Sierra Leone: Water everyday, and drilling wells in wells

Making sure there isn’t an end date on impact. Innovation comes from knowing and continually facing the truth of challenges. In Sierra Leone, we drill wells inside of wells to increase water yield.

Imagine if your water company considered your family to have water simply because pipes were installed in your home years ago. Or, imagine if they showed up during a week of rain, saw water flowing from your gutters, and considered your house as having access to water every day. You’d never accept this.

Should we expect the people living in the communities where we work will accept this?

Setting a goal of verifiable water every day is a high standard. It’s easier to drill a well, see that it’s working once installed, take some photos and count it as a success. But, solving the water crisis means 100% uptime of all water projects. In Sierra Leone, we aren’t just visiting communities a few times a year; we’re in communities all of the time. Through this work, we discovered that some of the wells run dry, but only during a few months each year. As a result, some communities where you’ve made investments in clean water had to turn to alternative, often unsafe, water sources in order to meet their water needs during these months.

Once you know exactly what is happening, you cannot simply move on to the next water point.

Mr. Amadu Tholley deserves clean water 12 months out of the year. He’s a member of New London Community in Sierra Leone, and his community received safe water a few years ago. His community is one where we’ve seen seasonal dryness, caused by the water table dropping in the entire region.

Mr. Tholley loves his community water source.

“The water in this community is very nice to drink,” he said. “There are other wells but this one is different. It taste like spring water, please help us fix the problem of the well drying! I cannot afford to miss it.”

Powered by your support and driven by our shared responsibility to Mr. Tholley and those from other communities experiencing the same, seasonal issues, we went to work towards a permanent solution.

The innovative imagination and technical expertise of our team led to the development of a completely new way of making existing wells deep enough to access water every day of the year. Using a custom-created hand auger and bit, teams drill down approximately 20 feet beyond the base of a shallow hand-dug well. This “well within a well” is then cased and transformed into a borehole, thus extending the depth, improving the yield and reliability of the water point. This technique has now been integrated into every new rehabilitation project we undertake.

Our concentrated and focused network of water wells within Port Loko District – and their daily reliability – have transformed the region. To date, over 150 projects have been completed (and are actively maintained) in Northwestern Port Loko. Water projects remain at or near 100% functionality due to dedicated quality implementation, effective customized hygiene, sanitation, and maintenance training, and are sustained through reliable monitoring, evaluation, and resolution relationships.

Your support is going further, doing more and providing lasting solutions for communities in Sierra Leone.

Your generosity is world-changing. Check out our 2018 Impact Report to learn more about the lives being transformed through your support of clean water.

The Lucky Ones

Together, we are creating a world where 14-year-old students will no longer believe they are “lucky” if they have access to safe water or if their well keeps working. They’ll know it as something they can count on.

Until 2016, Carolyne Munyasi, a 14-year-old student at Lugusi Primary School, had no idea what it meant to have clean water at her school. She and her 750 classmates would have to walk past a broken well at her school to an unsafe water source over a kilometer away. These walks for dirty water took time away from studies, often resulting in stomach illnesses and absences.

That year, our supporters funded work towards a rehabilitation of the school water well, and the implementation of a holistic health and sanitation program. When safe water flowed from the new school water project everyone at the school was thrilled.

“This source will be of great help to the school and community at large,” head teacher Shem Maumo said.

We knew this could be true. This is what water does. But, we knew that the day the water project was installed was just the beginning, and the school deserved, and the well needed, ongoing support and service.

A hand-pump, like any moving, mechanical device, needs maintenance or it will break down.

The hand-pump wouldn’t magically keep working. None do.

The hand-pump that Carolyne and her classmates used was no exception. But, as we continued to support and help the school maintain their pump, we found that it needed maintenance and repair far too often.

Feeling Lucky? Broken pumps are so normal in Western Kenya that students like Carolyne think it’s luck that keeps them working. Our community of generous supporters are proving to her that clean water can be counted on.

By collecting and analyzing the data on this well and others in the region, we discovered that a small part in our hand-pumps in Kenya was prematurely failing. We began to see a trend across our entire program.

We found that frequent repairs were needed due to the breakdown of a poor quality rubber u-seal that is a standard part in all wells across the continent. They were failing so often that some of our wells required costly service visits four times in a year.

What we uncovered was a significant quality control issue within the nationally approved, standard hand-pump itself that was most likely affecting all wells in the entire region.

We immediately went to work with our local teams towards a solution. We found a better part. A slightly more expensive but reliable, plastic u-seal was available (but not often used) in local markets. We upgraded these unreliable u-seals in all 271 of our wells and reports of premature well failure immediately stopped.

During one of our recent revisits, we met Carolyne and her classmates again. Carolyne shared, “I have enough time to carry out my studies now, especially during this time as I prepare for my final exams later this year. I am among the lucky ones compared to the candidates of the past years. They were always out sick and less time was used for their studies.”

