This year I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘Water & Health Conference’ at UNC, North Carolina, USA again. I was running a side event on WASHTech, and my partner in crime was Andrew Armstrong, Water Missions’ community development programs manager who gave a great presentation on the experiences of Water Missions in introducing solar water pumping and water pre-payment systems in Uganda.
On Monday 21st October, after the conference, I was in Charleston, South Carolina, standing in large a naval dockyard surrounded by towering steel cranes and fat oil depot tanks. On one side of the sparse car park was a sizeable array of solar panels and opposite was long, low warehouse on which the name “Water Missions International” was emblazoned in precise, blue lettering.
I was shown around the Water Missions International facility by Andrew. There are 27 staff based in this location and numerous volunteers. The building acts an office, workshop, storage area and display area, the latter being open to groups to visit and find out about their work.
Water Missions was created in 1998 in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Central America, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua. After running operations out of their environmental engineering firm for a few years, the founders sold their company in 2001 and set up the charity and today they work in Belize, Indonesia, Malawi, Mexico, Uganda, Haiti, Kenya, Tanzania, Peru and Honduras.
Their work is a mix of emergency relief support and longer term development, one of the advantages of being in Charleston, Andrew explained, was that it makes it easy to ship equipment by sea to wherever it is needed.
The focus has been on using their engineering expertise. Initially the focus was on water treatment systems but this has broadened to solar pumping and pre-payment water vending (notably the Grundfos LIFELINK). They work with manufacturers, like Grundfos, to test and pilot equipment within their projects and consequently are able to procure equipment at discounted rates – which they can also offer to other non-for-profits.
More recently, Water Missions has branched into household latrine construction and, interestingly, they have found that doing this as the first intervention often makes it easier to facilitate the mobilisation and organisation of households to develop and maintain community water systems.
Another interesting innovation has been with their solar water pumping stations: an entrepreneurial site manager realised that when the panels were generating excess electricity, power could be used to charge mobile phones and from that service he also found he could do well selling airtime and charging batteries for lamps and radios. Suddenly, what had looked like an expensive water supply service can also be a cost effective community power and communications service as well. I like this example because it shows both the importance of thinking beyond WASH and about developing staff – giving them the opportunity to innovate and documenting and building on those experiences.
After the tour, I met with the founder and CEO, George Greene III and the president George Greene IV, along with the VP of operations, Seth Womble. We touched on various topics around what RWSN does and what their vision is for Water Missions and how it complements the network.
Back in March 2013, country staff from Water Missions Uganda took part in the RWSN two day writing course. This was appreciated by the team in Charleston and they joked that they would like a writing course for their engineers in their US team. The importance of good documentation and photography was discussed, particularly because as George Greene III explained: “We want to be a sector leader in innovative WASH.”
As well as the technical side, the staff and volunteers at Water Missions see it as part of their duty to inform the public, school and church groups in Charleston and South Carolina about the reality of poverty in developing countries. As an active member of the Accord Network WASH Alliance (AWA) they are also keen to ensure that if faith-based groups do go overseas to do charity work that they do so with their eyes open and an awareness that external charity intervention can do more harm than good.
The energy and commitment of the Water Missions team is evident, and they will need it because the challenges are daunting. They need to find a way of finding routes of getting their successful innovations and pilots to a larger scale, and so the this is where partnerships with RWSN and tools such as the Technology Applicability Framework (TAF) could be really productive for everyone involved.