Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Boreholes and failures

Today was one of those days that went on forever, and anything that could go wrong went wrong. It started with one of our vehicles not working in the morning, so instead of leaving at 6:30, we left an hour late. The community that was supposed to be 1.5 hours away was actually 3, and the new vehicle that had replaced our non-functioning one for the day, decided to stall out every time it was in idle. The three cars split directions, one got a flat, the other was far, and we hadn’t even started work yet. We were only going to have two hours to finish questionnaires and complete transect walks until we had to head back.

In the only community I was able to visit, I took pictures of their well, some 21 meters deep, cloudy, muddy-white water being collected in a flat piece of rubber pinched up at all sides to form a bowl. The children would throw the bowl into the well (everyone used one of three bowls) and lug the water back up, carefully filling one of several 25-liter jerry cans. Over and over again. In the meantime, if someone finished filling, the bowl was put on the ground for the next person. For the next person to throw it in, all covered in dirt, down into their drinking water…
There was also a government built borehole in the community, so we followed the operator over to the borehole to ask questions about why it wasn’t working. In Nigeria, there are two main sources of water, unprotected wells and boreholes. The boreholes are either private (entrepreneurs) or government built, and the government ones seem to all be well over 25 years. The government hires an operator who is paid salary and responsible for maintaining the borehole and reporting any issues. The government also brings fuel every month to fuel the generator used to pump the borehole.
In this particular community, the operator told us that the borehole had been broken for 4 months. The government had stopped bringing fuel, so the operator was not able to run the generator, and the borehole was down. He couldn’t answer why the government had stopped bringing fuel, but when we asked him if he had gone to the government and reported the problem, he said he hadn’t. Apparently, the body that he reports to is made up of elders, and elders are to be respected, not questioned. So, in staying aligned with respecting elders, he refused to go to them and report the lack of fuel, thus rendering the borehole useless.
I was infuriated. “What if this community’s name was on a piece of paper and that paper got lost?”I asked my translator. “What if someone’s computer somewhere crashed, and they didn’t know that this village was supposed to get fuel? Even worse, what if the intermediary who gets the fuel from the government (and who is supposed to distribute to the communities in the area) is simply selling the fuel and keeping the profit?” I told her not to ask the operator these questions, in fear that I would offend, but asked her, boggled, “So what is his solution? To just sit and wait, and hope that maybe someone somewhere will suddenly start bringing fuel, when, for all he knows, no one is even aware that there isn’t fuel?”
Neither of us had an answer, and I left exasperated and tired. In a country that so desperately needs water, when children and families are drinking brown, muddy river water, a functioning borehole is not used because someone might be offended if asked. It’s just another challenge and problem in development, in a scheme that seems to be working, unintended consequences of a system that circles back to repress it’s own.

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