I’m working on a short piece for our annual report about Oxfam’s work in eastern/southern Senegal last year, when we helped a few communities fix up their wells and learn how to treat their drinking water to avoid water-borne diseases. It was part of a program to help farmers recover from a drought and bad harvest in 2011. Oxfam delivered some cash to help farmers buy food, but we also helped them to address water and sanitation and hygiene, all closely linked to malnutrition.
Anyway, I spoke with my colleague Kenny Rae, an engineer who works in our humanitarian response department, and he gave me a quick lesson on a of the few ways that Oxfam helps communities improve water quality in the hand-dug wells (usually less than one meter in diameter) commonly found in rural Senegal.
1: Protect the top
Build a wall around the top of the well, with a reinforced concrete drainage apron around it. This will prevent surface water running into the well; particularly important where there are animal droppings around.
2: Reduce turbidity
If a well is serving up cloudy, muddy water, it may have too much silt at the bottom. Send an intrepid digger down there with a shovel to dig out the silt and debris, then put a layer of gravel at the bottom of the well. The gravel will keep the silt down, and when someone drops a bucket on a rope down to the bottom of the well it will be less likely to scoop up silt as well as water.
Scrub down the sides of the well with a chlorine solution to kill microbes that can make people sick. Disinfect the well water by temporarily adding a strong chlorine solution (removed before the well goes back into operation).
4: Cover it
Install a reinforced concrete cover over the top of the well to keep anything from falling in and polluting the water.
5: Install a pump
This will make it easier to draw water, if a community can afford to maintain a pump (not always the case—pumps break down and take money, time, and spare parts to repair). Oxfam is introducing a variety of pumps, including locally manufactured and easily maintained rope pumps. A pump piping water up from the bottom of the well takes away the possibility of infecting water with a dirty bucket or rope.
6: Treat the water
In eastern Senegal, Oxfam distributed hygiene kits that included bleach – just a capful in a 10-liter container will kill bugs that make people sick. In the southern region near Kolda, Oxfam also installed special dispensers near the wells that dole out a pre-measured portion of a chlorine solution that will safely treat a container of well water.
Oxfam works with communities to solve drinking water problems in emergencies because water-borne diseases can be devastating especially for malnourished children. But we also work on water and sanitation and irrigation in our long-term programs. You can read more about our work involving water on our web site.