When Linsavanh Inthaphonedeth, a 26-year-old drilling engineer from Lao People’s Democratic Republic, first arrived in Bangui, he was shocked to see the numbers of soldiers and army vehicles in the streets. The rest, he says, is fine although his family back home is worried about food and mosquitos.
This is Linsavanh’s first trip outside of his home country, and together with Kanya Insisoulath (37), also an engineer, and Sisouphanh Somsanith (45), an interpreter from Lao to English, they have been in CAR since March on a very innovative mission.
Linsavanh and Kanya are specialists in manual drilling and hand pump construction – a cheap, affordable technique that has proved efficient in providing clean water through small wells in their home country for decades.
Here in CAR, it is estimated that only one-third of the population has access to clean water. Not that there is no water around: the rains are abundant and there is plenty of underground water. But due to years of conflicts and political instability, many of the facilities have been damaged or destroyed.
In the past, CAR has relied on mechanical drilling to expand the number of boreholes throughout the country. But it is very costly – mechanical drilling costs $20,000 per borehole compared to the $1,000 per borehole for manual drilling. And mechanical drilling also faces an additional challenge – access. CAR has only two per cent of its roads paved and during the rainy season (at least six months of the year) more than half of the country is isolated or unreachable. Security issues in the country also make the movement of large equipment very difficult.
The Laotian trainers are providing training in manual drilling techniques and hand pump construction for 50 adolescents: young men and women, some of whom have been recently released from armed groups. The plan is to create 30 new water points, for training purposes, for approximately 15,000 people. Then from September, this work will be scaled up significantly to provide safe water for over 100,000 people, making this a very low cost and high impact programme intervention. Even better, 100% of the assets needed to build the drilling tools as well as to equip the borehole are found on the local market.
Communication between the trainers and the trainees was less of a challenge than expected, although the chain is quite long: the trainers speak in Lao, then their interpreter translates into English, and another interpreter translates from English to either French or Sango, the local language.
“We manage to speak to each other also by making faces and gestures, as it is on the job training oriented,” says Kanya.
“And the young trainees are being very nice to us: whenever we need to go somewhere they walk with us; they said they wanted us to be perfectly safe”.
Kanya recalls the first water point that was built, in Bangui’s Ouango neighbourhood: “The villagers were being very cautious at first, when we arrived with bamboo pipes and manual drills. After a few days of working hard, when the water actually came out, the whole neighbourhood was clapping and singing and dancing. It made us feel very proud”.
The hand drilling project is a small part of the UNICEF water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) strategy in CAR. Context-driven approaches like this one are key to ensuring sustainability. The main aim is to adapt technical designs to realities such as the local market, affordability, and the willingness of the population to invest in water and sanitation assets. The second aim is to make sure that state services charged with the maintenance of collective assets, have their operational costs covered by the participation fees and if not, to adapt the state enterprise’s structure to the population’s affordability.
On the whole, 1,057,000 people – or 22% of the national population – will benefit from the combination of the UNICEF WASH approaches in CAR in 2015.
Donaig Le Du is the Chief of Communications in UNICEF CAR.