Friday, October 21, 2005

No Waterworks Makes For Waterworks

October 14. Well they the more you learn about other people the more you learn about yourself, and today's lesson is: I'm totally stupid. Hillary and I visited a group of old men who started a water gravity project to pipe water to their homesteads. The area is rolling hills, so the group had to run pipes downhill from two protected springs to create enough pressure to pump the water back uphill to their homes. It was a fascinating lesson in rural waterworks.

How is the water flow controlled and accessed once it reaches the homestead? "There's a tap."

Do the springs provide enough water to meet the needs of all its users? "In the wet season there's constant overflow at the source and in the dry season the spring can run dry."

Why is there overflow? "The pipes are too narrow and can't carry water away from the spring fast enough. We want to lay wider ones."

There's no storage tank? "We are looking for funds to build a communal water storage tank for the dry season."

The group has done everything themselves - fundraising from their own pockets, protecting the springs, laying the pipes, building storage tanks. It was satisfying to see how their self-reliance and initiative had already paid off. Most of the members said having a tap at their homestead had changed their lives - their wives no longer had to walk for hourse to fetch water (fetching water, like 90% of the physical labor in Kenya, is the woman's responsibility and no respectable man would be caught dead fetching water), their animals were now easier to water and dip for ticks. I was beginning to revise my initial observations on "mungu akipenda." Maybe Kenyans are only passive about confrontation, but not about water.

I started thinking, which is dangerous. How come it's 2005 and people in rural areas don't have running water? How come I'm 31 and only now learning the mechanics or running water? The government of Kenya (GOK) has provided infrastructure for water only in urban areas, but 80% of Kenyans reside in rural areas and live off their land. All these thoughts suddenly collided into a single epiphany: Access to clean, reliable running water is a basic human right that every government should provide to all its citizens.

Why doesn't Kenya have public waterworks everywhere? "Our government tried that in the 80s but it collapsed due to corruption," they told me.

Guess I should have figured as much. But if they laid the infrastructure at one point, isn't it still available for people in rural areas to revive as a starting point for their own water system? "It was a long time ago and the pipes have become dilapidated."

We turned down another dirt path and they pointed to a crumbling PVC pipe sticking out of the ground. "There's one of them."

October 20. A few days later Hillary and I were biking through another village when we passed a huge water tank. "Must be a million liters," he said. I don't know if that was an accurate estimate since the metric system still means almost nothing to me, but he told me the tank was another leftover from the GOK's public water project decades ago. It was a good water tank, though a bit weathered. I asked why the village couldn't just pipe in water from their spring and start using the tank.

"You have to get approval from the Ministry of Water," he said. Is that hard to do?

"I don't know." The villagers should write a proposal and see if the Ministry will approve it. The tank's not being used otherwise. They could probably get funding from the government or an NGO.


So with that inconclusive response we pedalled on to our destination, Nandi Rock, a pile of stones on an escarpment (oddly enough called Nandi Escarpment) overlooking Kisumu, Lake Victoria and the farming plains of Ahero. I still haven't quite figured out how to interpret all the different "Mm"s I get from Hillary, but I think this one meant, "Sounds like a good idea that might not fly because of corruption." I've filed every conversation like this in the back of my head for future use, because there are so many opportunities for improving access here - to water, to information, to technology - but at this point I don't know what kinds of resources are available locally to address these needs. And more importantly I don't know how to navigate the corruption.

October 20, 7:48pm. I was talking to a Kenyan fried today, half seriously brainstorming ways we might be able to bring high speed internet to my village. Every idea eventually hit the same wall: no infrastructure to support it. Lack of infrastructure is the reason for so many problems in my village - no running water, unreliable phone lines, limited modes of transport, and poor access to services and supplies for people in the most remote areas.

But what's behind the lack of infrastructure? The untarmacked road through town is a perfect example. Since 1963, the government has been promising the people here that a paved road would be built from the town of Shamakhokho to Kaptumo, about a 50 km stretch. The GOK attempted to pave the road several times but each time the project collapsed due to - what else - corruption and political bickering. Now over 40 years later the government has finally contracted with a Chinese company to build the tarmack, and the people, while still refusing to believe the road will ever be completed, are at least hopeful that because it's not the GOK itself doing it, that one day maybe their children will see a tarmacked road here.

At one point I said to my friend, "This country would be so amazing if it weren't for the corruption." And I actually felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was weird, and hoakey. It reminded me of something tragic and brilliant I thought of a few weeks ago, and I decided I must have heard it somewhere before because it was such genius: This place will steal your heart...and then it will break your heart.

The corruption here is entrenched and perpetuated by the powerful few, at the expense of those who already have very little to lose. They take advantage of the poor, the ignorant, and powerless, the women and children, withholding legal protections, throwing out propaganda that they know the uneducated will never decipher. Really, this country, and all those like it, has the potential to be so amazing. I'm not sure you can point to corruption as the singlemost oppressive factor, because there's lots of things - international trade practices by the world's superpowers, developing country dependence on foreign aid, the cultural inferiority complexes left by colonialism and the brand of narrow-minded non-thinking religion left by missionaries.


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