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 on rwsn.blog, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.
This is a blog post from RWSN Member Joshua Briemberg, based in Nicaragua.
My career in the water and sanitation sector started in 1993 not long after RWSN was born. It was a deliberate choice for me after a brief stint in the UK oil industry that followed upon living and working during 4-months between 1991 and 1992 in rural Nicaragua to build a two-room school house. During this time diarrhea was often the order of the day, and night, for me in a rudimentary pit latrine. I still remember looking up into giant banana leaves waving in the moonlight to find a sense of peace in certain agony. At the time, I struggled to focus while in university in Canada between studies in chemical engineering with one class in water treatment that caught my attention, and studies in humanities, intrigued by the discussion of water rights and the First Nations people of Canada.
Having finished my engineering degree in 1992, my true calling continued to elude me and I moved to the UK. While in London, first as a bicycle courier and then as a health and safety engineer for the construction of an 11 billion dollar North Sea oil platform, the Intermediate Technology book shop (which later became Practical Action) became my favorite destination and the monthly publication Waterlines an early inspiration, as I planned a return to Nicaragua to do something, anything related to water. I also remember carrying the odd parcel as a courier to a small WaterAid office in a building near Green Park. Twenty years later, still living in Nicaragua I would be asked to design and then lead WaterAid’s first country program in Latin America.
Somewhere along the way, I let fall by the wayside any idea of pursuing further formal training in the halls of renowned institutes like WEDC at the University of Loughborough, where I once met with John Pickford, or IHE in Delft where I also made a short visit. The field was to become my classroom.
My journey in the world of water and sanitation in 1993 started for real by conducting a study of the presence of pesticides in the groundwater supplies for the cities of Nicaragua’s historic cotton-belt of the 1970s. I moved on from there to a couple of jobs in what was meant to be my field as a chemical engineer – sewerage master plans for Managua and wastewater treatment while briefly back in Canada.
But it was then, as I found myself heading up the first cycle of a program to train village-engineers to design and build small rural spring-fed gravity-driven water supply systems in the north-central mountains that I truly found my calling: rural water supply. In just over 30 years this operation – Agua para la Vida – has worked with small rural mountainous communities to establish more than 100 water supply systems using state-of-the-art design tools to optimize performance and cost. Well-designed mountain spring-fed gravity-driven water supply systems are amazingly durable with highly manageable operating costs; the main challenge is the protection of the recharge area of the watershed and ensuring community cohesion and effective management.
Captivated by the joy of opening the tap and having clean water gushing out after months of sweat and toil, I was driven to carry on in pursuit of a glass of clean water everywhere.
One thing I found during these years was that while we designed for growth the communities often shrunk in size due to migration in search of greater economic opportunities elsewhere.
I took the skills learned with war-ravaged communities on the agricultural frontier to work with indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna communities to bring clean mountain water to people along a system of rivers in the farthest depths of one of two biosphere reserves in Nicaragua. Gravity-fed piped water supplies continued to be my default option until the springs ran out.
On my first reconnaissance mission in 1997 to the village of Raiti on the Coco River (Wangki) that separates Honduras from Nicaragua, I was accompanied by an American hydrogeologist who spoke neither Spanish nor the local language Miskitu. During the conversation with community leaders about the existence of potential spring sources, one community leader told me that the potential source was about 15 minutes away while another said it was more like a day away. Needless to say my hydrogeologist decided to stay behind and it took us close to 6 hours to reach the place thought by the villagers to be a viable source!
Unfortunately, like almost all surface water sources in the eastern or Caribbean region of Nicaragua, it was located at lower elevations than the community, which was the way the communities would protect themselves against the risk of flooding. And thus began my first experiences with digging and drilling wells with what had become a Nicaraguan standard by then: the rope pump.
It was not until the early 2000s, and with a decade of empirical experience in the field, that I began to come in contact with networks such as RWSN which became sporadic but important references combined with other guiding lights of inspiration that I encountered in the rare opportunities when I emerged from remote communities by footpaths, dirt roads, and rivers.
Through these contacts, I was inspired to add new tools to my toolbox in the continued search for clean water. Rainwater harvesting and point-of-use treatment or filters became significant aspects of my search to truly reach the last mile, while also experimenting with hydraulic ram pumps along the way. In addition to technologies themselves, approaches such as the Technology Applicability Framework (TAF), accelerating self-supply, and systems strengthening have become essential tools in the last ten years of my journey.
