Role of the engineer in international development : a case study in water supply service delivery models in Sierra Leone
Byars, Paul Francis Devine
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The eradication of global poverty is central to the concept of sustainable development. In developing nations the lack of essential infrastructure and technologies, which are necessary to provide people with their basic human rights, offer a central role for the engineer. These needs are increasing as new global threats, such as the pressures caused by population growth, the harmful effects of climate change or the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters, have only heightened the difficulties which threaten the world’s poorest nations. Decades of development practice has allowed the profession of engineering to engage with many of these global issues. Over this period the engineering approaches, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have gradually moved from high impact and short-term disasters relief interventions to long-term endogenous solutions. This change in overall aims has raised awareness of the sustainability of current engineering interventions. Many of the results are not entirely positive. For example, in water supply engineering, certain national estimates of sustainability of hand-pump wells for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can range from 30- 80%. The role that the engineer could provide in addressing the concerns of poorer nations has not yet been fully realised. This thesis evaluates the current engineering models of service delivery that are used by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in developing nations. These models of technology transfer are supposed to provide communities in developing nations with a sustainable access to technologies that can provide for their basic rights. It is from within these models that engineers, who in many cases are foreign to the socio-cultural systems of the host nation, perform their engineering function and activities. The field research focuses on a case study of water supply engineering projects that have been carried out within the rural District of Tonkolili in Sierra Leone. To address the complex socio-cultural and socio-technical systems in Sierra Leone this field research adopted a combination of qualitative and quantitative assessment methods. This involved investigating both the technical and social sustainability issues found in Sierra Leone. The research visits were both inductive and deductive. They covered 150 spatially distributed villages in the rural district of Tonkolili. The methodologies used as part of this study involved; interviews, focus group discussions, community mapping, transect walks and technical observations, to provide a broad understanding of the sustainability issues affecting engineering projects. A total of 309 hand-pump wells, pulley systems and borehole water points were evaluated as part of the research. The study investigated the technical, socio-technical and socio-cultural consequences of these technology transfers - as well as the current condition of the social support mechanisms that are designed to sustain the water schemes. The results of the technical observations demonstrated that there are a diverse range of failures, from extreme to moderate, that have occurred at many of the water points. During the field visits observations of water supply solutions found to have urgent technical problems were frequent occurrences. The majority of the water points (96%) were found to have at least one technical failing that required immediate maintenance or further engineering assistance. The social research also indicated that, of the 4,700 individual categories monitored, a significant proportion (49%) were technical problems that were within the capacities of village members to address locally. These technical problems found to be ignored by the host communities. The NGO trained support mechanisms, which were designed to provide sustainability to the systems, for innumerable reasons, were unable to operate effectively. The breakdown in function of these supporting systems highlighted the serious weakness of current service delivery models in their ability to achieve sustainable engineering solutions. Investigating the relationship between the households and the water points suggests that the communities are not acting rationally towards their water sources. The majority of households were found to have unsafe water practices regardless of the provision of their improved sources. For example, many households that had access to improved water sources were found to still use their unimproved sources (30%). Many more (53%) complemented, and mixed, their unimproved water with water from their improved wells. This attitude towards safe water suggested that there were fundamentally flawed assumptions about how communities would receive and interact with their technologies. These household decisions, and the associated technical concerns, are directly attributable to the actions of the engineers from the project implementing development agencies. The results of these misinterpretations have undermined the long term sustainability of water supplies in Sierra Leone. The research indicated that to address sustainability the engineering profession is at a crossroads in determining its future in international development. Engineers have the capacity to acknowledge that the complexities of development limit their efficacy and therefore seek support from other professions. This would narrow the scope of their interventions. They are also capable of actively seeking the opposite; to broaden the scope as well as the responsibilities, expectations and skills of the engineers. It is this decision that will define the role of the engineer in international development.