“Among the lucky ones.”

Together, we are creating a world where 14-year-old students will no longer believe they are “lucky” if they have access to safe water or if their well keeps working. They’ll know it as something they can count on.

It took time and a lot of questions to arrive at the solution. And there was an immediate cost. However, this investment has already saved hundreds of personnel hours and thousands of dollars in fuel and repair vehicle maintenance. Most importantly, it has helped restore community confidence in hand-pumps – and kept the economics of safe water flowing into the lives of those who rely on it.

Your generosity is world-changing. Check out our 2018 Impact Report to learn more about the lives being transformed through your support of clean water.

The 10 Year Challenge

The Water Project has worked with communities who do not have access to reliable water for more than 10 years now. The “10 year challenge” meme provided the opportunity to reflect on all the things that have changed and on things we have accomplished since the start of The Water Project.

However, the thing that stood out to me was what didn’t change. We helped install a new well at Eshienga Primary School in western Kenya in 2009. The students came out to celebrate their new water point on the day construction was complete. They were thrilled that they no longer had to carry water to school each day just to have something to drink.

All of the kids in the picture no longer attend the school. They moved on to the nearby secondary school and now an entirely new cohort of students attend Eshienga Primary. One thing that hasn’t changed is the well. It still provides water to the students 10 years later.

This is a picture from our most recent visit in November.

Not only is water still flowing, it is safe for drinking. Our water quality tests conducted during the visit showed that there are no contaminants. Furthermore, the student health club formed at the time of the well’s completion is still active with 40 members and there is more than $50 in funds set aside to pay for repairs.

We know all of this because of our ongoing monitoring program. We visit our projects, past and present, multiple times throughout the year to ensure that water is still flowing. This information is published on our website for every project over the past decade.

Over the past decade, The Water Project has increasingly worked with a conviction that a project is only beginning once the construction of a well is complete. It seems pretty obvious to say that wells, like any mechanical device, malfunction over time.

As we monitored our projects and the breakdowns became immediately apparent. Regular visits to a well show just how often it happens. Monitoring alone is not enough, we believe in sharing the status of each project in real time.

In 2011, we learned that some of the original parts installed in the well at Eshienga Primary were substandard. We reported what we learned at the time and dispatched our teams to repair the issue.

A year after the maintenance work was done, we published a report from one of our regular monitoring visits. Our teams observed that the well was still providing safe water because that problem was addressed.

We continue to monitor the point and remain available for support. In 2015, we launched a new phone app-based monitoring system (mWater) that allowed us to publish to our website information about each water point immediately after it is visited by our teams. Anyone can go to our website and see the functionality status of every water point.

People can see that, like the case of Eshienga Primary, breakdowns happen and we are using monitoring to track when it happens and ensure that the problem is resolved. For example, here is how the well at Eshienga Primary has performed since 2015, when we began capturing data in a centralized database via cell phone with mWater:

Issues arose, they were reported, and we were able to respond in a timely manner to ensure that water continues to flow. Breakdowns are not unique to this school. We make a promise to every community that we will monitor and support each one of our projects.

We hope to celebrate the 10 year challenge every year as more projects turn 10 years-old. We also see it as a challenge to ourselves to ensure that water flows for more than a decade after a project is complete.

Notes from Spencer, Director of Program

In February I was able to make my first journey as Director of Program with The Water Project to visit our projects in Lungi and Lokomasama, Sierra Leone.  I had the good fortune of traveling with Michael Ballou, our resident engineer and operations manager on staff at The Water Project. We flew into Lungi Town, located to the North of Tagrin Bay, which flows between quaint and quiet Lungi and the large and sprawling capital of Freetown to the south. The area is marked by rows of Palm trees- vestiges of an oil industry now abandoned, and by numerous fruit and nut trees that continue to flourish in the area.  The thick crown of prolific mango trees serve as a ubiquitous seasonal candy-shop. Cashew trees are not as common, but provide a two-for-one fruit and nut combination within some of the communities. Cotton trees stand as sentinels above the tops of the mangos and palms with roots that resemble flying buttresses and thick branches that stretch toward the sun. Walk down a dirt ribbon road and discover breadfruit trees and guava. A humid coastal heat blankets the day of a dry season leading into a hotter and drier March.

Spencer with our partners in Sierra Leone

The people radiate a strength and resilience of those who have endured some of the most difficult trials that life has to offer- natural disasters, Ebola outbreaks, cholera epidemics, civil wars, and post-colonial political challenges.  Whether purchasing bread or negotiating passage through a road under construction we were often greeted with a slight smile and the words “my friend.” Our implementing partner organization, Mariatu’s Hope is working with communities to install or rehabilitate thirty-five water, sanitation, and hygiene projects this year and they are currently monitoring 124 water points which they have previously implemented.