News and background stories on maroon communities in the Americas.
Submitted by Wayne Rawlins(Wayne Rawlins is a former American Peace Corps Volunteer with a PhD in engineering who lived and worked in Suriname for 10 months)
Where’s the water? That is a question most would ask if they had just spent 111,134 Euros and worked off 5,780 Euros of the debt in exchange for a clean water system that never really worked.
This is exactly what happened to Tabiki, an island Aucan (Ndyuka) village in the Tapanahony River (about 40 minutes upriver from Stoelmanseiland and 30 minutes downriver from Manlobi).
The residents of Tabiki need a clean source of water to maintain a good healthy environment. In recent years this has become even more important with the unregulated mining run-off into this river basin. Therefore, when approached by Stichting Fonds Ontwikkeling Binnenland (generally referred to as the ‘FOB’) to build such a system the people of Tabiki enthusiastically formed their own Stichting and committed their personal resources to help build it.
The people of Tabiki did not feel they had any reason to expect anything but the best from the FOB, after-all, the FOB told them they had successfully built several water installations in other villages in this region of the river. Also, Tabiki being a very traditional Aucan village, lacked local expertise and ‘big city’ savvy and did not believe they had other options. Most likely that was true. Thus, the FOB identified and defined the water system that Tabiki was to receive. Their design had the water intake pipe going out across about 15 meters of rapids & rocks with a submersible pump at the end. Tabiki’s village leaders at the time felt putting the intake across a rapids was an unnecessary risk. They felt there was a high likelihood that debris in the river would be constantly damaging some portion of these critical components. They also knew it would be nearly impossible to repair for most of the year due to local river conditions.
It was suggested to put the intake directly into a calm portion of the river (this was available) or better yet, dig a well. All these suggestions were ignored by the FOB and the system was built as they deemed best and cheapest. As a result the people of Tabiki continue to pay the price as the system has been non-functional for most of the time since its completion. As predicted, every time the river rises over the level of the intake pipe, some flotsam in the river hits the pump, or the connecting pipe, and breaks one of the two. To make matters even worse nothing can be repaired in the deep and fast running water until the water levels recedes during the dry season, about 2 months of the year.
I became familiar with this problem while living in Tabiki. My name is Wayne Rawlins and I am a former American Peace Corps Volunteer and lived in Tabiki, with my wife, for about 10 months (August 2008 through June 2009). When we first arrived in Tabiki in August 2008 the water system was not working and we were told it had been some time since it had done so. This was puzzling since the system appeared to be new and I wanted to find out if I could help. After some questioning of the local villagers, I found out that the system had been installed in 2006 and dedicated in May of 2007, worked briefly and then broken when debris in the river hit the submerged pump and stopped operation. To make the situation even more difficult, the pump could not be fixed until the river was low enough to safely access the intake and pipe. I understood that the system had been repaired at least one time before I came but had been knocked out of service yet again. The residents of Tabiki had been attempting to contact FOB staff to repair the system, but after several months of trying, had not gotten a response from anyone there.
Before joining the Peace Corps I had over 20 years of experience as an engineer with a PhD, so I was pretty good at understanding and evaluating technical systems. The first thing I did was complete a detailed analysis of the water installation to understand how it was suppose to work. From this I hoped to determine where the weak link(s) is and what could be done to improve the system, i.e., make it reliable, repairs easy, and robust. It was easy to determine that the weakness of the entire system was the poorly designed water-intake assembly.
The submerged water-pump is placed approximately 15 meters out in the river. The water pipe and electrical connections then must go over a rocky-rapids with fast flowing water to finally get to the water-pump hanging from the end. When I inspected the system in October 2008, during low-water, all the supports except the end-support holding the pump were broken.
The sad part was these problems could have easily been avoided altogether. I also felt that the system was a bit complex for local sustaining, especially with the training, resources, and infrastructure that was left with the community.
I next evaluated how the system could be best modified. My goals were to, minimize all the following: modification costs, future repairs and maintenance, the level of expertise community members would need to maintain the system, and the time needed to make modifications. I believed a workable solution would have been to move the intake pump to shore on dry land and have the intake pipe go from it into the river (reverse of the current configuration). The intake pipe would be a flexible pipe to allow it to be extended further out into the river in the dry season. This solution would easily meet all the above-mentioned requirements. There were also several better solutions but these would be more costly and take more time to implement. I then attempted to contact the FOB to discuss this solution and get repairs scheduled.
With the help of Peace Corps personnel, I was finally able to get a response from FOB and get a commitment to come to Tabiki and evaluate how to repair it. When they did come the FOB representative agreed with my ideas, sketched up a rough plan, and said they would be returning during the dry season (most likely Oct/Nov) when water levels would be low enough to allow the repairs and modifications. However, when they did return at the end of October 2008, this discussion was entirely ignored and the system was repaired to its original configuration. This was in spite of objections from village leaders and myself. FOB stated this was all they were going to do and felt this was a robust fix. We then asked them if they were so confident would they guarantee right there, in front of the entire village, that they would come out and repair the system within two weeks, no matter what time of year, if it broke again. They would not answer. Unfortunately, as predicted, it was about two months later, within a week of the return of the wet season that the intake was damaged once again (December 29, 2008). Once again Tabiki had no source of clean water.
Shortly-thereafter attempts were made to contact the FOB, and as before, it was neither easy nor quick to get a response. Finally I was told by them that they would not make any commitment to come to Tabiki nor repair their poorly designed system. Over-and-over I called as well as went to Paramaribo to meet with them and was told again-and-again that the FOB had no money for this project and would not make any repairs or modifications. This seemed very odd to me as I had recently heard millions of Euros had been awarded to them to develop projects in Suriname? I also talked to the NIH government department and was told pretty much the same story. I think the most absurd thing I was told was that yes, Tabiki did have a water system put in, but no one ever guaranteed that it would work!! This makes me angry as I see the people and organizations that put this water system in Tabiki making good money, living in nice houses, driving nice cars, and taking month-long vacations overseas while the people of Tabiki suffer. What is their accountability? The money given through local government and foreign agencies is targeted for improving the lives and health of the people who live in the interior. Why would there not be responsibility to insure these systems work and continue to do so? Would they accept this ‘no guarantees’ attitude for their own fancy homes and autos? It seems some of these organizations only care about the statistics they can present to their funders about how many projects they have completed, that they worked at the instant installation was completed, but feel they have no responsibility beyond that.
No one comes back and verifies that these systems are working and being used 6 months, 1 year, 5 years from now. Once their pockets are lined and the do-gooders feel good about themselves, no one goes back and asks, “Was this the right thing? Did they need it? Does it work?” Now all Tabiki has is a 111,134 Euros piece of junk and many people are unnecessarily sick due to the lack of clean water. When I left Tabiki in June 2009, no one had yet come out to evaluate it, let alone repair it, and as of my latest information in December 2009, the system is still not working … almost one whole year since it last went down!
In my opinion, only the seeds of discontent are sown if you give people a promise and have them invest both physically and emotionally and then leave them with only the remnants of what could have been. It would have been better to have given nothing than to promise them clean water, take their money and work, and leave them with nothing.