Engineering student helps African communities maintain infrastructure

The Engineers Without Borders water and sanitation team in Malawi helps communities manage funding for infrastructure built by outside organizations.

The Engineers Without Borders water and sanitation team in Malawi helps communities manage funding for infrastructure built by outside organizations.

University of Saskatchewan student James Wattam returned home Aug. 20 from four months of working with the Engineers Without Borders African Ventures program.

The fourth-year-engineering-student chose to go to Malawi to be a part of the EWB water and sanitation team — the only one on the continent.

Every year EWB sends 30 Canadian students to Africa to work on various teams ranging from business development and investments to setting up communication infrastructure for small-scale farmers.

The water and sanitation team works to create sustainable infrastructure for villages and towns by assembling recommendations from local governments and community leaders.

Wattam described the orientation of the project as “shifting from projectized to service delivery.” He said that non-governmental organizations come to communities and pump funds into much needed infrastructure. When they leave about five years later however, the money goes with them — abandoning the communities with infrastructure that they do not have the resources to maintain.

A typical day for Wattam started off with breakfast, a bucket shower and a five minute walk up a hill to his office. He said he always marveled at the beauty of the mountainous region.

Malawi only has one electricity company that struggles to supply the entire country’s power demand. As a result, Wattam said that once or twice a week there was no power and he was forced to organize his day around it.  Unfortunately, Wattam stated that the country’s electricity situation is beyond EWB’s scope.

Working in the district water office, Wattam was tasked with gathering recommendations for an African Development Bank project that would create a pool of funds for communities needing to maintain infrastructure. However, he stated that many good ideas go unheard.

“One of the problems with the water and sanitation sector there is [that] often times those government officers aren’t listened to or don’t get a chance to give feedback to the people who are designing these projects,” Wattam said.

Wattam took those recommendations and fit them into his report for the African Development Bank. Although Wattam has returned home, another team member will finish the report and follow up on the bank until sometime next year when a new project begins.

When he wasn’t talking with community leaders or filing reports, Wattam spent his time learning the local language. A large portion of the African Ventures program focuses on personal development.

“Engineers Without Borders prides itself on developing people. There is a lot of effort put in by the staff to make sure that you have a chance to work on personal development goals you have over the summer,” Wattam said, adding that he decided to try his hand at learning a second language for the first time in his life.

Although English is the official language of Malawi, Chichewa is the dominant language — especially in rural areas. Wattam, who was living with local families, sought the opportunity to learn the language from friends.

The water and sanitation team in Malawi is one of the oldest EWB teams in Africa. Consequently, the team has a lot of information to assure that their program runs as smoothly as possible. Wattam compared his team to a two-student team in Kenya who were the only EWB members in the country and were just starting out a new program. The Kenya-based members had less procedures in place to deal with difficult situations and did not have any permanent staff members for on-site support.

Wattam was paired with five other students in Malawi with nine permanent staff members on the team. Despite seeing his peers for a total of two weeks during this four-month long trip, Wattam said the relationships built there are sure to last him a lifetime.

“We were very much a part of the team for the part we were there,” Wattam said. “I had a very positive experience.”


Photo: ILRI/FLICKR