Dear fellow Rainwater Harvesting Enthusiasts,
It is with a heavy heart that I wanted to report to this network the sad news I recently received about the recent passing of Erik Nissen-Petersen in Nairobi.
While I am not party to all the details, I understand he had been in hospital for some weeks following an incident in which he was attacked by a stranger with a stun-gun while he was riding a taxi. Nevertheless, it is his life’s work that I want to focus on in this short personal tribute and I invite others, particularly those who knew or worked with Erik in East Africa and beyond to add their own tributes.
I first got to know of the excellent work Erik was doing to promote appropriate rural water supply systems in rural Africa, while sitting in a University library in Alberta, Canada on a very cold wintery day in early 1983. It was here that my long friendship and association with Erik began when I stumbled across a small book he had recently written entitled: Rain Catchment and Water Supply in Rural Africa. It is still available for purchase on Amazon where it has a 5 star rating. In this well illustrated little book, Erik clearly articulated a vision that he would go on to realize, that even in arid and semi-arid environments, simple, affordable technologies could be constructed (preferably with, but in many cases without outside assistance) by communities themselves to provide affordable and sustainable water supply systems. Before saying more about Erik’s huge contribution to the promotion of appropriate water supply solution in rural Africa, perhaps we should start at the beginning and follow the path that took him there.
Erik was born in Denmark in 1934. After leaving school he joined the Danish navy for a few years, followed coincidentally by a year or two in Northern Canada (also in Alberta, I believe) living the very tough life of Canadian lumberjack in the mid-1950s. He then returned to Denmark where he worked as a builder. Being very practical, innovative and a natural problem solver combined with his natural business acumen and ferocious work ethic resulted in him being highly successful. Throughout the 1960’s Erik settled down to a conventional life getting married, raising a young family and working hard to support them. By the early 1970s Erik and his family were doing very well and may have continued to live a comfortable and prosperous life in Denmark had Erik not had a feeling that there was a big world out there and he felt he could make a bigger contribution to it. So in 1974 Erik answered a small advertisement in a Danish newspaper to work as a trainer/supervisor on a project to construct cattle dips in the semi-arid region of Kitui in Kenya.
Right from day one Erik immersed himself, not only in the task at hand, but in learning about the local cultures, becoming proficient in the local languages kikamba and kiswahili. He quickly developed a rapport and won the respect of the communities with which he worked. He also quickly identified one of the key barriers to development and well-being, namely periodic and severe water shortages. Women especially, who in rural Africa still bear the daily burden of carrying water, sometimes of quite poor quality, from distant sources stood to gain the most from improved water supplies, freeing up their time and energy for more productive activities. Erik put his practical skills and innovative mind into developing new approaches and improving tried and tested technologies to tackling this challenge. He developed new designs for sand dams, rock catchment systems and ferrocement rainwater tanks among numerous other water supply technologies that communities could both potentially afford and construct. He then convinced numerous international donors including DANIDA and SIDA to support hands-on training and construction projects so these ideas could be turned into community supply projects whose construction created thousands of jobs and whose benefits improved the lives of tens of thousands of rural people. Having successfully demonstrated the efficacy of this approach he then help to spread the implementation of these designs and community based approaches first around other parts of Kenya and East Africa and subsequently further afield, in places like Botswana, Northern Namibia where Erik was based for more than a year around 1994 and subsequently Burma. Erik also tried to share his designs and spread his philosophy of community engagement and ownership of project implementation and management, through writing numerous manuals, books and later producing videos demonstrating the design and construction procedures. In the late 1990’s Erik and I co-authored a book Rainwater Catchment Systems for Domestic Supply published by IT Publications in 1999, Erik provided most of the technical details on the construction of systems and all of the technical drawings.
It was at about this time that Erik moved from his base in Kibwezi to Nairobi where he set up his own company ASAL (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) Consultants. For the next 20 years Erik continued to work, managing projects, acting as a trainer or trainer of trainers and providing sage advice on numerous projects across the continent. He worked almost right until the end, (despite trying to retire twice!). Erik’s greatest legacy will be the numerous community based water supply projects he has been associated with across the African continent but especially in many arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya, where in some areas he is held in very high regard. In fact I understand there were quite a few baby boys who were named Erik in his honour, what greater tribute than that could he have wished for from the communities he served. Erik was a rare example of a truly benevolent white man, who got Africa in his blood and it is fitting that he should have died on the continent and in the country he loved so much.
Erik, I will miss your wisdom, your friendship and your inspiration. Your life truly demonstrates that each and every one of us, has the capacity to make the world a better place.
Rest in Peace.
The above tribute is a personal message based on my own dealings with Erik and the knowledge I have of his working life and achievements. It has not been fact checked and given the huge amount Erik achieved in his life there are doubtless numerous omissions which others may wish to address by adding to this tribute.
I am currently in Sweden and will by coincidence, be travelling through Denmark next week if anyone knows whether any memorial service is being planned in Denmark for Erik, please let me know. Should you have any further information about Erik’s life also please forward this to me as I may be writing a more formal obituary, in due course. Thanks in advance for any contributions.