In addition to RWSN, which I did not formally encounter until 2011 when I attended the RWSN’s 6th International Forum in Kampala, Uganda, I also found inspiration from the HWTS network, the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA), the SMART Centre Group, SuSanA, Agenda for Change, and others. At the local level the Nicaraguan and Central American WASH Networks (RASNIC and RRAS-CA respectively) represented efforts to bring collaboration to the regional, national and local levels.
Out of these contacts came not only key technical references, but a greater understanding of the importance of context in the applicability of a solution, the complexity of sustainability, the importance of demand-based approaches accompanied by systems that are not necessarily exclusive to the public sector but include the role of the local private sector, entrepreneurship, alliances and the acceleration of self-supply models of service delivery.
There is still considerable tension between these two approaches to water supply – systems strengthening and accelerating self-supply models – although I consider the latter to be complementary and part of the former, and despite the fact that in sanitation individual family solutions continue to be the standard for the population in rural areas.
Needless to say, I moved on from my beginnings in spring-fed gravity-driven systems to shallow and deep borehole wells, manual and machine drilling, handpumps and renewable energy-driven pumps, rooftop rainwater catchment, and household water treatment and storage. I also ventured in to the concept of resilience and the concepts of both multiple uses and multiple sources or hybrid systems, the latter still less commonly considered.
It should not go unnoticed that my search for clean water in Nicaragua has been both confronted and marked along the way by an increasing number of hurricanes: Mitch in 1998 that took me to the Coco River to build water supply systems where there had been none but where the communities along the river had been entirely wiped away. Felix in 2007 left a swath of destruction across the northeast Caribbean Coast. And most recently Eta and Iota back-to-back in November 2020 that wiped out all of the more than 250 rooftop rainwater catchment systems with 4,000 litre ferrocement tanks that had been built one by one over 5 years by men and women in the community of Wawa Bar.
On this journey, I also came across some significant contributions to rural water supply incubated in Nicaragua in the spirit of its famed poet of modern Spanish letter Ruben Dario: Si la Patria es pequeña, uno grande la sueña. (If the homeland is small, one dreams it to be grand.) These include the rope pump (known in Nicaragua as the bomba de mecate), the clay pot filter (Filtron), and an artisan-made in-line chlorinator (originally known as CTI-8).
It was household water treatment and storage, and Ron Rivera of Potters for Peace that started me on the road to the concept of self-supply and market-based approaches. This concept has ended up twice costing me my job with “non-profit” organizations unwilling to undermine their charity model and dependence on a permanent state of “humanitarian philanthropy”.
Now as my life journey enters its home stretch, my focus is on bringing together both physically and virtually as many of all these great initiatives and new ones as they come along, within a context-based framework and the collective construction of appropriate service delivery models. My vehicle since 2017 is the Nicaragua SMART Centre: Connecting, assisting, accelerating. The SMART Centre was inspired in 2015 by Henk Holtslag whom I first met that the RWSN Forum in Kampala in 2011.
Earlier this year, RWSN published a concise version of my rapid assessment of the long term impact of the SMART approach: The case of the rope pump in Nicaragua, a look back at 40 years of development as a success story of accelerated self-supply. I can only hope that the beacon of the Rural Water Supply Network will continue to light the way for another 30 years so that I can contribute a few more grains of sand.
About the author:
Joshua has worked as a practitioner in the rural WASH sector for over 30 years almost entirely in Nicaragua, Central America with the exception of a 3-year period when he led the development of a program in Colombia. His work has taken him from brief stints in the public sector and with a private engineering consulting firm, to both small and internationally recognized non-governmental organizations, and bilateral aid agencies. He is the founding director of the Nicaragua Centre for SMART Technologies for WASH (Centro de Tecnologías SMART de Agua, Saneamiento e Hygiene), a social enterprise bringing together the public and private sectors, microfinance institutions, and academia to promote SMART approaches including self-supply to reach the last mile. He recently co-authored a RWSN Field Note taking stock of the 40-year history of the rope pump in Nicaragua.
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. 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.
Photo credits: Joshua Briemberg