a spring whose waters never fail // Malawi

Thank you so much for your prayers and support while I was away in Malawi!  I am happy to report to you that the trip was indeed successful, but not necessarily in the way we had initially defined success for the work ahead of us.  The purpose of our trip was to help World Vision troubleshoot a water system in Chikwina, Malawi in hopes to get water flowing to the main tank in the system which had remained dry since it was constructed.  We were working alongside World Vision’s very talented and knowledgeable staff, including their Project Engineer (Panji) and their Infrastructure Engineer (Zifa) who have both done a great deal of work already to remediate this system.  Still, some within the community and even within World Vision had completely given up hope that this project could ever be successful due to the amount of money and time that had been invested with seemingly little progress towards serving water to the entire community.  It was truly heartbreaking to see and hear that hope had been lost by so many.  There are families with children who have literally lived their entire lives in the shadow of this desolate tank and have never been able to draw water from it.  It was our hope that God would lead us to discover why water was not able to flow to this tank and then be able to see the system commissioned while we were there.

Picture taken from the main tank. There is a village literally right next to it.

Picture taken from the main tank. There is a village literally right next to it.

The first day we visited the site we discovered that a leak had recently developed in part of the system and that it needed to be repaired before we could even hope to troubleshoot the pipeline.  We learned that the 9 km pipeline (which was installed from a spring in the mountains) was suffering from enormous pressures where it had to pass through a valley to get to the villages.  These pressures are higher than the pipe is rated to handle and is therefore experiencing major breakdowns like the one we were witnessing.  Compounding this pressure issue is a number of installation issues which present vulnerabilities in the line that are also prone to leak.

Leak on Day 1 at over 350 psi static pressure!

Leak on Day 1 at over 350 psi static pressure!

Over the next few days, our team had the opportunity to fully appreciate the challenges that they had been dealing with since this line was installed as we saw the difficulties that they went through to make repairs.  Before installing this water line, most of these community members were farmers who had no experience in installing and operating a water system.  Before World Vision developed a Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program in Malawi there was also no technical oversight on the project.  After understanding this and seeing the enormity of the system that had been installed, it became apparent to us that it was a miracle of God that they had come as far as they had.  They had taught themselves how to build and operate a water system with little to nothing in terms of equipment and materials.  What was even more impressive was that because of the challenging terrain, this system would have been difficult for even the most experienced pipeline contractors in the US with access to any equipment and materials necessary to do the job.

Panorama of some of the challenging terrain in Chikwina, Malawi

Panorama of some of the challenging terrain in Chikwina, Malawi

To give you an idea of some of the challenges they were facing with installation…the hike from the valley (where the leaks had been occurring) to the intake in the mountains is about 4.5 km and due to the terrain takes a full day to hike there and back.  When installing this pipeline, they hauled every bit of tools and materials up by hand.  To get one 6 meter section of 150 millimeter galvanized iron pipe to the intake it took 6 people to carry it over a period of 4 days!  Needless to say it has not been easy and understandable why it had taken them so long.  Talk about being motivated to get clean water!  I would have given up a long time ago!

Some of the tools they were working with including a hack saw made from rebar

Some of the tools they were working with including a hack saw made from rebar

Custom on-site scaffolding

Custom on-site scaffolding

After several repairs were made in the valley, we were finally able to start filling the pipeline that we came to troubleshoot.  A few improvements had also been made to this pipeline during this time which enabled us to witness water flowing a kilometer further in the pipeline than it had ever gone! However, we were concerned that trying to take water the final kilometer to the tank would increase pressures in the valley to an unsustainable point and numerous leaks would develop.  This is exactly what happened.  Minor leaks began to get worse and before long robbed enough flow and pressure from the line to make it impossible to get to the tank.  Having plenty of time to analyze the line before beginning to troubleshoot, this did not come as a surprise to us, but still felt a little disappointing given the initial purpose of our trip.  We had determined that we needed to give it a shot with the improvements that had been made, if nothing else but to prove that it wasn’t sustainable.

Water flowing further than it has ever gone in this pipeline

Water flowing further than it has ever gone in this pipeline

But, here is the good news…earlier in the week we had also discovered from Panji and Zifa that there was an alternate water source only 3 km from the location of the main tank that (if developed) had potential to serve the people in the area of the tank with some additional surplus capacity!  To us this seemed like a much more sustainable solution than using the original source, even if we were able to temporarily get this water flowing to it.  One of our team members put it this way…”we were building a fragile house of cards.”  It may have been possible to get water to the tank, but it was bound to collapse at some point.  It was actually good that it didn’t make it because it would have been unsustainable and might give them a false sense of hope that would reduce their motivation to develop this alternate source and keep them spinning their wheels to make this pipeline work. In addition to being more sustainable, the alternate source would also provide additional flow and source redundancy to the entire system as water from this tank would flow by gravity to all the other tanks which are below it.

In addition to this, the work they had already done developing the original source and pipeline would not be wasted.  We determined that with a small modification to the system they could reduce the pressures in the valley area and sustainably deliver water from the original source to the second tank in the system, effectively serving 95% of the people the system was intended to serve from this source.  The portion of the pipeline we were troubleshooting could even have flow reversed in it to bring water from the main tank to the villages along its path.

At the end of our time in-country, we had the opportunity to present our findings along with Panji and Zifa to the World Vision Malawi executive team.  They were excited to hear that there was still hope for this project to be successful.  Some of them were even moved to the point of tears as they regained hope for the project.  We had the distinct honor to have the National Director (Robert Kisyula) present as we gave our report.  I cannot begin to tell you how impressed we were with Robert as an influential leader and as a man of God.  He is the type of person who speaks with great conviction and authority (much the same way I envision that Jesus did during His ministry, being full of grace and truth).  From the moment we met I felt that I should be writing down everything he said and I cannot say that I have felt that way about many people in my life.  Just hearing his heart for ministry in Malawi was inspiring to me.  That being said, it meant a great deal to us to hear him say that our findings had refreshed them as an organization and brought a new energy to the project that despite troubles in the past, they could still finish well.

The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:11)
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2 responses to “a spring whose waters never fail // Malawi

  1. Pingback: Faithful in the Small Things // Malawi Update | learning the rhythms·

  2. Pingback: A New Thing is Coming… // Gemena, DRC | learning the rhythms·

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