We Need Your Help!

Hey everybody!  Construction has been coming along slowly over the last month and I promise that we'll have some more updates for you in the coming week.

We are having one big problem, though: too much demand.  As I mentioned last time, we had a bunch of homes in Wita sign on to the project after other homes started paying to connect and, crucially, after we had already agreed on a budget with the local water ministry office. Unfortunately, that means that the burden falls on us.

As such, we're raising $8650 (€7800) to help get all these folks connected to piped water for the first time.  Check out the video above and if you can help us out with any little bit of funding, it'll go a long way.  A donation of $50 means that you can get more water to a home than they could ever carry on their backs.

Check out our project and help out!  Thanks!

Construction Commences!

Wow, so the last few months have been exhilarating!  We’ve gotten a budget from community and local government fundraising to build a water system. We’ve received a ton of press about our work. And we’ve been incredibly fortunate to be a part of the Imagine H2O accelerator. But now the rubber meets the road: we’re starting construction.  We’ve got 700 homes in Wita that we need to pipe water to.  Construction started this week. It’s game-time.

Here are some lessons that we’ve already gained insight into.

In 2016, after chatting with community leaders in earnest about actually piping water to every home in Wita, we went around mapping and surveying the ability of people there to pay to connect to a water system.  Community leaders were super excited and local households, while not sharing the same level of enthusiasm, showed interest.  At the edges of the Wita, though, the responses were near-universal: $50? No, that’s just too much. 

Cut to the last few weeks.  We wanted to get a final set of locations on the number of homes in different portions of the community.  In our initial survey, there were even homes inside the main part of Wita that said they weren’t interested. We figured these folks would latch on since pipes would be coming around their houses anyway. We were right. But what we hadn’t expected was that all those homes on the edge of the village would buy in, too.  I suppose this is just validation of our motto: nobody in the world wants to walk for water. And they’ll pay a month’s worth of income to get it.

Lesson Learned: There are innovators, early-adopters, late-adopters, and laggards when it comes to getting water in the home, too.

We’re burying all of these water pipes.  But how do we actually bury them?  In El Salvador, we got a giant backhoe and dug massive meter-deep trenches. This took a ton of time and, considering the size of the backhoe, wasn’t a terribly efficient use of resources.  For our systems, we’re resorting to smaller trenching devices, essentially a Chinese version of a ditch-witch, that’ll dig half-meter deep trenches. Picture a chainsaw on wheels that goes into the ground.

But this is a Chinese trencher and these sorts of devices aren’t sold in Ethiopia.  Hence, we had to get one imported.  In Ethiopia, if you have a license to import something, you pay a certain tax rate. If you don’t have a license, you pay triple. We knew this. Talking to some local experts, we also expected that the normal tax for agricultural equipment like this would be 15%, thus we’d need to pay 45%.

The trencher arrived on April 4th. After what we assume was some curious head-scratching, the customs office decided (for reasons unbeknownst to us) that the final tax rate would be equal to the cost of the machine. Yes, we paid more than double the tax we expected. We had two options: let it sit in the customs office indefinitely or pay up. We got it out a week later.

Lesson Learned: Never underestimate customs officials.

On Saturday the 15th, we took the trencher down to the community to dig some test ditches and generate extra interest there (rural people are often a tad skeptical that anything ever happens).  Two days before, I had assembled the machine to make sure that I didn’t look like a fool in front of everyone. In order to fit it in the car, I had to take it back apart, but I was confident.

As we pulled it from the back of our car, a crowd began to form.  The trencher went together with ease, chain and all!  We poured in gas and oil. This is totally going to work! Alright, moment of truth: let’s pull the handle and get this beast started. Choke on. Fuel control valve open. Throttle at middle.

Nope. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Check the valves. Repeat. Nope.

Check the rest of the engine. Nothing seems wrong, except for this one little wire that’s not attached to anything. Now I know nothing about electronics so I’m hesitant to do anything that might destroy the engine due to my ignorance. We hadn’t touched any of these wires; this is how it came.

