For want of a nail: maintenance saves African wells and Meadowcreek gutters

Yesterday we fixed a downspout and cleaned gutters on the main dormitory at Meadowcreek.  Maintenance is easy to put off for too long.  Great ideas are wonderful to get things started, but maintenance is what keeps a system going.

boreholeMeadowcreek is too nice to leave for long, but once or twice a year I enjoy helping rural development projects in some of the poorest countries in the world.  I miss the Ozarks too much to stay away very long so I’m always glad to find those who make long term commitments to places that really need help.

One of those committed folks showed me how maintenance is the missing link in pulling communities from poverty.  He is a Vietnamese project manager who works on the doorstep of the Sahara desert in Senegal. Water is crucial to life and keeping the Sahara from encroaching.  When women and children are carrying water for miles every day, a charity makes its members feel good by digging a deep well and leaving the fine asset of a water pump to vastly improve the quality of the villagers’ lives.

However, in poor rural areas  of Africa donor agencies and NGOs have spent  hundreds of millions of dollars digging wells that become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down.  As a result, at least 50,000 water supply points are not functioning across rural Africa.  Only one third of water points built by NGOs in Senegal’s Kaolack region are working and 58% of water points in northern Ghana are in disrepair.

My friend in Senegal found the missing piece of the puzzle.  He found young men with mechanical aptitude and trained them in maintenance of the pump. And he created systems to support their efforts.  Villagers paid to use water from the new pump and the money went to by spare parts and pay the maintenance man.

Now all through Africa, this lesson in resilience is being applied.  Where NGOs train local people in well and pump maintenance and the local community pays modest water fees which go for spare parts and to the well maintenance person, water supply systems are much more likely  to be maintained.

In Lubango, Angola, a small town water utility maintains handpumps in surrounding villages for a fee. The company has maintained handpumps in the rural and peri-urban areas surrounding the town since 1990. Each family pays US$0.40 per month to the pump caretaker, half of which was for the caretaker’s salary and the rest to the company. The estimated annual revenue per handpump was $240 versus annual costs of $150 for salary, spare parts, unforeseen repairs, and future investment.  A number of other system designs have also worked.  The commonality is rewarding local maintenance with income from water usage.

At Meadowcreek, we’ve found maintaining productive assets is not natural.  Many people who come to Meadowcreek love to work outside and learn how to grow food organically.  They naturally love to get in the soil and dig and plant.  One of the things they do not love and always forget is to put up tools.  After the work is finished and you are enjoying swimming in the cool Blue Hole, the last thing you want to do is go back to the field and pick up the tools you left there.  You have to or they rust and decay.  After a few times everyone remembers, it becomes second nature and we are all happy.  It’s sometimes a tough early lesson at Meadowcreek or any farm or community.

When maintenance and care of all productive assets does become second nature, the community is on the road to resilience and sustainability.  Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in families which told this nursery rhyme on maintenance:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Maintenance illustrates the butterfly effect of chaos theory.  A small change in one tiny part of the system can have huge effects on the entire system.  For more examples of maintaining and increasing productive assets to create resilience click here to see the chapter in our book.

Cleaning gutters, fixing drain pipes, and picking up tools isn’t the most glamorous of jobs at Meadowcreek, but we gladly do it because we know maintenance is crucial to the resilience of any farm, any community.

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