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Friday, February 26, 2010
In 1998 the World Vision NGO financed the installation of a solar pump system in the town of Sanadougou. The aim of this project was very straightforward; in this growing market town of more than 4,000 people where the bulk of the population regularly suffers from giardia, dysentery and worms inadvertently contracted by drinking from unsanitary wells, public health could be drastically improved with access to potable drinking water. World Vision hired Bamako contractors to build a groundwater pump, and two water storage towers to be powered by an array of solar panels. The contractors built a pump-serviced livestock-watering trough in the adjacent vicinity of the complex as well as 7 tap posts strategically-located throughout the town; altogether, there are 17 taps – 3 of the posts have room for 3 individual taps while the 4 other posts have only 2 taps. As promising as this system might have been at the onset, the entire system is now essentially useless due to lack of maintenance and necessary repairs. In response to these pressing needs, the Sanadougou Water Committee has petitioned their Peace Corps Volunteer to help them institute a plan to repair and reorganize the entire system.
The solar panels, the pump and storage towers are perfectly fine, but the entire system as a whole is seriously malfunctioning due to breakages at the livestock watering trough and in a way-station in the metal pipe connecting the water pump to the taps in the Filablena neighborhood. These parts cannot be shut off and flow at the maximum rate at all times.
The ever-flowing watering trough and broken way-station overload the capacity of the entire system, directly exhausting the supply of potable drinking water and often leaving the taps dry. Even when there is water left for human consumption the water pressure is significantly diminished, which allows for rust to develop and diminish water quality. Furthermore, the perpetually-flowing components create vast puddles of standing water which serve as a fertile environment for mosquito breeding. Note that the picture above was taken during dry season on a day when most of the overflow had evaporated in the 105-degrees Fahrenheit heat – during cold and wet season, the puddle of overflow from the livestock-watering trough expands almost all the way to the leafless tree in the center-left of the photograph.
The Water Committee has analyzed these broken parts and they have given them to local plumbers to try to weld them back together, but the plumbers have returned to say that these parts are beyond repair; Peace Corps Assistant Water and Sanitation APCD Adama Bagayoko has analyzed these parts as well and independently concluded that the only course of action is to purchase entirely new components. I apologize that I am unable to find the English translations, but specifically, the parts we need are (in French): une ventousse, un compteur, une vanne, un raccord union, une coude MF, un reducteur, une vanne p26, le clapet vapere. We plan on buying these broken parts from the Bamako suppliers SETRA, and we will hire the local welder Smeila Fané to reassemble the malfunctioning parts and weld them onto the rest of the solar pump system. To our understanding, there is no evidence of malfeasance or negligence for the broken parts – this is merely repair which should be expected in such a large system after 12 years of running and is now long overdue.
However, even if we were to replace the broken components at the livestock-watering trough and the way-station, this solar pump system would still be operating well below capacity and with little benefit for public health; only 3 out of 17 taps are currently operational. The problem with the taps is that they are simply too easy to break; children are used to pumping water with the vertical pump handles with such strenuous work that they have to jump up and down to obtain water, and though the horizontal handles to the tap system can be opened with the flick of a wrist, this is a point which apparently has not been conveyed as children have broken all of the tap handles.
Though the direct cause of this problem was of course the children themselves, this result was inevitable when World Vision built this system with the flimsiest, most fragile handles available. And since these little pieces of metal are now gone, the entire solar pump system is now effectively useless, completely wasting the charitable donations of well-minded humanitarians to the tune of about a million dollars. Well, to be fair, it wasn't a total waste - now for a million dollars the cows of Sanadougou could drink better-quality water than their human masters.
Since the townsfolk of Sanadougou cannot access the potable drinking water provided by the solar water pump, they resort to unsanitary, uncovered wells for their supply of drinking water. These traditional wells – which are really little more than holes in the ground – are home to vibrant populations of worms, snails, amoebas, giardia cysts, and in some cases even frogs and fish. In some locations – particularly during rainy season – these unimproved wells are directly polluted with wastewater and contaminated with human fecal matter. The fact that the people must fall back on such substandard water sources is the prime reason why giardia and dysentery are endemic in this community, and why diarrhea is after malaria the most common preventable cause of infant and child mortality.
