Children and women walking carrying water buckets on their heads across a sandy path. Life Solved logo and title and bottom.

Dr Julia Brown discusses her research into giving water access to whole populations

  • 01 September 2020
  • 15 min listen

It's a basic human need. But for some, clean water is not a given.

Sometimes it seems we've no shortage of rain here in the UK and it's easy to take for granted but, Dr. Julia Brown has been looking at why in some countries access to water can make all the difference to socioeconomic mobility. She explains how the rich can monopolise this vital resource where it is scarce. Her research has been looking at ways to work within different cultures to give water access to whole populations. Julia says she's trying to make the maintenance of water supply facilities a priority.

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Most of my work has been about rural water management. So when you're working in rural sub-saharan Africa, that is where the highest levels of poverty really are. So it's linking poverty to access to water.

Dr Julia Brown, Senior Lecturer

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. I'm John Worsey, a writer and in Life Solved, we're asking the big questions about our world from politics to technology, our bodies and our environments. To do this, we're snatching interviews with researchers who are challenging existing ideas and seeking new ways of solving the world's problems.

John Worsey: In this episode, I'm hearing how a resource we take for granted in the UK is the deciding factor in individual power and mobility in other parts of the world.

Julia Brown: Very, very powerful people will always have access to water, so it's always the most vulnerable, the most marginal who have problems accessing water. It's a resource that allows me to look at politics, economics, the whole gambit.

John Worsey: I'll be finding out how one researcher is adding complexity to how goals for a sustainable world are made and maintained. And I'll be exploring how climate change presents real challenges to people and communities living without access to clean, safe water.

Julia Brown: There is definitely, I think, a lot of migration of people because climate is changing. So if everybody is constructing sources that are drawing on the aquifers, that will have a huge impact on their recharge rates.

John Worsey: And we'll be discussing the all-important question – once sanitation's upgraded and installed, whose responsibility is it to maintain the system for the benefit of all? Water is a lot more political than many of us might consider.

John Worsey: It seems there's plenty of water here in the U.K. and on a damp winter's day, it's hard to forget that. In the U.K. it arrives in our homes on demand, clean, clear and plentiful the moment we fancy filling that kettle for a cup of tea or soaking in a warm bath. But what we might take for granted is the difference that clean, safe water in our homes makes for our opportunities and social mobility. Imagine a society where only the wealthiest can guarantee direct access to this basic necessity. How much would your reliance on this vital resource occupy your time, energy and thoughts instead?

Julia Brown: In this country, I think we are. We're not as connected, whereas I think when it's an everyday reality of having to queue up to collect water in jerry cans and to carry these really heavy jerry cans of water back to your compound, you're just much more connected to water. And you have to make decisions with this jerry can of water, am I going to wash my children? Am I going to cook with it? Are we going to drink with it? You're just more aware when you have to carry something and queue for it. I think in this country in particular, we take water completely for granted. Although in this country we always go-- bang on about the weather. We don't really understand the water cycle. So for me, looking at water has allowed me to look at the real challenges of managing a resource that moves, that can be used for multiple different purposes. So it's allowed me to look at the power relations in terms of access to water resources and in many countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, climate change is having a real impact. So it allows me to explore issues of change.

John Worsey: That's Dr Julia Brown. She's a geographer in the School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences here at the University of Portsmouth. She's focused on how developing countries manage their natural resources. When she spent time in Africa, her outlook on the relationship between social power and basic resources was changed forever.

Julia Brown: I think when you travel around Africa as well, you realise that people don't get water out of a tap like we do, they have to queue up for water, they have to carry it. So it's-- it's also a realisation of looking at development through the lens of water. And that's what I-- I think water is a really powerful tool. It allows you to look and understand society through water.

Julia Brown: So, for example, very, very powerful people will always have access to water. So it's always the most vulnerable, the most marginal who have problems accessing water. So I think it's a-- it's a resource that allows me to look at politics, economics, the whole gambit of-- of things.

John Worsey: After finishing her PhD in South Africa, Julia travelled to Uganda, where she saw firsthand a big problem with the way the rollout of a sustainable clean water supply was working.

