By Caroline Ogutu

It is a misconception that engineers are good at logic, but cannot think creatively. With climate change challenging us, creative thinking is required for civil engineers working in development like me, just as much as for the most creative of professions.

Creativity is a human need, a vital part of our evolution. Admittedly, it’s a bit less of a critical need than water, but development is a kind of evolution of societies and economies. Each time I face a new challenge as a water engineer, I need to come up with a tailor-made solution to deliver water and sanitation to people.

In the African context, every water project is unique and we have to use different approaches to ensure the projects are sustainable and meet the needs of the population.

>@Mwanza Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Authority
©Mwanza Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Authority
>@Mwanza Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Authority
©Mwanza Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Authority

Creative highs and lows

The most creative aspect of Mwanza project, however, concerns the handling of the informal settlements, which did not have any sewerage service.

The settlements largely depend on onsite sanitation, such as pit latrines. It is common to find more planned settlements on the higher elevations, with the informal ones mostly on low-lying terrain. Uniquely, in Mwanza, the situation is different. The hills above Mwanza have informal settlements of closely packed dwellings with no infrastructure and no organized system of roads, thus posing a great challenge to water and sewerage service provision.

For one thing, the wastewater from the informal settlements flows downhill without any sewer connection. These settlements also did not have consistent water supply due to inadequate connections and inability of the residents to afford the connection fees.

We called the idea we developed simplified sewerage solutions.

Here’s how that works. Simplified sewerage solutions are designed with a great deal of community sensitization and mobilization. With the support of UN Habitat, we formed community monitoring groups we called multi-stakeholder forums in the respective communities within the informal settlements The forums are comprised of volunteer members of the community, administrative officers and health offices. The main task of the forums is to mobilise and sensitise the community members on the importance of environmental sanitation, but more specifically mobilise the community to connect their toilets into the sewerage system. The forums also act as mediators in resolving disputes that arise during the construction phase.

So, how is the simplified sewerage built? The forum organizes the community into conglomerates of, say, 10 homes, which will be responsible for their own sanitation. Each conglomerate was given the task of connecting its individual on-site toilets and individual homes to a collection point. From there, MWAUWASA, the local utility then builds a main pipeline and lateral lines that draw the sewerage from the collection points and dump it into the existing conventional sewerage system.

 

Africans have to think of their own solutions and own them, then the solutions will be truly sustainable

But the community isn’t left to do that alone. The simplified sewerage solution is really built around this leg of the community engagement. The forum and our consultants teach them—with frequent sensitization meetings—about the importance of sanitation, the importance of having and using improved toilets, and how to maintain the connections. We also fund this construction and maintenance, and the utility provides the materials to build the connections. A contractor comes in to build it. One person from the residents’ conglomerate is appointed to lead the group and to ensure maintenance of the connections.

The population is involved. They buy into the project, thanks to the extensive meetings and education carried out in cooperation with UN Habitat. They are part of the construction decisions and they oversee everything. But of course, they aren’t the only ones to benefit. The utility finds, you might say, a path to penetrate these dense informal settlements.

In addition, the utility gets revenue from the connections. The rest of the town benefits, because the waste of the settlements on the hills no longer flows down into their community.

When we came with the financing, we knew what needed to be done and we could fit it to the future needs of the population. That makes the solution sustainable.

One aspect of the project that has particular resonance now is this: The water points, handwashing facilities and sustained hygiene education provided in schools and communities as part of this project have raised the level of awareness and emergency preparedness around the threat of COVID-19  in the area.

The €104 million project was funded with a €45 million loan from the European Investment Bank, as well as €45 million from Agence française de développement and €14.5 million from the government of Tanzania. The European Investment Bank also brought in technical assistance grant money from the European Union.

That technical assistance was key. Before the project even started, we financed a master plan to look at water demand and water needs for the population in future. We also prepared a master plan for sanitation, too. The result was that, when we came with the financing, we knew what needed to be done and we could fit it to the future needs of the population.

That makes the solution sustainable.