Of the 3 taps that are functional, they are functional only because certain individuals have put in their own money to buy their own private taps with locks; one being the tap shared by the Peace Corps Volunteer, the doctor and kindergarten teachers, and the other two are adjacent to mechanic shops where they are used to clean motorcycles with potable drinking water. What differentiates the sites of these taps and the other are the functioning ones are used exclusively by a small number of relatively wealthy people who are both willing to spend money on clean water and also confident that their resources will be used almost exclusively by themselves with few (if any) free-riders. Asides from the tap managed by the Volunteer, the two other functioning taps provide little public health benefits to the population as this potable drinking water is used almost exclusively for cleaning motorcycles. As regrettable as this situation might be, it aptly demonstrates the universality of a saying from the American West, that “water flows uphill towards money”; as the rest of the community pays nothing, they are unable to obtain potable drinking water even from the tap system installed next to their homes at great cost.
When World Vision built the solar pump > tap system a decade ago, the NGO agreed to finance the totality of the initial startup costs only because the Mayor agreed that the citizens of Sanadougou would pay for maintenance and operating costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, such payments never happened since the taps were free for all to use and break anonymously; and since no one at le Bureau de la Mairie or the Water Committee could possibly know who was and who was not drawing water from the taps, they could not change anyone; without any accrual of maintenance costs, the system of course degraded into oblivion.
With this history in mind, the Sanadougou Water Committee unanimously resolved to 1) replace the broken taps and 2) begin a payment program so that the Committee will be able to garner revenue to finance inevitable maintenance and repairs in the future. The Committee decided that they cannot do only one of these things, they must do both at the same time. And in this way they will capitalize on the opportunity granted them by the need for repairing the solar pump system to fundamentally overhaul its use under the guidance of the Water Committee.
First of all, we need to get new taps that cannot break so easily. After children broke the last tap next to my house I bought a new tap with a hole through the handle so that it can be locked by the user. By limiting the access to this tap to the holder of the three keys, only I, the doctor and the kindergarten teachers next to me could get access to potable water. However, the doctor and kindergarten teachers were really bad about locking the tap after using it. And even when it was locked, children would come to the tap and try to open it – though they could not access water, they could break the handle in trying. After six months, even this tap deteriorated to the point that it could no longer be used.
A month ago I bought another new tap which can only be opened with a key – though unlike the previous model, the key goes directly into the head itself and there is no external handle at all. In other words, there is really no external part on this tap that can be broken by children. What is more, there is only one key to each tap – which means that responsibility unambiguously falls on him or her to maintain it and that they cannot pass the buck to someone else. This model seems promising enough to serve as a model for refurbishing the remaining 14 taps which are currently useless because their handles have been broken off.
Having showed this new tap to the Water Committee, we agreed that we must pair the repairs of the broken livestock-watering trough and way-station with the replacement of all the broken taps with new lockable taps with keys to ensure that the human population can have a sustainable supply of potable drinking water. As my homologue Sidiki Sogoba jokes, “Otherwise, we would spend a lot of money to help only the cows.” And this is the crux for our plan to reorganize the solar pump > tap system. Part of Sanadougou’s community contribution will be to purchase 17 new lockable taps at 3,000 CFA a piece, and these are going to be paid for neighborhood by neighborhood. Likewise, since each tap comes with exactly one key, the Water Committee is going to decentralize the daily operation and maintenance of each tap neighborhood by neighborhood.
Under our plan, each individual tap will be the responsible of exactly one person to whom the Water Committee and village chief – in consultation with the neighborhood – will assign the sole key. For example, the tap post in the neighborhood of Jigila has room for two taps, so we will assign the key to one to the butigitigi whose shop is directly adjacent to the tap post and the other key to a woman next door. Since water collection is primarily the duty of women in Malian culture, we are going to emphasize the assignment of keys to women whenever possible. Very rarely do men ever draw water, so only in circumstances such as this where there is a man who can in fact be counted on to always be next to the tap will we assign keys to men. The Committee agreed that the key criteria in assigning keys should be individuals’ proximity of their home to the tap, reliability of being at that location at any given time, maturity, ability, responsibility, trustworthiness, and of course their interest in volunteering for such a duty. We also agreed that persons of great importance in this community e.g. the chief of the village, the Mayor, the imam and the pastor should expressly not be assigned keys, for their other duties would make them unreliable to be in the vicinity of the tap at all times.