Julia Brown: I was in a town called Masindi and I happened to meet somebody. She was a Dutch lady who had just started working for this NGO called the Water Trust. We just met over a beer and she was telling me about the problems of community-based management. Most of my work has been about rural water management. So when you're working in rural sub-Saharan Africa, that is where the highest levels of poverty really are. So it's-- it is linking poverty to access to water.

John Worsey: In 2012, Julia started her research work in Uganda. She learnt how voluntary water source associations there were collecting maintenance fees for the village pumps. Some villages had one supply. Others had many. But trust was a big issue in the way these funds were managed. Julia came across anecdotes of treasurers with their hands in the coffers and people reluctant to stump up cash when others weren't doing the same.

Julia Brown: What we found was only about three out of 100 water sources actually had enough funds for any major repairs. Only a really small amount had any funds collected at all. What this meant was if these water sources went down and they were broken, they would have to often spend two or three months going around everybody trying to collect money from people. So what this research really was showing was just how challenging it is to manage things communally, how difficult it is to go around and collect money from people. And when people say, oh, come back next week, I'll have money and you go back and say, oh, we still don't have money.

John Worsey: Right.

Julia Brown: It also showed the suspicions around money. I think that's something that's really come out from the research. So in many ways, it's the researchers about these rosy conceptualisations of community in Uganda and that everybody works together nicely. Because that's what Water Aid tells us. That's what Comic Relief tells us. Everyone's smiley and happy. It's not just in Africa, I think, trying to get people to voluntarily manage something is really difficult.

John Worsey: Julia gained an interesting insight into the psychology behind this when she collaborated with Dr Marjie Van Den Broek. A microfinance project covered the upkeep of pumps and sanitation in one area, being paid in regular instalments by the community. Villages were reluctant to pay out regularly when fixing a broken pump seemed like a one-time problem. This was about more than trust. It was a fundamental difference in cultural attitudes to finance, especially in cases where water managers were entitled to keep a percentage of those funds. In short, changing the system of payments successfully would also have needed a change in thinking.

Julia Brown: We take for granted people understand the concept of insurance, but it's not a concept that is normal or accepted in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And then what happened was this water manager was then himself subjected to abuse. His children had stones thrown at them, they were bullied at school because they didn't like the fact that somebody they thought was potentially benefiting from their funds. So these are the challenges, I think, with having private operators involved is that you've got to understand the implications on them of disbanding a water user committee and having somebody potentially making some profits.

John Worsey: Even if government NGO and private work is now providing greater access to secure, safe water for communities, it's clear that this is only the first hurdle. I asked Julia what she thought the next biggest priority should be.

Julia Brown: How to make sure people are maintaining the systems is-- is what I'm interested in, regardless of whether it's a pipe system or a handpump. I'm trying to make maintenance sexy, I guess.

Julia Brown: [LAUGHTER]

Julia Brown: So that's really what, as a researcher, you want to see, is that your research is being taken up and is starting to inform policy. What I want ultimately is that when they're talking about achieving or realising the sustainable development goals, the UN goals, that it's also about maintenance. So it's not just about extending supply network. What I ultimately want is for NGOs and governments is to have a really clear operation and maintenance plans that are properly costed and understood.

John Worsey: UN Sustainable Development Goals say all countries should have access to safe, clean drinking water. In Uganda, this often comes in the form of replacing hand-operated pumps with piped water. It's treated, chlorinated and transported to communal tap stands or homes.

Julia Brown: We're now starting to see a change with more private actors coming in and looking to install piped water systems. But again, the issue with these piped water systems is they still need to be maintained and managed.

John Worsey: Right.

Julia Brown: So that, I think, in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, they are still reliant on the hand pump. But the gov-- many governments in sub-Saharan countries particularly, for example, like Uganda, want to move away from hand pumps because of these problems. So I'd like to think in the next five, ten years, we will see people having access to piped water. But my concerns with that is it is all very well to install a new system, you still have to have a plan as to how these are going to be maintained, because if these systems go down, then you are back to square one collecting water from swamps or dirty streams.

