CWS On the Road: Liberia

This July, Kathryn and I are traveling around West Africa to scout some new regions for potential CWS expansion. We are traveling to Liberia, Burkina Faso and Togo and will be documenting our trip in a series of blog posts called “CWS on the Road.” The funding for CWS’ expansion trips came this spring from an anonymous donor – THANK YOU for supporting CWS and allowing us to explore the possibility of working in new regions!

Last week, Kathryn and I packed our bags and headed to Liberia, W. Africa on a scouting trip for CWS. Armed with a guide book, some great WASH maps, and the phone numbers of recommended drivers, we arrived in Monrovia on the 4th of July, excited to be taking the first step towards expanding CWS’ impact to new areas.

Kathryn on the beach in Monrovia right after we arrived in Liberia!

We wanted to check-out the water situation in Liberia for a few different reasons: First, 14 years of civil war (1989-2003) destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, leaving the majority of Liberians without access to water or electricity. Today,less than 10% of people in Monrovia (the nation’s capital) are on the grid. And that’s the capital of the country! Crazy! Second, Liberia is an english-speaking country. While the CWS team is used to navigating language-barriers, its always easier to get things done when you don’t have to rely on a translator for communicating! Finally, we had access to some awesome information! Last year, a bunch of WASH organizations working in Liberia got together and mapped all of the “water points” around the country.

So much GIS Data! Kathryn’s idea of heaven…

Most of these water points are boreholes with a handpump. The map noted if the pump was working or not and listed the implementing NGO. They combined this data with information on village populations and mapped out what they called the “corridor of need” based on water access (#of working water points/community populations). It is extremely rare to find such great information about water access in a country so we were thrilled!

Although the WASH-Liberia Maps gave us a good idea about where working/broken handpumps where located, we were interested in learning what people were doing for their water once their handpump was broken. Did they drink from a surface water source? Rainwater? Something else? How easy it to fix a handpump? Are people fixing them? We also wanted to learn about community structure. How big are the villages? What is the village-leadership hierarchy like? What are the village markets like? Would people pay for drinking water if it was sold in their community? From our experience working in Ghana, we knew that the best way to learn the answers to all of these questions would be to get out in the field and talk to people.

After spending a day in Monrovia, meeting with the Director of Liberia’s Peace Corp office (such an awesome guy who was extremely helpful!) and finding an great driver, we headed out to the rural counties to check out the water situation first-hand. First we traveled to Tubmanburg and spent two days driving around to villages in Bomi, Gbarpolu, and Grand Cape Mount Counties. We stopped-in as many communities as we could and talked to whoever was around and willing to chat!

Our view for about 80% of the day: dirt roads and beautiful jungle!

Kathryn checking out a handpump is Gbarpolu County

Typical village in Gbarpulo County, Liberia

One thing that we were not prepared for was all.of.the.rain. After over 4 years of working in Ghana, we knew that July = rainy season in West Africa. What we did not realize was just how different the weather and terrain would be in Liberia.  In Ghana, the rainy season is similar to summertime in a state like Florida. Storms roll in quickly, it pours for a couple hours (most of time its less than an hour) and then the sun comes out again. Not in Liberia. It rained on and off all day, every day that we were there. To put it in perspective, the average yearly rainfall in Seattle is just over 36 inches. In Monrovia, its over 200 inches! The good news is, unlike Ghana where everyone takes a nap when it rains, Liberians are used to the constant rainfall and life goes on!

The plus side of all of the rain…absolutely BEAUTIFUL jungle landscape. It was breathtaking

From Grand Cape Mount we headed back to Monrovia for a night and the journeyed up Gbanga. For the next couple of days we drove around Bong and Nimba County on the hunt for more handpumps, surface water sources and friendly Liberians to chat with.

Another day on the road…

Checking out some handpumps…

…and surface water sources

Overall it was a pretty awesome week in Liberia. Kathryn and I learned so much! Ultimately, we do not think that Liberia would be a good fit for CWS’ expansion. Mainly because there are just so many boreholes! Right after the war ended, there was a huge push for borehole drilling in rural Liberia. Tons and tons of different NGOs came to build wells and handpumps. Coming from Northern Region Ghana, where you can’t drill boreholes, Kathryn and I were floored by how many boreholes there were. Drilling is also very expensive ($5,000-$10,000/borehole) so we could not believe how much money was invested in setting up these pumps. Almost every single village we visited had aleast 1 pump and many had 3-4. While we knew there were a lot of pumps from the WASH-Liberia map, the map only showed villages where NGOs had drilled broeholes. It did not tell us if there were more villages  out there that hadn’t been reached.What we learned: there aren’t many, almost every community has atleast 1 borehole with a handpump!

