This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network- we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.
RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.
First up is RWSN Member Dr. Peter Morgan, based in Zimbabwe.
Dr Morgan, why did you start working in the rural water sector?
Well I only started working in the rural water sector in 1973 in what was then Rhodesia.
Prior to that, I had chosen Zoology to study at the University in Hull, Yorkshire, UK (which at the time was a great fish port). I was very fond of biology and the natural sciences. This was during the 1960’s. My first job after leaving University was in Malawi when I joined a team studying the little known Lake Chilwa near Zomba. My part was to study the fish and fisheries. This was quite fascinating and I enjoyed the job very much. I also wrote a paper on the transmission of bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) whilst in Malawi which was published in the Central African Journal of Medicine in Salisbury, Rhodesia.
On that basis, I was invited to join the Blair Research Laboratory, the research wing of the Ministry of Health in Rhodesia. At first I was told to study the transmission of bilharzia in Lake McIlwaine near Salisbury. But early on my main mentor in Rhodesia, Dr Dyson Blair (who had been a Secretary of Health in the federation and was by then retired and worked in the lab as an unpaid technician) persuaded me to transfer my interest to more practical things like looking at rural water supplies and sanitation as a means of controlling the spread of bilharzia in the rural areas. I had zero experience in these fields. But he was the mentor I believed in and I changed my line of work. To me he was like a walking encyclopaedia. That is what started me off. It was 1973.
I was in good company. The Ministry of Health in those days was very professional; the Environmental Health department was strong and I had immense support from the Ministry. This first took place in Rhodesia. After 1980, at Independence, the same staff were retained for several years and the support from the Ministry continued. I had the advantage of working in a laboratory which specialised in research, mainly in those days to support the malaria and bilharzia control programs. So I started to work in what might be called rural plumbing – rural water supplies and sanitation.
I should add that when I was at school during the 1950’s many of us were serious hobbyists. We built models, had Meccano sets using nuts and bolts, built crystal sets and even pinhole cameras. That was all before the world of computers had arrived and even at University our adding machines were mechanical. I had studied Zoology, Botany, Physics and Chemistry at A level and passed all 4 subjects. We had excellent teachers. And my supervisor in Hull was an entomologist and taught me elements of the research method. These were all excellent preparations for the work I have tried to do in rural water supplies.
Can you tell us more about your experience in the rural water sector?
Joining the Ministry of Health and also having quite close contact with the ministries and departments that looked at water supplies in the Government, I picked up much information about what was going on in the sector at that time. I had also developed a simple hand pump and other water lifting devices as part of the field which later became known as WASH. One thing led to another and my team and I were able to experiment with all sorts of things related to water.
Two things stand out. One was working in a research institute and the other that the institute or laboratory was also part of the Government. Thus the work of the institute was more acceptable to the government. Indeed the institute played a big part (in those days) in formulating government
policy in the sector.
My previous experience had also taught me to write up in detail developments of my work and to illustrate them clearly. In zoology you not only had to remember serious names of creatures and dissect examples, but also to illustrate them and describe them in detail. Good illustrations and describing in simple terms in the WASH sector has remained a theme of my writing.
What have been the highlights of your work in rural water?
My own work in the sector has been divided up into several different components, which are all described in details on my website. These include on site sanitation, ecological sanitation, hygiene, and various aspects of rural water supply.
I will keep it simple. I think the work we did on making more acceptable the concept of Self-Supply using simpler technological approaches, based on accepting that traditional methods (such as family wells) had great merit and using this method as a basis to build upon and improve the safety and water quality of these traditional methods. These units were called upgraded family wells. When we worked on this, at first the professional water engineers looked down upon it. Certainly in the 1970’s and early 1980’s in Zimbabwe shallow communal and family wells probably served more people than all the hand pumps (about 5000 to 6000 if my memory serves me correctly) put together. I think the importance of self-supply has increased even more since those days.
Also I believe the work we did on hand drilled tube wells and various methods of raising water from tube wells had merit. Perhaps in particular the bacteriological work we did on comparing the water quality of wells, tube wells fitted with bucket type pumps and wells fitted with hand pumps. From the water quality perspective the shallow tube well had great merit.
I think, rather more privately, about the concept of developing the spiral tube water wheel pump concept, which had been lost to science and re-thought out in my own mind and the concept of the Blair Pump, which had to my knowledge never been described before. Neither has played a significant role in the world in which we live now, but both principles have been copied elsewhere.
Then there are issues about our beloved Bush Pump, only used in Zimbabwe. Despite the advice given to this government at Independence by the new group of foreign advisors to scrap it and bring in foreign pumps, it has remained steadfastly in place. Many of us in this country could not allow something that was born here and served the country well to be scrapped. So I got involved. And I owe much to the support of RWSN, notably Erich Baumann and Karl Erpf in earlier days, and Kerstin Danert and Sean Furey in later days for supporting us in our resolve for the country to be proud to retain something that was developed locally.
