“Your challenges are our challenges”, reflections from Oklahoma, USA

Today I write from Oklahoma, USA, having just come to the end of the two and a half day University of Oklahoma 4th biennial WaTER Conference.  I had the honour of being one of the keynote speakers at this event, which was attended by over 170 people from 27 countries. It has been an extremely worthwhile experience on many fronts.

There is a growing interest in water supply and sanitation in “developing nations” in the USA.  The Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act 2005 seems be one of the catalysts for this change.  Over the past week I have engaged with numerous undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, Emory University, Mercer University and other US institutions. They are learning about the realities of millions without adequate water supply or sanitation as well as undertaking research. These students want to make a difference.

I was particularly touched by the opening speech of Dr Jim Chamberlain who reflected on the realities today in the USA, where there are people without adequate water supply.”your challenges are our challenges” he observed. He went on to mention common water quality and resource issues between here and other parts of the world.   And he was talking about Oklahoma today – a city that is expanding beyond the reach of its piped water supply network. I have learned about people in this State and more widely in the USA who are not connected to a piped water supply or sewerage system. They mostly rely on their own private boreholes, some hand dug wells, and septic tanks. What was particularly surprising though is that as in Lagos, Lusaka or Kampala, up-to-date statistics on the numbers of wells and population depending on them are lacking.  And private well regulation, including water quality testing falls between the cracks and is beyond the current remit of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

My keynote was entitled Sustainable Groundwater Development in Africa: More than Engineering. I tried to present an overview of some of the groundwater development opportunities and challenges of the African continent. The presentation was well received, in particular reflections on the diversity of the African continent, both above and below ground, as well as the size of Africa. Few people are aware that Africa is larger than the USA and China and a considerable part of Europe put together.

Dr David Sabatini of the Water and Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Centre asked all presenters to be mindful of a very broad audience, from anthropologists to engineers, from first year undergraduates to seasoned experts.  I tried my best, also aware that there would be people in the audience who had never been to Africa in their lives, alongside scholars and professionals from the continent.  And so we journeyed together from the phenomenal expansion of manual drilling in Nigeria and elsewhere, to the challenges of trying to escape poverty with irrigated agriculture to geology (including the continent’s mineral resources and resource curse), then onto hydrogeology, urban groundwater and finally a vision for future policy and implementation.

As a keynote speaker it was rather humbling to present the fact that the first continental estimates of the quantity of groundwater resources in African were only published three years ago; and to explain that very few African countries have good quality hydrogeological maps and studies. Having worked in rural water supply for seventeen years now, I scratch my head to find defendable reasons for the lack of organised and reliable drilling logs and groundwater data despite decades of development projects from the water decade through the MDGs.

However, I was relieved to present the work supported by UNICEF, WSP, UKAid and USAID over the past ten years to provide guidance for drilling in the form of documents and films; to share that UNICEF, together with WaterAid and Skat has an ongoing collaboration to try and raise the professionalism of both manual and mechanised drilling. And of course to recommend the ongoing UK-funded research to enable sustainable use of groundwater for the benefit of the poor – UPGro.

Undergraduate students ask very pertinent questions. The frankness of potential newcomers to the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Water Resources sector is very refreshing and I hope that they will join in solving some of the problems that those of us who have been around a bit longer are struggling with. But to do that, they need to be able to work in this field. Care’s Peter Lochery and winner of the 2015 University of Oklahoma Water Prize, talked of the importance of being a connector, rather than a leader. And so I close this blog with some questions.

How can better connections be made? What can we all do to enable new talent, whether from the USA, Nigeria, or anywhere else, to flow into the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Water Resources sector? Who can offer internships? What about apprenticeships or first jobs?  Where are the jobs? If we are to reach the Sustainable Development Goal targets for water supply we need an awful lot more skilled people – whether entrepreneurs, field staff, project managers or academics.  And we have to find ways of bringing them in to join us!  Do you have any tangible ideas? Or any offers for that matter?

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