapid economic growth in the past few years, Rwanda’s government has decreased its budget for water and sanitation services from just under 2% to only 1.3%.
Another major contributor toward improving water availability in Rwanda has been UNICEF, which has reported that less than 60% of Rwanda’s population has access to safe drinking water within 30 minutes of their home. Additionally, even in cases where water is available near homes, the water is unsafe to drink. Many of the poorer communities do not have access to the kinds of filtration technology necessary to make these unsafe water sources viable to use. Because of this, members of these communities, in many cases children, sacrifice large portions of their day to access clean drinking water, thus also limiting those children’s access to schooling.
In terms of sanitation, UNICEF reports that less than 65% of Rwandans have access to a toilet that is not shared with another household. Also, only 5% of households have a place where residents can wash their hands with soap. There is a crisis of water availability in Rwanda that, though dire, has been and continues to receive attention from various organizations including Engineers Without Borders (EWB).
The Origins of the Miami University Division of EWB
Since January 2015, the Miami University division of EWB has worked in the Western Province of Rwanda, primarily in the Hindiro and Matyazo sectors of the Ngororero district. It primarily focuses on assessing communities’ water accessing systems and the general quality of readily available water near these communities. For example, in 2015, a team went to Muramba, Rwanda to survey members of the community, utilize a GPS-generated map to assess the nearby landscape and collect data on the quality of available water sources.
Using the data collected in 2015, another team returned the following year and aided the community in the construction of a water storage tank and a pipeline to assist in the more efficient and safer distribution of water to the local community. Teams like these first two continue to visit this community annually, assessing the water availability in Rwanda and assisting in the construction of various additional projects such as a hand washing station for the local school.
Some Programs That EWB is Implementing
Katie Byrnes is an engineer who has been working with EWB in Rwanda alongside Miami University for the last nine years and has gone on five separate trips to the region. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Byrnes described the organization’s work as trying to “focus on both quality and quantity.” According to Byrnes, much of EWB’s work in the region involved “mainly water supply and distribution, so that can look like anything from installing pipelines from spring sources to take water to different villages or schools, storages tanks, to be able to store water, new tap stands, for people to get water closer to their homes… things like that.”
Byrnes stated that one of the most important aspects of EWB’s work is developing better source protection, which refers to improving the water quality directly at its source, using filtration among other methods. This work aims to protect communities against a variety of factors that could impact their viable water sources. One of these potential factors is “an unreliable flow rate,” as, “in the dry season there might not be any water coming into certain areas.”
According to Byrnes, potentially the most important aspect of these programs is the degree to which they are community-driven. EWB members look to members of the local community to inform their plans and understand what aspects of water security need to be prioritized. Byrnes even noted that “there are kids that I held when they were infants that are now, you know, showing me their homework from 3rd grade.” These relationships become increasingly important as some projects continue over the course of several years. In the interview with The Borgen Project, Byrnes noted that without the kinds of personal bonds their division prioritizes creating, there would not be the same level of trust between the community and EWB necessary to implement multi-year projects.
One of the larger projects that recently reached completion occurred in the Hindiro sector, where local communities had to walk for roughly an hour to get to the closest water source which was somewhat unsafe for consumption as well. To replace this, EWB members located a different, safer-to-drink water source about 3 kilometers away. Additionally, the engineers helped construct a 10,000-liter water storage unit with 12 different distribution taps that serve about 3,000 people. These kinds of projects have been essential to improving water availability in Rwanda.
The Way COVID-19 Affected the Program
Though the sudden presence of a global pandemic made their physical work in Rwanda impossible from late 2019 until their most recent trip in January 2023, EWB continued to work to improve water availability in Rwanda with members of various west Rwandan communities through video calls and sending over construction plans and the necessary funding. Byrnes noted that implementing projects remotely proved difficult, as necessary adjustments could not occur in person and relationships with members of the community were more difficult to foster.
The Future of EWB in Rwanda
One large upcoming project EWB hopes to implement in the near future, which would aid other work in improving water availability in Rwanda as well as helping all other kinds of transportation, is the construction of a footbridge in the region. This project, while quite different from their typical work aimed directly at water sources and water distribution, aims to make all kinds of transportation in the region safer and easier.
Miami University’s division of EWB has done and will continue to do incredible work to help improve water availability in Rwanda.
– Christopher Dickinson