Patrick Wathome, a Concern engineer in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), speaks about his work in rural communities to improve Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities and practices.
Accessing safe water and basic sanitation facilities and practicing improved hygiene (known as WASH) is a daily struggle for many families in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). An estimated 50% of the population – or 38 million people – has no access to safe drinking water, even though the country holds over half of Africa’s water reserves. The Concern team in DRC is playing a leading role in the DRC WASH Consortium, comprising five international NGOs which are working together to promote good practices in hygiene, sanitation, and improve access to clean water.
Patrick Wathome, one of Concern’s senior WASH engineers, has been working on this issue in Africa and Asia for almost 18 years. Here, he describes the approaches and some of the challenges of the DRC WASH Consortium, which aims to support more than 600,000 people to gain improved access to safe water and sanitation facilities across the country by 2018.
What is different about the DRC WASH Consortium compared to other programmes you’ve worked on?
The DRC WASH Consortium has a unique twelve-step approach which is different to other programmes I’ve worked on. It’s based on participatory techniques, to make sure that the people are aware of their needs and to ensure their participation in the whole process, thus creating a sense of ownership.
In most WASH programmes, the focus is placed on working on ‘hardware’ (such as the construction of water infrastructure) and ‘software’ (the promotion of actions such as handwashing, cleaning and constructing basic latrines from local materials) at the same time. However, we focus first on the software, which translates into small but important ‘doable’ actions and then hardware.
So, the communities have to first complete smaller, more ‘doable’ activities before they qualify for hardware – infrastructure activities which require more time and investment.
What’s the biggest challenge the consortium faces when working with communities?
It’s challenging when the community’s demands are too high or they want to get the hardware without following the steps. In most cases, the community sees hardware activities, ie getting water points, as their first priority.
However, our focus is on first mobilizing the community to complete the small, doable actions and supporting them to sustain the software so they can then move to the next steps.
This approach builds ownership of the process and shows that the community has an understanding of the activities involved and the capacity to sustain the facilities before getting the hardware.
What’s the most important lesson learned around mobilizing the community to take action?
For a programme to be successful, the approach must be inclusive and participatory. Everyone involved – all of the stakeholders – have to take part in the activities and they have to understand from the beginning what kinds of activities to expect.
They also have to be involved in decision making and know from the beginning that the sustainability of the project will be the responsibility of the community. Equally, everyone has to understand that the water will not be for free, and that the infrastructure will need to be maintained – parts of water pumps can break or wear out and they need to be replaced. This understanding from the beginning is crucial for WASH programmes to succeed.
Do you see a difference between the villages which have had humanitarian support before and those that have not?
Most of the villages we work with were affected by an emergency before, so villagers endured conflict and displacement, but have now returned and settled back in their village. This means our approach is new to them as it is a ‘development approach’ rather than an ‘emergency approach’. The shift takes time for communities to understand. They need to adapt to the fact that they have to be involved, participate and take ownership of what is going on.
It isn’t about NGOs coming in to do the work for the communities, but the communities working together with the NGOs.
Other villages, which have been less affected by conflict and have been living in a more stable context, have different priorities compared to those who have experienced conflict. It is easier to implement a development programme in stable communities.
Do you adapt your approach according to the village’s history?
Yes, we take more time in the villages that were affected by conflict, where the acceptance or adaptation is slower. The programme field team conducts more visits and tries to understand what the community had to go through. We don’t expect that change will happen in a very short time – we understand this and try to adapt our approach and rhythm.
I know we sometimes want to move fast, and get results, but that doesn’t always work, especially where a lot needs to be done to change the habits of the community. For example, in some of the communities, when we talk about latrines, they claim that they are used to going to the bush and that their ancestors used to do that, and so they do not understand why we want them to build latrines. So we take more time with them, explain to them why the use of latrines is important as it helps prevent the transmission of common diarrheal disease which affect their families.
Together with other members of the DRC WASH Consortium – ACF, ACTED, CRS and Solidarités International – Concern aims to support more than 600,000 people with improved access to safe water and sanitation facilities across the Democratic Republic of Congo by 2018.
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