But you know what I can do? Call our supplier. In China. From a little Ethiopian village. I give Maisie a call, our first time speaking in-person. She says to WhatsApp her a picture of the wiring. Five minutes later, I’ve got an answer: disconnect them all.

Boom, first try. Starts right up.  Thanks, Maisie!

Lesson Learned: It’s never as easy as we hope, but damn if technology ain’t cool.

So we start digging our test-trench, crowd and all.  The trencher specs say that we can dig up to 60 meters in an hour, or about a meter a minute.  While this beast is tearing up the ground, it just doesn’t seem like it’s moving, but I suppose it’s coming at a glacial pace.  It’s vibrating every which way and I’m struggling to get it to dig straight.  By the end of it all, my hands and arms are post-workout sore.  I mean, all we’ve got is 15 kilometers of trench to dig with this thing, right?

Lesson Learned: We’ve got a long road ahead of us. And I’m going to have Popeye-like forearms by the end of it all.

PRESS | 3BL Enterprises Runner-up in Imagine H2O Water Accelerator Competition

San Francisco, CA, USA - Since January, 3BL has been working with mentors and coaches from Imagine H2O who have helped us meet with investors and potential clients while working to improve our business model.

On Wednesday, we pitched to the judges in the final round of competition for the Imagine H2O accelerator.  We wound up being the runners-up to Utilis, an amazing company based out of Israel mapping out water leaks in pipes using satellite technology.  With this, we won $5000, which will go directly towards covering our costs in the construction of our pilot project in Wita.  

Thank you so much to the folks at Imagine H2O and all the incredible people we've met over the last week in San Francisco!

Imagine H2O: Water Innovation Accelerator Highlights Digital Solutions to Global Water Challenges

TechCrunch: Utilis takes top water innovation prize at Imagine H2O for tech that finds leaks underground

PRESS | Ethiopian Herald: Enhancing Water Technology to Promote Efficient Resource Utilization

Enhancing Water Technology to Promote Efficient Resource Utilization

3BL Enterprises has been featured in the Ethiopian Herald!  Check out the article discussing how the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy and 3BL are utilizing technology to improve water access across the country. 



Walking for Water

So we’ve found out that approximately 750 million people still lack access to clean water.  Really what we’re talking about, though, is an improved water supply.  With a global population of 7.3 billion, that means that 6.6 billion people have access to improved water.

But what does it mean to have improved water?  Simply enough, it means that you have water piped to your home, piped to a shared community tap, or just a protected source that provides clean water (e.g. a well or spring). 

What’s the effort involved?

Nope. Non. Nein. Nyet. Hapana. Aydelem.

Nope. Non. Nein. Nyet. Hapana. Aydelem.

The thing is that these last two groups still must bear the back-breaking burden of carrying an average of 20 liters of water.  This means that we have people lugging around 20 kg (44 lbs) on their backs at a global average of 6km/day (3.75 miles/day), though the WHO defines an improved source as one within 1km.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to trudge along with one of those large gym weights for such long distances.  Every day. 

This leaves out the fact that 20 liters is the amount recommended for a single person, not for a family of five.  On top of that, if the carrying container isn’t clean, then all the work done to supply a clean source is for naught.

But piping water to houses is expensive, right?

Nope.  I managed a project through EWB in El Salvador that, if we take out the cost of drilling the well (remember we’re talking about people who already have clean water, but must walk for it) delivered water to houses for about $10 a person.  Total.  The average household size was five people, so we’re talking about $60 per house. 

For this project, each house paid around $6/month, meaning that the capital costs would pay for themselves in about ten months.  Granted, there are the operation and maintenance costs associated with the system, but estimating conservatively, it would have a return on investment of a year and a half.  Considering that most infrastructure projects in the States have a return on investment measured by decades, this is insanely quick.

How many people walk for improved water

I’m currently in Ethiopia where 55 million people have access to improved water (45 million don’t).  If we subtract out the 12 million people who already have access to piped water, this leaves 43 million in our target group.  It may be significantly easier, though, to work with rural people, so in Ethiopia, which leaves about 38 million people.

