Engineering wells in the developing world - a member travelogue

Julie-Nora Eldin, a third-year civil engineering student at Southampton University, travelled to Cameroon to work with a charity constructing safe drinking water wells for remote villages.

Children collecting water in village of Tongo, Cameroon. Image credit: Julie-Nora Eldin
Children collecting water in village of Tongo, Cameroon. Image credit: Julie-Nora Eldin

In June 2018, I was among a group of students who went on practical field trip to Cameroon as part of the Cameroon Catalyst charitable project. We were going to assess the success of previously completed water wells and to identify appropriate sites for future facilities.

My coursemate Thom Dutton and I were lucky enough to win a QUEST Kenneth Watson Award to help financially support our trip.

We travelled from Londonvia Paristo Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, on a 12-hour flight. On arrival, we were welcomed by the Cameroonian helpers for the charity. Due to chaotic airport logistics, even with local help, it took several hours to leave the airport.

We stayed the night in Yaoundé, followed by an all-day journey in a hot cramped minibus to the town of Bertoua, where we’d be staying for two weeks.

Cameroon well team
Our newest well in Garoua Yaka, with Virginie (second from right).

Assessing the wells

We got started straightaway with visiting the four existing Cameroon Catalyst pumps in Mbele Mbeke, Mbangue, Tongo-Gandima and Garoua Yaka.

Three of these wells had been functioning for over a year, while the Garoua Yaka well was constructed a few months before my trip.

In each of these villages, we determined the success of their well and highlighted any potential issues to attempt to mitigate against them.

My role – as a French speaker –was to interview the villagers, beginning with an introduction to the village chief, followed by talking to the well committees and expanding out to the users of the wells.

I covered maintenance, finance, health, and identified if there were any conflicts surrounding the well. I was also teamed with Virginie, a Cameroon Catalyst local staff member in the research and advised her on tasks she would have to carry out for future projects.

While I was doing that, Thom was carrying out the technical reviews of the wells, including checking water flow rates, water quality and pH, if it was built in accordance with our drawings, its operation, maintenance, etc.

After those checks, we went together to visit the water sources to see if they were still being used by villagers. We also extracted samples of the soil and water to be tested back in the UK.

People problems and follow-up

The success of the wells varied massively between villages and we discovered plenty of challenges!

The least well-maintained one in Mbele Mbeke is located between two sub-villages. The lock was broken, the soakaway hadn't been built to drawings,there was concrete cracking, erosion and it was dirty.

After speaking to locals, I found that there was division between the two villages and a well committee hadn’t been set up to oversee the facility. People were also using it to wash cars and motorbikes, making it dirty.

We set up a meeting with chiefs of both villages to come to an agreement and set up a committee with members from each village. We showed them how to keep an account book and use a receipt method to show payment when collecting water.

They took this on board and set up a committee when we were there. Virginie is monitoring what happens there now we’re gone.

Furthermore, we also had a meeting with our local contractor, who hadn’t been following our method statement, instead using his own techniques to build the wells.

Our method statement was carefully written to ensure that during excavation and laying of the concrete rings, safety risks would be mitigated as much as possible.

It became clear that the contractor hadn’t read our documents. While the liability rests on them, it’s something the project can’t ignore, but it’s also difficult to enforce in a country which struggles to provide the bare necessities to its population.

Engineering challenges and cultural encounters

Villagers collecting water
Women and children collecting water in the village of Tongo.

Next, we visited three villages picked for future well projects, to assess whether the need was still there. To try and work out where the feasible sites were, we visited the local water sources and conducted surveys with villagers again.

Finding suitable sites which wouldn’t be contaminated by the surroundings and where the water table would be deep enough was tough.

During my trip, I also had the opportunity to explore other aspects of Cameroon. The team attended an event for World Refugee Day, where we had the opportunity to meet other NGOs and meet refugees from Central African Republic.

One of our team members brought his drone to film the villages, which was amazing to watch and got everybody very excited.

More motivated, more knowledge

My favourite part of the trip was being able to build relationships with villagers and the Cameroonian volunteers.

I expanded on my engineering vocabulary in French and developed my negotiation skills. I learnt a lot about their way of life and enjoyed answering questions about my life in the UK.

There were interesting physical challenges on the trip as well as the engineering and social ones too: packed-to-the-rafters minibuses, 6am church bells, excessively large insects,the incredible heat,and of course, the classic travelling illnesses, to name a few.

It’s all part and parcel of what was overall a great experience though,and I learnt from these too (and laughed about them later).

My trip to Cameroon was an invaluable experience– having been there I’ve a much better understanding of civil engineering challenges involved in site work and I feel very motivated to do more in the future to help provide water for those who need it.

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