Only 40% of people in Sierra Leone have access to safe water. ICE Fellow Trudy Morgan tells us how engineers are tackling the challenge in the country.
As the ICE representative in Sierra Leone, it’s my responsibility to bring ICE members in Sierra Leone together to meet, share and discuss all things civil engineering in the country, raise awareness of the ICE, and encourage more civil engineers to consider professional membership with the institution.
It’s a lovely Tuesday evening in Freetown and ICE Sierra Leone is holding its first meeting in 2019 at the residence of the UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Guy Warrington.
As the ICE’s focus for 2019 is on water engineering, aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Goal 6, the Minister of Water Resources and ICE member, Dr Jonathan Tengbe, was invited as a special guest.
He shared his views on the challenges of the water sector and the activities the ICE can undertake with government and the private sector to improve the challenges the water sector is facing.
Engineers have a vital role to play in tackling the challenges Sierra Leone faces in providing access to water; at present only around 40% of people have this privilege.
Among those attending were a wide range of practicing engineers in industry, government and academia.
They included Engineers for Change (SL), a UK-based charity that supports the local engineering institution and the University of Sierra Leone, and engineer Modupe Williams from EFCSL, who’s been working with the #TransformFreetown programme.
Two ICE Fellows, Alpha Badamasi Savage, the former Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sierra Leone, and Nick Gardner, Country Manager for the United Nations Office for Project Services, were also in attendance.
Benefits of being an ICE member
Following the welcome by the High Commissioner, I outlined the benefits of becoming an ICE member, including a wealth of online learning resources, journals and acute industry insight.
It’s important to remind everyone that the ICE professional accreditation offers the internationally recognised ‘gold standard’ of civil engineering.
One of the things I pointed out was that in Sierra Leone the infrastructure to achieve the depth and breadth of experience required by the ICE was not readily available. Commitment, focus and hard work would be needed to demonstrate the experience required.
Tackling the engineering skills shortage
The Minister of Water Resources also touched on the shortage of trained and specialist water engineers in the country.
Following the civil war, the definition of the youth population was changed to include everyone aged 15 to 35 years. These young people comprise one third of the population of Sierra Leone and youth unemployment was a major root cause of the outbreak of civil conflict in Sierra Leone.
Currently approximately 70% of youth are underemployed or unemployed and an estimated 800,000 youth today are actively searching for employment.
To tackle the engineering skills shortage, the minister outlined how the Ministry intends to facilitate training locally at the University of Sierra Leone. Though there are expected challenges of providing required resources, in terms of personnel and educational facilities.
Following university, creating an environment that encouraged civil engineers to be trained with local companies was high on the agenda, he said.
Major water projects in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone’s water sector has several very large UK companies working here.
Engineer George Davies of Atkins UK outlined some of the successes of the current UK-Aid funded Freetown Water rehabilitation project being undertaken by IMC Worldwide, BAM and Atkins in collaboration with Guma Valley Water Company.
Particular reference was made to the engineering challenges faced in fixing the formally leaking outlet valve at Guma Dam, which now saves approximately two million litres a day (equivalent to over 90 GVWC bowsers) in wasted water. This intervention, the first of many, will increase the amount of water stored in the reservoir throughout the dry season.
With the Minister present, I was concerned everyone would be on “diplomatic” behaviour and he wouldn’t be asked hard-hitting and relevant questions! I was happy to be proved wrong.
The Minister of Water Resources outlined some of major challenges to meeting Freetown’s water needs.
Harnessing the resources already available within the protected forest reserve was championed as a key strategy in the short term, while in the longer term the minister expressed his support for delivering water from the Rokel River to supply water to the entire Western Area of Sierra Leone.
In a more rural context, the ability of stand-alone solar pumped water supply systems to provide water to smaller communities was identified as having had proven success in the Provinces.
In other successful news, Ing Bernadette Kargbo from the rural water supply utility Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWACO) brought to the table the positive news of SALWACO increasing the provision safe, potable water and sanitation facilities in schools.
The role of government funding
The Minister of Water Resources explained that the government is considering ‘unbundling’ the water sector in a similar manner to that undertaken recently by the power sector. This process is deemed to be challenging as the sector is highly subsidised by government.
He went on to state that Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC), the water utility for the City of Freetown however, is predominantly self-managed and receives very little government funding.
Recent applaudable successes for the company include bringing water towards the east of Freetown, though challenges remain in distribution due to the condition of the existing network and demand for water exceeding the available supply.
On this note, the Minister expressed his desire to tackle the serious leakage problems at one of Freetown’s oldest water supply assets - Congo Dam – by looking for funds to rehabilitate the structure and improve its capacity.
Paying for water?
Ing Badamasi Savage, as a previous board member of GVWC from 2009 to 2015, raised several interesting questions regarding Freetown’s water supply.
The topic of reducing non-revenue (water wasted before reaching the customer) water was discussed in hand with GVWC’s ability to collect private revenue for their services.
The Minister mentioned that even though water is regarded as a social service in Freetown, recent surveys had indicated the willingness of people to pay for water in return for a good service.
Ing Savage outlined his concerns that although public-private partnerships weren’t uncommon in Africa, water needs to remain affordable for the less privileged.
Find out more
It was evident that all engineers and politicians must work together to protect the natural environment that provide clean water alongside building the infrastructure required to store and treat it.
To find out more about the ICE Water Knowledge Programme 2019 and access a range of free resources, head to www.ice.org.uk/water.
If you’d like to become involved in the discussion and attend the ICE in Sierra Leone’s group meetings, don’t hesitate to contact [email protected].