In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 2.2 billion people walk to an improved water source, while 1.7 billion of those are in rural areas.  I got all of these numbers from an excellent website called Knoema where you can get water and sanitation statistics for every country, even breaking it down into rural and urban populations.  Note that they group all of Latin America together and that the colors I show are by percentage of the continent (e.g. about 75% of Africa has access to improved water).

Radical Affordability

The point in all this is that we can drastically reduce the burden that billions of people endure while providing it at a cost that they can afford.  Sure, $6/month may be way too high a cost for many rural people, but even $2/month would have paid for that system within four years, which is still extraordinary for infrastructure.  Plus, when we were designing for EWB, radical affordability wasn’t one of our main concerns, so maybe we could’ve gotten the cost down to $8/person.

What’s truly incredible is that this cuts out the need for donations to improve water access for billions of people.  If we can utilize the earning power of people and design to the costs that they can afford, we can rapidly create the means for people to radically improve their own lives.

Congratulations to the Survey Winners!

Thank you to everyone who took part in the Flowius survey!  We learned about the vast differences in costs and water system types that Engineers Without Borders chapters from across the country have built.

The four chapters who took home the $200 prizes for filling out the surveys are the

  • Gateway Professional Chapter
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Student Chapter
  • University of Cincinnati Student Chapter
  • Southern Methodist University Student Chapter

The survey will stay open, so if you would like to tell us more about your work with water, we'd love to hear it.  Thanks!

Chris Turnbull-Grimes Profiled by EWB-USA

I was recently profiled by Engineers Without Borders.  I'll be helping EWB with monitoring and evaluation of their projects in Ethiopia over the coming months.  Check it out!

750 Million People Lack Access to Water. Why?

750 million. For those of us in the field of water and development, this number is familiar.  It’s the often quoted amount of people in the world who lack access to clean water.  And despite all our best efforts and good intentions, this number persists.

My big question

After volunteering and working in the development field for the better part of a decade, I realized that my peers and I were failing to ask one basic and crucial question: what are the underlying reasons that so many people lack access to clean water? Surely people recognize their own need for clean water. Why haven’t more communities taken action themselves to improve their own access?

Failed “helicopter” and “Band-Aid” approaches

In the past, organizations had a tendency to “helicopter” into a location, build a well, and then leave – patting themselves on the back the entire way.  In their wake, they left a staggering number of broken or unused wells and systems across the world. Imported products, such as pumps, proved too expensive or difficult to repair locally. 

Since then, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Resources have been spent trying to patch up problems of the “helicopter” past.  What “Band-Aids” have been applied? We try to get community buy-in by holding meetings and educating people about the importance of clean water.  We attempt to train local people in the proper operation and maintenance procedures for their various systems.  We make the effort to build long lasting relationships with communities so that we can understand their issues and help them when they inevitably have problems. 

Through both “helicopter” and “Band-Aid” approaches, we’ve formed a habit of addressing the symptoms of lack of water access.  We build token components of water infrastructure, whether it’s the construction of sources (e.g. wells, spring boxes, small dams) or distribution systems (e.g. pipe networks, water kiosks with delivery).  Time and again, these projects prove to be a temporary fix. The 750-million-person statistic holds, and the fundraising and big spending continues. Aid money flows even when clean water doesn’t.

By treating symptoms, development practitioners miss the point. We’re not answering the big “why” question. The way forward is to dig into the root of the problem to address the underlying barriers to clean water access.

Answering the question

So, the question remains. Why do so many people lack access to clean water? This is the issue that drives me to build 3BL as a business.  To answer the question, I have compiled a list of five factors:

  1. Inability to pay for water amenities
    • Let’s note that this is, by far, the biggest reason and many of the other factors listed below result from this problem.
  2. Lack of access to low-cost engineering design services for simple water infrastructure
  3. Lack of access to capital to build basic water systems
  4. Inability to operate and maintain basic water systems, whether that is a result of a shortage of money or technical know-how
  5. Shortage of a consistent water source nearby

This is by no means comprehensive.  The question is an open one – debate and comments are welcome below.  Email me at chris@3BLenterprises.com and discuss!

Tell Us Your Story

We want to hear from you.  What are some of the successes and difficulties that you've had with operation and maintenance of your water systems?

Name *