Water and Wastewater Management Projects in the Tropics

Over the last 30 years a significant number of water and sanitation projects have been implemented in developing countries and billions of dollars has been spendt. Projects have covered rural as well as urban water supply systems, wastewater collection, disposal and treatment systems, and have mainly been financed by international funding agencies such as international banks and international aid organisations. However, unfortunately it is a fact that the number of failures, or non-functioning, of the established systems, outnumbers the number of successes. In project related jargon, professionals will often express this by saying that systems often turn out to be not-sustainable, or they are so called White Elephants.

There are a number of reasons for this but the major and basic reason is that these systems were,  and to some extent still are, designed and implemented in a manner, which is too narrowly based on engineering and technical considerations taking their point-of-departure in technologies from developed countries. This point-of-view is supported by a number of evaluations performed by various national as well as international aid organisations including the World Bank over the last two decades.

According to the new and very much needed paradigm, which is in full accord with the major findings from the post project evaluations of the above organisations, provision of water supply and wastewater management systems should be seen as technology packages that must be designed in such a way that they fit the local physical, economic, institutional and social and cultural context. This is what is meant by appropriate solutions. Only to a limited extent and only in a limited number of projects, the “appropriateness” of the solutions was comprehensively and crosscutting assessed in relation to the local context.

Consequently a holistic approach to water and wastewater management is needed. They should be planned, designed and implemented so that the contextual setting is incorporated from the start to the end of the project. This implies that when deciding whether a project is appropriate, a number of aspects should be taken into consideration.

Consequently there is a need to educate engineers with a positive attitude towards the need for having the capacity for assessing all aspects of the appropriateness of water and sanitation solutions in developing countries. It is not advocated that engineering students should also become sociologists, economist or institutional planners. But engineering students aspiring to acquire the new professionalism should have the motivation and capacity to learn through multi-disciplinary teamwork addressing all relevant issues in relation to ensuring appropriate and thus sustainable projects. On this background they should learn to design solutions which do not add to the increasing herd of White Elephants in developing countries of non-functioning water and wastewater management projects financed by multi- and bilateral aid money.



For over 10 years now the sanitary engineering students at the Technical University of Denmark has be educated in this new paradigm based on a book published by IWA in 2005: Water and Wastewater Management Projects in the Tropics (Jens Lonholdt, 2005), from which information for this article was provided.

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