Julia Brown: What a lot of governments do want to see now is seeing these systems upgraded. So you may have communal tap stands and then the potential to extend those two compounds, but then people would have to-- that's more for the people with more money who can afford those connections-- those connection fees. So we're hoping we can start to see a change and an improvement in quality of access.

John Worsey: So it seems there's still a difference in who gets what, where wealthier communities are able to afford better facilities. Whatever the funding structure, there's a secondary problem to well-meaning private enterprises. Making a natural resource a commercial interest invites controversy and sensitivity, as Julia explained.

Julia Brown: The whole question of having private companies involved in water delivery is very, very contentious. I mean, in our country, I don't even think people always appreciate this, that the country is split into these natural monopolies. So in this part of the country, we are Portsmouth Water and Southern Water, which is in charge of the wastewater. So, yes, these are companies that are making profits.

Julia Brown: There's been lots of controversies around privatisation in many Latin American countries. So big French water companies coming in and taking over the supply. So I think on particularly municipal water, there has been a lot of controversies around privatisation. What we're seeing, the stuff I was referring to, is much more maybe entrepreneurs from within communities or local entrepreneurs getting into the business of water. With that in itself even saying the business of water is still controversial because making a profit from a resource that people have to rely on for their survival, of course, has to be managed and regulated. But if NGOs don't have the funds to maintain systems and if the governments certainly don't have those funds, then community-based management has proven quite problematic because it's very difficult to get people to work together on a voluntary basis to manage these resources. Then you do start thinking, well, is there an opportunity for the private sector? But how do we make sure that system, they don't just leave overnight because it's not-- it's not making money for them. So I think it's so problematic.

John Worsey: It's clear that mechanisms of behaviour and maintenance are essential for success in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals. What about the root causes of the issue and what does this mean for populations of similar economies?

Julia Brown: In Uganda, when I-- I've since I've been going there, the seasons are changing. So for a lot-- because it's primarily rain-fed agriculture that's the backbone of the economy. So when the rains don't come when they're meant to or you think they're coming and then they suddenly stop, that has a massive impact on people's livelihoods. And all of these systems are dependent on livelihoods and people having money to pay for water. So that has a huge implication. There is definitely, I think, a lot of migration of people because climate is changing. It's becoming drier in the north. But also the biggest issue I've mentioned is definitely this not being able to rely on when the rains are coming. So being able to predict...

John Worsey: Yes.

Julia Brown: ...Is a big issue. And I mean, groundwater, yes, it will have an impact. But I think the biggest impact on groundwater levels is probably the lack of planned infrastructure. So if everybody is constructing sources that are drawing on the- on the aquifers, that will have a huge impact on their recharge rate.

Julia Brown: Climate change is happening and it's unpredictable. But what's also interesting when you're in Uganda is that people don't tend to blame us in the West for climate change. They seem to say, oh, it's our fault because we put down all these trees. So it's quite interesting that narrative is... They're almost sort of blaming themselves. And I'm like, yes, that-- that has, you know, that definitely has had a huge impact. But, you know, this is part of a global problem. So there needs to be a bit more sharing of responsibility, I think.

John Worsey: So where do the opportunities lie to make a real difference?

Julia Brown: The research that me and Marjie are interested in doing is looking at how you start to make small changes and incremental changes in behaviour. But that's a lifetime project.

John Worsey: Thanks to Julia for taking us through her research and for sharing her findings. It seems vital that private organisations and government bodies alike continue working with communities on maintaining the changes they implement, especially where vital natural resources are concerned.

John Worsey: Find out more about life-changing work on our website port.ac.uk/research.

John Worsey: Next time on Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth, we're hearing about a little-explored threat in Britain's climate change future.

Mark Hardiman: There's lots of issues around fire in Britain and I think a lot of them don't realise how vulnerable Britain is and might be in the future.

John Worsey: Tell us what you think via social media. You can share this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved, or maybe just share the big idea with a friend. If you subscribe in your podcast app, you'll also get each episode of Life Solved automatically. Catch you next time.

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