In Uganda, implementation partner makes a world of difference

6/30/2014 5:11:00 AM

Above: refugee women wave as the SGWI team travels between water sources in Oruchinga.

On a recent trip to Uganda, a team of students from Professor Benito Mariñas’ environmental lab course (CEE 449) saw first-hand how water and sanitation issues in developing countries are part of a much broader problem. Clean water and optimal sanitation practices must compete with other priorities such as energy and food security, and are affected by limited resources, lack of education and complex cultural barriers.

But the students also met someone who understands the importance of access to safe water and sanitation and is eager to help integrate this goal with other priorities and overcome barriers preventing its successful implementation.

Peter Francis Luswata has created the Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation (URCSF) model farm, located near Masaka, Uganda. Keen to prove that access to safe water and sanitation is key for making sustainable farming a viable possibility in Uganda, Luswata has partnered with the College of Engineering Safe Global Water Institute (SGWI),  and the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to make it a reality.

Luswata wants the URCSF model farm to serve as a demonstration facility, where local farmers can learn how to produce food that will both sustain them and provide income, identify and plant fast-growing trees that would provide fuel for cooking, treat drinking water to make it safe, construct sanitation facilities that are hygienic and generate resources such as energy and fertilizer. By partnering with CEE and SGWI, Luswata has access to technical knowledge that will help in this endeavor.

The URCSF model farm was one of the stops the CEE students made on their trip, the latest in a series of annual international trips led by Mariñas to give CEE 449 students an opportunity to study water and sanitation issues in the field. The class works with their hosts, international agencies, local academics and local NGOs throughout the trip on a range of details – from ensuring the safety of the students to sharing data for water quality and information about target communities. Yet rarely does their academic effort result in concrete changes in the communities they visit. Working with an implementation partner like Luswata could change all that.

It can be very difficult to convince people to change their behaviors, Mariñas said, but when they are shown a new system that works successfully they are more open to adopting those methods. Effective water treatment and sanitation systems on Luswata’s farm that develop as an outgrowth of the SGWI research could serve as a model to help pave the way for more widespread change.

One of the things Luswata is particularly excited about is turning pig waste into a valuable economic resource. Waste from his farm is treated in an anaerobic digester, which results in the release of methane and the inactivation of pathogens. If harnessed correctly, two extremely valuable commodities can result: clean energy and nutrient-rich fertilizer. The methane can be used to supply energy for lighting, cooking and boiling water, and the fertilizer can improve crop output.

“This is revolutionary in the way business is done,” Mariñas said. “Most people in the developed world pay money to destroy waste; to get rid of it. They do not view it as a resource that could produce income.”

Not only does the digester have economic benefit for farmers in terms of energy and crop improvement, Luswata said, but the gas can also generate additional income while providing needed resources for city-dwellers. 

“We’re looking into the commercialization of the gas – putting it in cylinders and selling it in urban areas, where the people do not have land or animals available to them,” Luswata said.

The CEE students who visited the farm worked under the guidance of the two CEE graduate advisers on the trip, Bernardo Vazquez Bravo and Kate Stephens, to collect and analyze samples from water sources, soil, surfaces and the digester. Professor Betty Naziriwo of Makerere University and three of her graduate students – Elizabeth Atim, Peter Olaa and Stephen Ssentamu – collaborated with the CEE students in the field. CEE Professor Jeremy Guest and Illinois Microbiology Professor Joanna Shisler were also part of the team. 

Luswata benefits from this academic collaboration because he does not have the technical knowledge or equipment to analyze the samples himself, Stephens said. The students benefit by having an inspirational cultural experience that also encourages them to think about solutions to problems in areas where resources are limited. 

Innovations like those being developed on Luswata’s farm could also be used to address problems facing residents of refugee camps, like those in the Oruchinga Refugee Settlement overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The CEE 449 students also spent time in the settlement looking at sanitation and water quality problems.

Oruchinga is home to approximately 5,000 refugees. Living conditions are poor, and people are undernourished in spite of supplemental food provided by the UN. They also have limited access to wood or other sources of fuel, use wells that supply unsafe water and suffer poor sanitation conditions. Though families in this refugee camp are provided with a small plot of land for living and farming, residents generally have to walk 1.5 kilometers or more to get to one of the camp water sources. Latrines are available throughout the camp, but collapsible soil and a high water table often lead to latrine collapse. Bernardo Vazquez Bravo and Kate Stephens, the CEE graduate advisers who led the undergraduate student teams at Oruchinga, explained that inadequate sanitation practices at the households are likely the main route of microbial water contamination. 

By analyzing samples taken from the various water sources, students learned that some of the water available in the camp has high levels of iron and manganese, while other sources are high in fluoride. Although the water tainted with iron and manganese poses no major health threats, its bad taste generally makes residents choose to utilize a different water source for drinking. Even though water from the secondary source appears cleaner and tastes better, it contains very high levels of fluoride, making it a greater health risk than the water high in iron and manganese.

The lack of education about water safety means locals frequently do not understand the health risks associated with contaminated water. Limited resources play another role: even if residents want to boil their drinking water, the scarcity of trees for fuel prevents them from doing so. The interconnectedness of education and cultural behaviors with water, sanitation and energy issues is reflected in the expanding focus of the class. 

“We’re seeing how the focus of the class has evolved from being initially just water quality to connecting with sanitation, and now transitioning to the nexus with health and energy,” said Vazquez Bravo. “All the work we’ve been doing has been growing exponentially.”

Mariñas sees partnerships with implementers as a key to taking work begun by CEE students and their academic collaborators and using it to foster change. Working with Luswata is an example of how effective this type of partnership can be.

“Typically [implementers] do not want to work with academics. They are two different cultures that don’t match,” Mariñas said. “With Peter, the match is perfect. He sees the value of working with us, and we see the value of working with him.”

Luswata agrees. 

“When the possibility of a partnership with the University of Illinois and the Safe Global Water Institute arose, my thought was, ‘this is gold’,” Luswata said.