Ada Oko-Williams grew up in Nigeria, a country with more than 160 million people, but where only half the population has access to safe drinking water. Even fewer people have acceptable sanitary facilities.
She now lives and works in Sierra Leone, and over the past half-decade has worked with charities and non-governmental organizations in West Africa to create open-defecation free communities that benefit hundreds of thousands of people. Oko-Williams says the health problems associated with unsafe drinking water are well-known, but there are other dimensions to a lack of access.
“People are also unable to engage in economic and productive activities because they spend a lot of their time being sick, because they have no access to water and sanitation,” Oko-Williams says. “Education and attendance in school [have] increased significantly now…income levels are beginning to increase, which means people have more cash and can do so much more with their lives than they would ordinarily be able to do had these initiatives not happened.”
The University of Oklahoma’s WaTER Center honored Oko-Williams with the 2013 International Water Prize in September. She spoke to KGOU’s World Views alongside University College London hydrogeologist Richard Taylor. He says a common misperception is that there’s insufficient water in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“The problem is the delivery of water to people,” Taylor says. “Whether it’s from a tap, from a bore hole, from a protected spring, it’s really about the delivery of the water and the distribution of water.”
Oko-Williams says the mechanisms for delivering the water are closely tied to governance on a continent with dozens of failed states.
“So government is not responsive to its responsibilities in terms of providing the framework that allows for different actors to get engaged and be able to deliver quality access to water and sanitation for the people.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ada Oko-Williams and Richard Taylor, welcome to World Views.
RICHARD TAYLOR: Thank you.
ADA OKO-WILLIAMS: Thank you.
GRILLOT: So you're here as part of the WaTER Center work that goes on here at the University of Oklahoma, and Ada, welcome to you and congratulations on winning the Water Prize this year.
OKO-WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.
GRILLOT: So the both of you do work in different parts of Africa on issues of water, sanitation, so maybe we could just start by giving some general sense of what are some of the significant challenges that African nations face today regarding water and sanitation. Ada, would you like to first talk about what you're doing specifically in West Africa?
OKO-WILLIAMS: Very specifically now in Africa we're going through a...we're still at the time and the season where issues of water and sanitation...access to water and sanitation remains a very, very big and significant challenge for the governments and the people generally. So you have, for instance, Nigeria, which is my home country. We have a population of over 160 million. You're looking at only about 32 percent of the people in that country having access to sanitation. That means that only about 32 percent of the people of Nigeria have somewhere safe and decent to defecate. The rest of the population is either using facilities that are not up to international standards, or are not safe or decent enough. They don't meet the international standards set for a place to defecate. With regards to water, about 56 percent of the population of the country has access to safe drinking water. That means for the rest of the 44 percent of the people - where do they get their drinking water? Most of them depend on streams, ponds, and various unsafe sources of water. These have attendant problems. When people don't have access to safe water, there are problems that come along with that. The well-known problems are normally health-related. People get sick and even die because they don't have safe water. But beyond that, there are other dimensions to lack of access, and that could also affect the educational system. It affects attendance at school for children especially. It affects also health for women. Maternal and infant health is put to a great challenge. People are also unable to engage in economic and productive activities because they spend a lot of their time being sick, because they have no access to water and sanitation. So the effect of not having this access - they're rippling and they affect practically every sphere of life across the board. For women, as long as you're not productive, and with a cultural setting that does not allow you a lot of access to social platforms where you can engage and self-develop, the issues of water and sanitation further exacerbate the problems that come from that. This is the kind of situation that we have across Africa right now. Most countries in Africa are really way behind in terms of access to sanitation and water for their people.
GRILLOT: So Richard, has this been your experience as well in East Africa? I want to come back to some of the things that you're saying Ada, but tell us a little bit about what's going on in East Africa, and particularly the kind of bio-physical work that you're doing.
TAYLOR: Well, the situation in East Africa is actually very consistent with that in West Africa. Similar limited access to safe water and sanitation. And many of the things, in fact everything that Ada said would apply to East Africa, so there's a consistency in the situation. One thing I'd like to add - a common misperception from those outside of the region is that there's insufficient water. In fact, there's easily sufficient water. The problem really is the delivery of water to people. Be it whether it's from a tap, from bore hole, from a protected spring, it's really about the delivery of the water and the distribution of the water - both in time and space - and if you want to call it the conveyance. The infrastructure for providing that water. It's not really that sub-Saharan Africa has some kind of chronic shortage of water. That's not the problem.
GRILLOT: So the delivery and distribution of the water, as you say, is the biggest problem, so is the cleanliness a problem? In a sense of being able to provide the quality of the water?
TAYLOR: There are challenges regarding the quality of the water. Water supplies, if they're not adequately protected, can be contaminated not only by human and animal feces, but also by chemical contamination. There's even background natural chemical contamination - like you for instance would have arsenic in Oklahoma, you have similar problems of fluoride and high iron, which is kind of undesirable for taste and use. So there are quality problems, but these are not really the main obstacles to the provision. They are a factor and an issue to address, but they're not the main factor. I think that's sometimes a misconception.
GRILLOT: Now it's very important for us to understand, so to go back to you, Ada, in terms of taking what Richard just said and putting it in that social context of the development aspect of this. It's not a matter of water supply or the fact that you have water. It's distributing it. It's providing good-quality water. But there's a social part of this. And I think what's really interesting about your career is that you've been focusing on inspiring communities to take ownership of that development through participatory processes. To have local communities engaged in the critical analysis of their own situations. That's what's really remarkable about what you're doing, and perhaps contributes to greater solutions. Can you tell us a little bit about your work in that area?