The problem? Pumps break. And they have broken…all over Liberia. If an average village had 3 handpumps that were set up by an NGO in 2005, that same village  has only 1 functioning pump now (on average, based on what we saw in our 1 week). And often times that pump will run dry in the dry season. As a result, many people are still forced to drink water from surface water sources like creeks and streams. Although a lot of people were getting water from surface water sources in many communities, the presence of so many boreholes, working or not, would make it difficult for CWS to work in these villages. Even if a community only has 1 working pump, people would be much less likely to pay for water from a CWS business if there is a chance that they can get water for free from a borehole, even if they have to wait in a long line for it or even if there is a chance the borehole is dry that day.

Path leading to a community creek in Grand Cape Mount county

The thing that frustrated Kathryn and I the most was that out of ALL of the NGOs and aid organizations that came to drill these boreholes from 2003-2005, not one of them set up a system for dealing with pump maintenance. Almost everyone we talked to told us that when their pump broke they had no idea who to call to help them fix it, even if they were willing to pay for parts. We searched high and low for spare pump parts in both local markets and big cities, and they were no where to be found. There is virtually no supply-chain in the country for pump parts. In a handful of communities, we learned that there had been some follow-up, or that there was a person in town that they can call when they need help fixing their pump, but in the vast majority this was not the case.

As an organization that spends a big portion of our budget on long-term monitoring and follow-up, we were upset and annoyed at this situation. We even hunted down welt hunger hilife‘s office in Monrovia to tell them what see saw in the field. Our conversation went something like this:

Your pumps are broken!

People are willing to pay to have them fixed!

Is there someway you can get them parts?

Maybe train local people how to fix pumps?

“oh sorry, we don’t work in those counties anymore.”

So you aren’t going to do anything? People will pay you to come fix their pumps

“No, we don’t work there anymore”

So, incredibly frustrating.

Not all of the water NGOs in the area share welt hunger hilife‘s “drop off and go” attitude. Population Services International is doing incredible work with household chlorination (also in HIV/AIDS, hygiene, sanitation and so much more!). They have launched an awesome social-marketing campaign to teach people how to chlorinate their drinking water and have helped to establish a sales-network for a locally manufactured WaterGuard (PSI-branded liquid chlorine). We met with their WASH program manager on or last day in Monrovia and she was awesome! There is so much that we can learn from PSI’s work, both in Liberia and globally!

One of PSI’s educational signboards in Nimba County

Pumps aside, the community structure in most of these villages is very different from the set-up in Ghana, and would also make it difficult for the CWS system to work well. The communities that we visited were much smaller – like 10-20 one-family households vs. 30-100 multi-family (polygamous) households. If we were to train 2 women to work at a CWS water business, there wouldn’t be very many families left in the town to buy water from them! There were also a lot of other small factors (market-structures, supply chains, availabilty of equipment, etc) that would make it hard for CWS to work in rural Liberia. Not impossible, just too difficult right now.

We think that there are many big opportunities in the water sector in Liberia, just not good opportunities for CWS at this time. Household water treatment and rainwater collection would be great options for this area – if you’re reading this and your organization implements HWTS or RW catchment systems and want more info on opportunities in Liberia, let us know!

More importantly, if you worked in Liberia in 2003-2005 and set up handpumps in rural villages and then left, Come Back! Train people how to fix your pumps, help set up a supply chain of pump-parts. Your job is NOT finished yet! People are willing to pay to have their pumps fixed, but you left them with no one to call and no materials to work with. Its embarrassing.

Overall, our trip to Liberia was incredible. We learned a lot about emergency aid – the positives (SO MUCH support, financially and logistically, that results in big projects. Projects like drilling wells EVERYWHERE!); the negatives (the drop and go mentality of so many NGOs). We learned a lot about life in a post-conflict zone. We learned a lot about what kinds of communities would not be a good fit for the CWS system, which in turn, helps us better define what we are looking for. Finally, we met so many amazing people who are doing really great work: some friendly, smart and super-motivated peace corp volunteers; the dedicated and knowledgeble staff at PSI-Liberia; our awesome hosts in Tubmanburg, Mary’s Meals; and last but not least, our AWESOME driver Jallah, who not only traversed some pretty rough terrain, but also had the best road-trip playlist we’ve ever heard, shared our weird sense of humor and fielded endless questions from Kathryn and I (do Liberians eat monkeys? How long does it take pineapples to grow? Would people pay for water? What did that lady say? Who do you think lived in that house we passed on the left about 1 mile back? How do you tap rubber? What the red stuff in jars on the street?)

Me with our awesome driver/roadtrip DJ Jallah!

We’re back in Tamale for the day and leaving for Burkina Faso and and Togo tomorrow! Stay tuned for more updates from “CWS on the Road!”

-Kate

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3 Responses to CWS On the Road: Liberia

  1. Pingback: CWS On the Road: Burkina Faso « Community Water Solutions

  2. Pingback: CWS on the Road: Pilot in Tunga | Community Water Solutions

  3. Pingback: CWS On the Road: The Hunt Continues | Community Water Solutions

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