ANAMOSA, Iowa — Globally, one out of every 10 people does not have access to clean water. This amounts to 785 million people around the world who struggle to meet their most basic human need: water. In developing countries such as Uganda, people lack sufficient water for drinking, hygiene and crop irrigation. Typically, sanitary restrooms are nonexistent and people are forced to defecate in the open, which is not only dehumanizing but also unsanitary. All of these circumstances together are a breeding ground for disease. People in water-scarce areas often contract deadly waterborne diseases from the consumption of contaminated water, a situation exacerbated by unsanitary waste removal systems. Furthermore, a lack of water leads to an inability to support crops, resulting in food shortages and economic reduction in the area. Because of these extensive issues, the non-governmental organization WaterSchool which works to combat water scarcity in Uganda by making water and sanitation access a priority.
The Founding of WaterSchool
In 2001, Canadian water engineer Bob Dell undertook a trip to Uganda. On his journey, he witnessed the impacts of the lack of clean drinking water that many experienced. He saw the effect it had on people’s health, education and families. Because of his experience as a water engineer, Dell was able to create a system of water disinfection that involved filling plastic water bottles with contaminated water and leaving it in the sun for a given amount of time. As long as the location of the water is close enough to the equator, and the water bottle itself is clean, the sun’s rays will disinfect the water. This idea proved to be very important down the line.
In 2007, Dell worked with partners to create WaterSchool, which has already reached more than 900,000 Ugandan people with solar disinfection technology and more, enabling safe drinking water for life.
An Interview with Tony Woodruff
Tony Woodruff is the director of the African program portion of WaterSchool. At 18 years of age, Woodruff joined a non-governmental organization called Voluntary Service Overseas and began teaching math and science to rural people at a small school in Northern Kenya. In 2011, Woodruff joined WaterSchool. He travels to Uganda biannually and works with the African WaterSchool team to help with planning and overseeing programs and finances.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Woodruff explains WaterSchool’s functions in Africa. “Our team in Uganda goes to a new village and we tend to work in fairly remote areas where there aren’t other NGOs working.” Woodruff says, “People then come together, at least 75% of the population has to be [in the village meeting].”
Improving Water and Sanitation in Villages
From there, the WaterSchool team has a volunteer draw a map of the village in the dirt. Then, everyone receives a slip of paper to place on the map wherever their homes are located. This is followed by everyone with a latrine (a toilet or outhouse) placing an additional piece of paper next to their house. Next, the water sources of the village are identified. Steams, ponds and the occasional well are added to the map.
According to Woodruff, the realization soon starts to set in among the villagers that their water comes from sources that are right next to, or even the same as, the locations of other people’s outhouses. “That’s when we come in and say, “you recognize you have a problem, it’s causing your kids to get sick, would you like help to solve this problem?” Woodruff says, “We’re not coming in and saying they need to change. Their people are saying that… that creates a huge difference because it leads to ownership.”
Once the village establishes that changes are necessary to protect health and safety, the WaterSchool team begins its work. Not only does the team build the necessary infrastructure for water, sanitation and waste disposal but the team also encourages self-sufficiency and sustainability by teaching people how to do it themselves. In this way, WaterSchool presents long-term solutions to combat water scarcity in Uganda.
“We teach people how to build safe, secure latrines, how to do solar disinfection, how to do composting, how to build efficient, vented cooking stoves so that the smoke goes out of the hut and the women don’t get lung disease. It’s a complete transformation of the village that takes three or four months, and three or four months later, people realize they aren’t spending money in the clinic as they used to and that their kids are going to school every day.”
Additionally, WaterSchool builds rainwater harvesting tanks and taps into underwater aquifers to pump clean water out to 2,000 to 5,000 people at once. These changes are “the transformation of their life,” according to Woodruff. Perhaps of the same importance are the social changes that occur. Women who once spent hours a day carrying water through dangerous terrain now have time for rest or other productive activities. Children who once had to collect water can now attend school every day and families feel proud of their homes.
Woodruff goes on to recall a conversation with a female villager who said her husband is a politician and people regularly visit the couple’s home for meetings. “Before this transformation, they didn’t have a latrine and when people would ask for a latrine, she would send them to the maize plants,” Woodruff says. Now, the woman tells people, “I have [two]latrines here, they are beautiful, use my latrines,” an indication of her pride. “I am no longer ashamed of my house,” she told WaterSchool. “That’s basically what we are doing. We’re transforming rural communities,” Woodruff says.
WaterSchool plays an important role in resolving water scarcity in Uganda — every day it works to not only help people acquire clean drinking water but also improve the quality of life for residents. Woodruff highlights, “You can’t really do much in the developing world until you deal with water [and]sanitation. You’ve got to deal with water insecurity first.”
– Evelyn Breitbach