Kampala creative development solutions

Another Lake Victoria project that required creativity is our improvement to the water supply in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Water supply networks in Kampala were spaghetti-like. They had not been laid with good planning, being constructed in different pieces at different times, so that everyone was connected from many different directions. This introduced many inefficiencies to the system with losses from the use of wrongly sized pipes or leaks, for example, at the many poorly built intersections between different parts of the network. At that time, about half the water was lost between the water treatment plant and the tap. That meant the utility was also only being paid for half the water it was treating.

To increase the water supply, we decided to improve the water infrastructure. That is to say, we could increase the water delivery from the existing water treatment plants just by improving and rehabilitating the pipelines. This would boost the utility’s revenue and allow us to bring the water—which had previously been lost—to people who weren’t served before.

With our partners at Agence française de développement and Germany’s KfW, the European Investment Bank also upgraded the water treatment plant, which increased water production to 240 000 cubic metres per day from 150 000 before.

We’ve started work on a new water treatment plant in the eastern part of Kampala to supply areas that never had water before.

Kampala informal settlements solutions

The general solution we had for Kampala was not the same as the solution for Mwanza. In the same way, the solution for the Kampala informal settlements had to be different to the one we developed in the Mwanza informal settlements.

For one thing, Kampala’s informal settlements are on low-lying ground, not in the hills, as Mwanza’s are. Nonetheless, we needed to reduce the amount of untreated water in these settlements, to reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases, and to bring sanitation services to 200 000 people in Kampala’s informal settlements.

The creative solution this time was ablution blocks.

Here’s how that works. In a public area, we would build a sanitation facility. Attached to the facility, it is proposed to have a restaurant or a shop, for example. The private operator of the sanitation facility would maintain it and charge a small fee for the residents of the informal settlements to use it. But the attached business would subsidise the operation of the sanitation facility.

The operator would have an incentive to maintain the facilities well and to keep the fee low, so as to attract people to the attached business and earn greater profits there. To keep the licence for the attached business, the operator also has to demonstrate to inspectors from the city council that they are maintaining the ablution blocks. This provides long-term maintenance for the ablution block.

It’s a remedy to a frequent development problem, which is that an outside entity invests a lot of money in building a sanitation facility, only for the lack of long-term maintenance to lead to a breakdown. Within a few years, the lack of management and maintenance leaves the facility malfunctioning or vandalized. The Kampala ablution blocks represent a creative way of making these facilities sustainable for the future, without demanding further major resources to keep them useable.

>@KfW Bildarchiv
©KfW Bildarchiv
>@KfW Bildarchiv
©KfW Bildarchiv

Critical creative development solutions

These projects are critical to ensuring that Africa is developed effectively. If we import a single solution, the sustainability will never be there. There needs to be a way for infrastructure to be maintained, for equipment to be easily available—and bought. Africans have to think of their own solutions and own them, then the solutions will be truly sustainable.

Without this sustainability, Africa will be dependent on wherever the solutions came from rather, than having the independence to maintain solutions that are the best fit for our circumstances.

>@DR
©DR

They ask me why I chose such a career

In my university class, we were only three women in a class of 40 engineering students. Civil and structural engineering is male-dominated in Kenya. People are still surprised when they hear I am a civil engineer. They ask me why I chose such a career. The answer is that I like to see development infrastructure rise up.

I wanted to make a difference and bring some changes to my community and my society. This part of the world needs a lot of development. I wanted to play my part in creating infrastructure and also to be part of the thinking from which development solutions are made. I am more and more in love with my job, because I get to see the faces of people when they have running water—something they have not had since they were born. You become very fulfilled as a human being, when you have such an experience. I feel that all the time.

At the European Investment Bank, I am able to have a global picture of what exactly the countries of East Africa need and the investments going on in these countries. That helps me create pipelines for projects to complement those that are already ongoing.

Based in Nairobi, Caroline Ogutu is a water engineer in the European Investment Bank’s water security and resilience division.