The kletigi – “holder of a key” – would be a position of great responsibility and great power. They have to be willing to open the water tap for all people at all times, to make sure that children to not play with the taps, and to moreover keep a record of who draws water from that tap and how much. Ultimately, the crux of the position of kletigi will be to collect money from every person in the neighborhood who draws water from that tap. The Water Committee agrees unanimously that we have to establish some sort of a payment system to pay for the maintenance and operational costs of the entire solar pump > tap system so that the next time that a pipe leaks or a tap needs replacement, the Committee will have money on hand to pay for any necessary repairs. In so many words, the Sanadougou Water Committee understands that potable drinking water is a valuable commodity that cannot be procured for free, and thus they have taken it unto themselves to transform this useless, broken-down NGO “cadeau” into a functioning utility that bends to the laws of market economics and finance its maintenance and operating costs through user fees.
The Water Committee still needs to work out how exactly they are going to conduct the payment program. There is one camp in the Committee that argues that people should pay a small price i.e. 5 or 10 CFA for every bucket of water so that payment is perfectly conditional to use; another camp in the Committee argues that such a scheme would be impractical to implement and so water tap subscribers should pay a flat monthly rate. The eventual payment policy will probably allow for users to pay for water either by the bucket or by a flat monthly rate. One area of agreement is that on every market day the Committee should assign one kletigi to man the taps next to the market so that they can draw water and collect money from all of the market vendors and customers who would otherwise consume water as free-riders. Each individual kletigi would be responsible for keeping accounts of how much money they collected from each individual and to forward those user fees to the Treasurer of the Water Committee. Another issue that has yet to be decided is whether the kletigi’s should receive any compensation for their work, for the Committee acknowledges that their duties can be an inconvenience, and I voiced wariness that any individual kletigi might pocket user fees which are meant to pay for maintenance and repairs.
One could pose the question of moral hazard in this situation; e.g. “The NGO built this solar pump system on the premise that the village would provide maintenance indefinitely thereafter – why should a foreign development agency pay for the maintenance costs that the villagers agreed to pay themselves?” I can commiserate with this argument; however, it is overlooking a number of important facts: 1) the Mayor's Office which made this original agreement and the Water Committee that wants to revamp the solar pump system are completely separate entities; 2) the World Vision NGO originally built this entire system with easily-breakable taps completely inappropriate for public infrastructure in an African village; 3) the NGO completely dropped the ball in organizing a payment system; 4) the village has never had any experience repairing or maintaining a running water system before. Not to be paternalistic, but the NGO must have had unreasonably great expectations that the Mayor’s Office could be able to effectively manage this complex system without any background experience and without any guidance, training or even suggestions. From my own experience, I can say that World Vision made an enormous mistake by entrusting this responsibility to the Mayor's Office and not the independent Water Committee, because in a rural village it is the traditional, informal government that actually wields all substantial power over public infrastructure - and the Mayor is really just a figurehead who gets paid to be everybody's friend. And le Bureau de la Mairie in question frankly has no genuine interest in managing the public drinking water system. As the Committee explained to me, it was precisely in the Mayor's best interest to just yes the NGO about instituting a payment system and do nothing once they packed up and left, because whereas presiding over a giant new cadeau and not asking anything of anybody is a boon to re-election (even if it evenually falls apart without maintenance), asking the people to pay for public services with user fees or taxes is decidedly not in the best interest of any self-interested public office-holder. Yes, eventually the Water Committee and le Bureau de la Mairie have to be able to eventually manage this system entirely by themselves – but in the meantime, now that one of the two groups has put forward a proposal to get serious about organizing these waterworks and fix what is broken, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to match their own repairs with $483.72 to rebuild a functioning system requisite for sound management.
Altogether, this project will allow the Sanadougou Water Committee to take the long-neglected solar pump system and overhaul it into a functioning water utility, re-organizing it with respect to market forces to benefit the public good. It will respond to the Committee’s desire to repair and reorganize the waterworks by raising funds through the Peace Corps Partnership to pay for new parts for the broken livestock-watering trough and way-station. The Committee will pay for the transportation of the materials from Bamako to the village of Sanadougou, they will hire a local plumber to assemble the parts and a local blacksmith to weld the necessary pieces together. They Committee will also raise money from the villagers to purchase new, lockable heads for the 14 broken taps. And the Committee will follow up by instituting a payment system – probably monthly for certain subscribers, daily for all others, so that they can gain the necessary revenues to pay for maintenance and operating costs in the future. Even after the initial repairs are complete, we will spend the rest of my service working to strengthen the Committee’s accounting and budgeting skills. And if this works out, the Sanadougou Water Committee should be able to build the capacity to effectively manage the solar pump and tap system indefinitely without any need for further foreign intervention.
If you are interested in making a financial contribution to repair and maintain the people of Sanadougou's drinking water infrastructure, click here. This project should be on the Peace Corps Partnership website within a few weeks.