I’m Micheala and I have just graduated with a MEng in Engineering from Trinity Hall. I am the current Project Director for the Cambridge Development Initiative’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) project. I first joined CDI last year as a volunteer on the WaSH Project, working on the now-decommissioned Biogas Project, and continued because of the core beliefs and mission of the WaSH Project.
The WaSH Project was built on the idea that entrepreneurship in WaSH can produce multiple knock-on benefits. A special report on Engineering a Better World from the New Civil Engineer (April 2017) noted the positive multiplier effects of investment in WaSH in rural areas and urban slums: “if you spend £100 per family on water and sanitation infrastructure, it increases literacy by 30% and doubles family income within five years.” [Priti Parikh – Director of the MSc in Engineering for International Development at UCL].
Simplified sewerage, the central vein of the project, has been shown to be a success in other developing contexts such as in South America and Pakistan. This utilises systems more appropriate to informal settlements, in which the infrastructure and layout are unplanned. Using smaller diameter pipes buried less deep underground than conventional sewerage, this system is cheaper and thus more applicable to the community-focussed project run by CDI. From here, the idea expanded to include a biodigester, which would produce biogas from the sewage. This biogas would then be stored and sold back to the community, providing funds for the expansion of the simplified sewerage networks. A further addition to the cycle was a solar cooker, which would dry out the waste exiting the biodigester, producing a substance which could be used as a fertiliser. This model (as seen in the image below) produced a cycle in which waste losses could be recuperated as economic benefits to the community.
The thing about the WaSH Project is that it takes risks where no other CDI project ever has. It aims to tackle issues not only on the community level but also on a structural level. Through regular conversations with the Dar es Salaam Water and Sewerage Authority (DAWASA), CDI and KITE Dar es Salaam (our partner organisation based in Dar es Salaam, also known as KITE DSM) bring to centre-stage the issue of sanitation in informal settlements – areas not generally considered by a government that is sometimes accused of enriching themselves off the backs of the poor. Unlike other NGOs, CDI endeavours to engage all stakeholders, especially the government, in fashioning a world in which we are all responsible for bringing about positive, sustainable change.
Studies have found that Tanzanian officials don’t proactively build water facilities in areas where water is not yet available and I believe this is also true of sanitation facilities. Currently, around the world, 4.5 billion people are still without safely managed sanitation and 892 million people still practise open defecation. These numbers reflect the situation in Dar es Salaam. I remember walking into Vingunguti, the informal settlement in which the WaSH Project works, for the first time and noticing the raw sewage running in the streets in areas not yet served by the WaSH Project. These are the very conditions under which diseases like cholera can thrive. Cholera is caused by bacteria and spreads very rapidly under the right conditions (over-crowding, poor sanitation and hygiene) and can cause severe diarrhoea and death within hours if not treated. With 3 to 5 million cases of cholera per year causing between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths each year, it is clear that this is an issue that needs to be solved, not necessarily by external NGOs like CDI but by the local government who bears responsibility for the well-being of their people. In all surveys, interviews and questionnaires carried out by the project, community members of Vingunguti have always maintained that they are happy to be connected to the network, having seen a decrease in waterborne diseases – in fact many more wish to be connected in the future. This is a clear demonstration of demand, one which DAWASA has been keen for us to address in the future.
In a stakeholder meeting recently, Eng. Wilhelmina Malima – the Tanzanian National Coordinator for the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) – asked if the WaSH Project’s beneficiaries (latrine users) were customers of DAWASA. It was at this point that it became clear to me what another benefit of our project is – generally, people in informal settlements are not considered as legitimate residents and they do not own the land that they live on. In fact, some people may prefer to think of these people as non-existent instead of tackling the issues they face head-on. However, in being users of CDI’s simplified sewerage networks, these people became customers of DAWASA and thus gain a new level of recognition from the government. This may be just a small detail to some but can mean the world of difference to the one person whose life has been changed.
The WaSH Project is the first project in CDI to fully hand over a current project stream to KITE DSM. Last year, the network team (which constructed the of simplified sewerage networks) was comprised solely of Tanzanian volunteers, something which has remained the case with this year’s team. Operationally, this is strategic as a Tanzanian university education in engineering provides the practical know-how to efficiently carry out construction of latrines and networks (unlike the more theoretical and general approach taken by the one at Cambridge). Moreover, the year-round presence of the team in Tanzania facilitates maintenance and monitoring of the networks even when the CDI team is back in the UK. This year marks the first year that the Community Engagement team has been a KITE-only team and I hope that future WaSH Project Directors will recognise the importance of Tanzanian voices in this endeavour. Since many community-members do not speak English, it is strategic for the Tanzanian volunteers to be the ones carrying out workshops, surveys, focus groups, etc. with the CDI volunteers supporting from the background. Further, the WaSH Project wants to dispel the myth that progress only happens when “the mzungu” (how foreigners are referred to in Swahili) are present.
These are lessons I learned from my predecessor, Yasmine Shafiq, who regularly still guides me through decisions and I am lucky to still have such an engaged team of alumni behind me, offering advice, context and a generous ear through what sometimes are tough moments.
My two years working with CDI have allowed me to better understand that although life is all about the big picture the magic is in the details. I’ve worked with many people from all over the world who have all brought to the table brilliant ideas, enthusiasm and a genuine passion about the issues we work to tackle. These people are constant reminders of who we are working for, why we started doing what we are doing, and why we will never stop trying to change the world.
I feel honoured and proud to have been able to be part of this initiative which gives students and young engineers the ability to change the world, one latrine at a time, leaving no one behind.
If you’d like to get involved with our fundraising, visit our JustGiving page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/cdi-wash or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!
By Micheala Chan, WaSH Project Director 2018/19
Micheala is fourth-year studying Engineering at Trinity Hall.