OKO-WILLIAMS: Like Richard mentioned, the problem isn't really that the resources are not there. The resource is there in good enough quantity, but the mechanisms for delivering, as he rightly said. That is closely tied to governance. So right now in Africa most countries, and from my experience, have governing systems that are failing or have failed completely. So government is not responsive to its responsibilities in terms of providing the framework that allows for different actors to get engaged and be able to deliver quality access to water and sanitation for the people. So that's what led me in my career to begin to learn, "OK, now we have family systems that are not able to cook, or cannot respond to these responsibilities." But people have to get on. So that's what takes us to begin to look at the smaller units. The community levels. The individual household levels. What can we do in the face of this system that cannot respond its obligations? For several reasons. Sometimes lack of just sheer will to do it. Other times for lack of capacity or understanding of what to basically do. So we start with the community levels, and that's why my work is taking me to working with communities who do this kind of analysis, come to a situation and a realization that we need to take action by ourselves to address this problem, because at the end we suffer the most because of the system. So basically we take the situation, we do the analysis, and come up with simple solutions that can be undertaken at the community level, within the community capacities to do that. We've seen amazing changes, significant and amazing things have happened at this level. One after the other, communities are beginning to realize that's why, in the face of this kind of situation, they can help. They can also do something on their own. So that's basically been the highlight of my career.
GRILLOT: So can you give us a specific example of the kind of success that you've seen at the local, community level in terms of enhancing that capacity and encouraging their own local response to this problem to this greater issue of poor governance?
OKO-WILLIAMS: OK, I'll take a particular example from Sierra Leone, where I presently live and work. Sierra Leone is a small, West African country of about five million people, and this country suffered from a (12-year) civil war. So it's a post-conflict environment, and people are concerned about rebuilding the country, infrastructural and otherwise, and that's putting a lot of pressure. Because of the war for so long, a lot of systems and structure for governance have broken down. So walking and going into Sierra Leone, this is a country with only about 13 percent access to sanitation, for instance. Only about 13 percent of these five million people have anything close to a decent toilet. So looking at the spectrum of the challenges that they face, so water and sanitation is just one of them. But they have other big issues that they have to deal with. But we have to, through participation processes, sit down with communities, particularly in the Pujehun District where I worked extensively, and Kenema District, to analyze their problems through participatory processes like the community-led sanitation approach we used in terms of getting communities to come together and sit and discuss what the problems were, and look inwards to find the solutions. For example, these communities were dealing with issues of food security, having something to eat, water, education and a range of it all. The instability because of the war led to a community crisis. The lack of trust between people because of what they've suffered. I worked with this community, along with some colleagues to get communities to sit down and address this. So now I can say, for example, a whole chiefdom within the community is totally open defecation-free. And that means that everybody's constructed some basic latrines that they use. Each community has a water point in the chiefdom, and then they now have access to safe drinking water, and sanitation. But the beauty of the story is that beyond this access, the other problems I mentioned earlier like education, and attendance in school, has increased significantly now. And then we have a situation where the women are engaging in more productive activities, and their income levels are beginning to also increase, which means people have more cash and can do so much more with their lives than they would ordinarily be able to do had these initiatives not happened.
GRILLOT: So the participatory process actually has a spillover effect, and has an impact in other areas as well. So Richard, back to you on your research regarding the impact of development as well as climate change on aquatic ecosystems. How does that relate to perhaps some of the work that Ada is doing?
TAYLOR: I think what I would say is I would venture to guess that the motivations that Ada and I have are actually quite similar, and what happened was I started working in the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector, trying to provide water and sanitation services, or helping an NGO help communities provide water. So I would be out there with people from kind of a village scale helping them auger wells and helping them dig pit latrines, helping with the specifications. But I'll tell you what happened - many people who go through this, you observe things first-hand, and then you have a kind of response. You see that there are problems, very, very serious problems. If we get back to this issue of delivery. The delivery of water and sanitation systems. My response actually, because of my background, tended to be slightly more technical. I just saw lots of mistakes being repeated. And opportunities that weren't being explored. There was a very big problem, and there continues to be a bit of a problem, for instance, with being rather reflective. Of course, every development program is a success. Well, of course they're not. There didn't seem to be very much reflective work going on about what worked, what didn't work. So it actually ended up pushing me, oddly, into academia where I could then dedicate myself to actually evaluating how development projects worked, why they didn't work, and I very much looked at this not from a socioeconomic perspective, but really from the biophysical. Where are the aquifers? Why was the well success rate so low? Why are some wells very susceptible and spring systems very susceptible to contamination? So much of my work is now trying to identify the magnitude of the resource, where you can find it, how best to protect that resource. And one of the curious things - people worried that pit latrines and other systems are ultimately potentially contaminating the source that people are then developing - let's say a well or a spring. And we found something very interesting in our research in the urban areas of Kampala and Uganda. Actually where you didn't have sanitation systems in place, it meant that people were, unfortunately, indiscriminately disposing of fecal waste at the surface. Actually this meant that the water supplies were highly susceptible to runoff associated with heavy rains, which then went and contaminated water supplies. So a lot of my work is trying to protect the quantity and quality in water resources. And more recently, I've been looking at what are the impacts. How climate change may impact these water resources that are being developed. Because, of course, there's no point in developing water supplies that ultimately aren't sustainable.
GRILLOT: Well, clearly the work that both of you are doing is very important, and we thank you for that work, and we thank you for being here in Oklahoma to tell us your story, and again, Ada, congratulations on your Water Prize, and the best of luck to both of you as you continue this very important work at home.
TAYLOR: Thank you very much.
OKO-WILLIAMS: Thank you.
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