If you have water supply problems and no water department, who do you call?

If you do not know your destination then it does not matter how you get there.

“Would you tell me please which way I should go from here?” asked Alice. “That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh you are sure to do that,” said the Cat,  “as long as you walk long enough.”

This quintessential Lewis Carol excerpt is often paraphrased to

If you do not know your destination then it does not matter how you get there.

A good example is the well-intended objective of providing fresh water to communities in Malawi by drilling and equipping water wells; laudable certainly, but limited in scope and outcomes. A water well alone does not a water department make. For sure a source is vital. However by itself a source does not mean reliable potable water delivery. Much more is needed to construct a sustainable supply including well locations, repair, planned maintenance, spare parts, transportation and trained personnel.

Now we have a job for a systems designer and builder. Wonder of wonders, on the job was a Canadian organization, Engineers Without Borders. This group of human development pioneers identified a major deficiency: not establishing the destination first and then starting the journey.

The water department destination defines the outcome; building the components are the tasks. Technology stepped in by providing terrestrial location methods.  Now existing wells can be located and new ones positioned. Following close behind is monitoring the life cycle of hand pumps, wells and boreholes, training community members, provision of spare parts and building partnerships. Two water organizations have invested to scale up the program. Upon completion, EWB will have mapped over a third of all water points in Malawi.

The Malawian Water Department, Alice and EWB now have the potential for a mutual outcome. If Alice asks where to drill a water well, the Cat may well answer, “That depends a great deal on what she wants to achieve”; if she asks the Cat how to create a sustainable water supply, the Cat may well answer, “Build all the elements that constitute a water department.”

Ask Engineers Without Borders and their Malawian partners to give you a hand.

Don Thurston is a former chair of EWB’s board of directors.

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