Building sustainable cisterns: more complicated than you might think.

The goal:  clean water easily available at school so that girls don’t have to fetch it.
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Blog post by One School Director, Bay Roberts.
When I travel in Uganda, I always am curious about water systems installed at schools and communities. Of all the water systems I have seen (and there have been many) only one was still operational! Typically, a well-intentioned nonprofit or organization sees that a water system is needed and installs one. Often the recipients of this largess do not even know who supplied them with the technology. It is as if one day a water system just dropped out of the sky. Borehole water systems when working are wonderful. The drawback? They are extremely difficult and expensive to repair- costing many thousands of dollars. So when they break, that is usually the end of clean water for that community. I have also seen wells that require a diesel generator to pump the water up. Inevitably the generator breaks or there is no money for diesel and again the girls and women are back to fetching contaminated water from the closest source.
Girls (mostly) carrying water from a water hole in Uganda.
 At One School at a Time, we are determined to work closely with our Ugandan partner schools to identify the most sustainable and acceptable technology for their needs. In the Mubende District, where we work, we believe the best water systems are rooftop collection systems. The schools have a roof and there are two rainy seasons a year to supply the rain. So far, our partner schools have never run out of water in the dry seasons. If and when we visit the schools 5 to 10 years from now, we hope to find them still operational.
Now I want to tell you the story of partner school #1’s water system which taught us good lessons about sustainable technologies. The very first rooftop rain water collection system we installed was there. The rain water flowed off the roof and was collected in a 40,000 L below ground cistern. Students accessed the water by pumping it with a treadle pump (what we like to call the “Stairmaster” of Uganda). The system worked great for about 2 years. Our Program Manager, Hussein Tadesse, visits our schools regularly, and on one visit, he found that someone had a cut a hole in the cistern’s metal top. Students were now collecting water by pushing a Jerry jug down into the cistern using a long wooden pole. This was indeed a bad situation: a student could possibly fall into the cistern and drown. There was a greater chance that an animal could fall into the cistern, die and contaminate the water supply. Not to mention that by sticking a pole into the water, the students were introducing other possible contaminates. Hussein discovered that the treadle pump was broken- the repair? A $1 “O” ring.
Students operating a treadle pump at the Kyamulinga School.
An underground cistern in Uganda, covered by a metal lid.  Note hole cut in the metal.

Jerry cans being lowered into a cistern from above, a clear hazard.
 Why was it so hard for the school to replace the “O” ring?  The answer turned out to be not so simple.
1)  This school is a private school. Even though the school has a board, it is ceremonial in nature. They know full well that the school is owned by a private individual. Even when the board makes recommendations, the owner may not follow them if he doesn’t feel like it. So in this case, the school owner couldn’t be bothered to fix the pump and was perfectly satisfied with the students pushing the Jerry jugs down into the cistern. Because the owner didn’t care about treadle pump maintenance, he had not followed the school board’s advice to budget money for water system repairs.
2)  In the area where we work (a subsistence farming culture where people live on less than a dollar a day), there does not seem to be a “maintenance” culture. Fixing and maintaining things just seems foreign to people. A “maintenance” culture needs to be cultivated and nurtured over time.
The damaged O-ring.
 This situation helped us learn. We made two adjustments.
Change # 1: Now, we only install rooftop water systems with above-ground cisterns. The cistern has a stopcock at the bottom that is protected by a cement bib. Gravity works consistently all the time–no repairs needed!
Above-ground cistern with cement top and secure stopcock for gravity fed water.
 Change # 2: Now, we only accept public (government) schools as new partners. At public schools, the school board has the potential to truly be a working board, with community representatives who can help direct and guide the school’s policies, decisions, hiring, and operations. In this case, the school board can allocate petty cash to a water system maintenance fund and can assign someone to ensure that the system remains operational.
And now, a follow-up to the story about partner school #1’s water system:
Just this past month, One School at a Time installed a cement top on the cistern (all of our systems now have cement tops and cannot be breached) with a metal door and a lock. One School at a Time and the school’s owner each have a key. The owner has pledged to maintain the system. He will keep the metal door locked at all times. The students and the water are now safe. I’m sure this story will keep on giving, but for now, the students of partner school #1 are benefiting from clean, on site, abundant water. The school community was so grateful for the repairs that they gave Hussein a chicken and told him, “You people have come to repair the cistern, and you have also brought us the rain to fill it now that it is fixed!
The Kyamulinga cistern with a cement top to keep children and water safe.
The offering of a chicken for work well done.