Can you share some reflections on the development of the rural water sector?
There has been a rapid development of the rural water sector in recent years with much thanks being owed to RWSN and the way it operates. In some countries it has come faster than others. Very much depends on those in power and the government itself for fully supporting the improvement of life for all its people and especially for those living in the rural areas.
Can you share some advice about professional development with more junior members of the network ?
If I have shared advice with more junior members of the WASH discipline – it varies. Inside Zimbabwe my team and I taught members of the various government departments. My small team, many being builders headed by an excellent Field Officer, Ephraim Chimbunde, were excellent. I had an all African team 7 years before 1980 and independence. If I went to other countries (mainly in Africa) I could show them what we had learned ourselves and encourage them to adapt the concepts to their own local conditions.
I think in terms of RWSN, the advice given to more junior people in the sector has depended more on the RWSN’s willingness to place my reports (and those of other workers)on their websites, which could then be read by those interested. I have noted that sharing advice through the RWSN network has been for people to ask questions through the network and those most skilled in that part of the WASH discipline to answer those questions from their practical experience. By doing it this way, the RWSN has done, and is doing a most excellent job of passing on important and practical advice to those that seek it.
What value do you see in RWSN for the sector ?
This one is easy to answer. RWSN has immense value to the sector. Being a means of passing information within the sector and placing on their website all sorts of important and valuable information and material.
What’s in store for the future of the water sector ?
Water is precious and the less there is the more precious it becomes. It is a life saver, vital for health and just about everything else; without it we could not exist. But it is also wasted, especially in the modern world; and it can also be polluted, mainly by the products humankind put into it.
The supply of water through recharge from the rain into rivers, lakes and man-made dams, as storage, is vital. It is very clear that groundwater is becoming far more earnestly studied than in earlier years, and made available to humankind through wells and boreholes. However, it seems the general trend is that groundwater is being used up without being fully replaced. Deep fossil water is being used up and not being replaced in many parts of the world; and groundwater is being used more in the cities in place of piped supplies – a form of Self-Supply. The maintenance and cost of providing an efficient piped supply is huge.
One thing that worries me is the quality of boreholes, how they are drilled and cased and gravel packed. Kerstin [Danert] is the expert on these matters. I have only seen a few being drilled myself, the latest by a reputable company that used a few hacksaw blade cuts as slotted casing and so little gravel packing that could hardly protect the casing. I know that the life of hand pumps and also of motorised pumps can be shortened if the borehole is not properly cased and gravel packed and (especially in the case of hands pumps) if the borehole is not vertical – and many are not. Kerstin and RWSN are trying hard to improve the quality of boreholes drilling – and that is vitally important. Please carry on this excellent work.
I think electrically driven motorised pumps have an important part to play in the future and that means more electric power to drive them. This power can come off the grid or be delivered from solar panels or even generators. Many large schemes are being developed using solar power around the world. But care, good management and maintenance and protection are required for all these facilities. Such systems required storage tanks and taps, which need looking after as well. Electric pumps can deliver huge amounts of water, which may drain less productive boreholes and may damage the control and pumping equipment. Care, protection and maintenance are required at such locations. Such matters have been described so many times before.
I also believe that handpumps still have an important role to play in the provision of water, especially in the rural areas. They need human power to make them work, but in so many places you have to work for something so precious as water. In the far off and wild places away from the towns and cities the humble handpump can have such an important role to play to provide water for humans and the cattle. How many have experienced the silence and loneliness deep in the bush, after the last vehicle has departed into the distance followed by a cloud of dust. And in the silence that lonely hand pump is your only source of water. The longer it can last the better to provide the
service it was specifically designed to provide.
What would you like to see change over the coming years ?
Well it has been said many times, but is worth repeating. The modern world spends billions on equipment for warfare and so many other things. By comparison, why is so little spent on providing the one thing that humankind needs more than anything else – water? RWSN must be considered a central organisation surrounded by others who have the same commitment – to ensure that if human life is to survive, the availability of water is a central component, not only for the rich but also for the poor.
About the author: Dr Morgan’s career spans nearly five decades in the WASH sector. He has designed various Blair VIP toilet systems, a range of hand pumps (including Blair and “B” type Bush Pumps) and various water related technologies (family based, self supply methods and hand washing methods etc). Studies in Ecological Sanitation led to simplified methods of recycling human excreta (Arborloo and Fossa alterna). These various developments, in combination, serve millions of people on the African continent and all over the world. For more information, please refer to his website: https://drpetermorgan.com/index.html as well as some of his numerous publications on the RWSN website.
Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication and translation. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at]skat.ch) for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.