AMRF researcher Crelis Rammelt participated in the inaugural Speed Thesis Competition organised by the University of New South Wales. One slide was permitted as a visual aid to assist in explaining the research to a mixed audience in less than 3 minutes.
About a decade ago, natural occurring arsenic was detected in the groundwater wells that people rely upon for their drinking water needs. In low doses, arsenic can lead to skin depigmentation, lesions and various forms of cancer. About 60 million people are at risk.
Very few solutions have been implemented; even fewer have successfully been taken over by the very poor (who by the way are most at risk (1) because they can’t afford the solutions, and (2) because malnutrition worsens the poisoning).
My objectives were: (1) to understand the failures to address this crisis, and (2) to suggest potentially successful approaches. I worked on projects in collaboration with the Arsenic Mitigation and Research Foundation. And I will now go through our findings from the past four years.
In a surveying phase, we test wells for arsenic in order to identify exposed communities, we carry out household surveys to identify poorer communities, and we identify potential arsenicosis patients.
This leads to the selection of villages, and to an understanding of the local context.
In an organising phase, we work directly with the local communities. We help them to select a site and install a safe water supply. We provide training on arsenic and its risks, and we organise village meetings to elect a maintenance committee. The initial surveys help us understand the local power relations, and to ensure representation of the poor (because usually the rich dominate). We also distribute medicine to patients, and help them set-up vegetable gardens to improve their diets.
This leads to the establishment of safe drinking water supplies and the provision of health support.
Many projects have failed to benefit the poor, because they are implemented in a hurry to meet the targets set by donor agencies. In doing so, organisations ignore steps that we have found to be essential (such as land selection or local elections).
While essential, these steps are no guarantee. Many things can still go wrong in the long-term, and we should not suddenly stop, but must gradually reduce our direct involvement, which takes us to the ‘facilitating’ phase.
Ultimately, the committee must look after the water supply, and the community (through village volunteers for example) must look after the committee. We expect that this will improve the sustainability of our approach.