First and foremost, my goal is never to diminish the work of those who are pouring their lives into helping solve the water crisis across the globe. I do not claim to be an expert on this work and I have a lot to learn regarding international development. However, in light of social media events and the amount of comments I read discussing well drilling in Africa, I believe a fresh perspective is required to understand the sustainability of drilling wells to solve Africa’s water crisis.
I encourage all readers that are interested in non-profit development work and making the world a better place to live for all of us to look up and understand the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the U.N. in 2002. Of the eight goals, I believe water and sanitation projects directly support half of them and indirectly support the other half. So, these projects are a big deal! But where does well drilling fit in?
Let’s take a look at this graph of where the world is living:
What stands out about this graph? In 2007, more of the world’s population lived in urban settings. By 2030, 60% will be living in an urban setting. This is for the world’s population, but let’s take a look at Africa specifically:
So Africa will take a little longer for the majority to live in an urban setting, but it will happen (around 2035). So what? Well, in my limited experience, water well and latrine projects seem to focus on small to medium size villages in rural areas. Do I believe these projects are beneficial and worth pursuing? Absolutely. I pursued civil engineering due to my time overseas after high school and I hope to work with the organizations that pursue these water projects, but I believe we are quickly approaching a crossroads that we are not prepared for: when those two lines on the graph intersect. When was the last time you saw a fundraising campaign for a large wastewater treatment plant or large scale waterworks in (insert African country here)? I’ve never seen one.
I am not trying to undermine the work of organizations such as Blood: Water Mission (which I believe does excellent work) but I am calling for a shift in vision for those who want to help Africa and its water needs. Within twenty years, many of those wells we drilled may be unused: not due to malfunction or lack of maintenance (which is a significant problem), but because the majority of the residents moved to a city. Can we honestly say our approach was sustainable? Of course, we can shove this onto the city’s managers and residents, but if we’re going to spend years of effort and millions of dollars helping, shouldn’t we be aiming to hit as many people as possible? Therefore, I am calling those of us who are genuinely fighting for a better tomorrow through clean water and sanitation to re-examine our vision and begin to plan for the billions that will be living in urban settings–most of which have already stressed infrastructure right now. From my training as an Eagle Scout: Be Prepared.