Megann Mielke is a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) specialist with experience developing, implementing and managing WASH and multiple-use water services (MUS) programs. She just returned from Tanzania, where she spent three years working on water supply and sanitation.
How did you become interested in water issues?
After college graduation, I joined the Peace Corps, which put me in water and sanitation for two years in Peru. After that I attended graduate school to study public administration. I joined Winrock in 2013 on a fellowship with the Congressional Hunger Center to work on food security, and I worked on our multiple-use water services program. I immediately went to live in Tanzania and work on the Tanzania Integrated Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program (iWASH), a USAID-funded initiative that Winrock worked on. Since 2018 I’ve been the WASH technical advisor for Winrock’s subcontract on the Water Resources Integration Development Initiative (WARIDI) activity, a USAID project to promote integrated water resources management and delivery of services across multiple sectors in Tanzania, which was implemented by Tetra Tech. In that role I had day-to-day oversight of Winrock’s project administration, and WASH activities.
How did this water-related work in Tanzania advance the goal of fighting and preparing for climate change?
When a rural community has a sustainable water supply that is well maintained, it can better confront the impacts of climate change, which for many of them will mean more variability in water resources and a higher chance of disasters that might affect their water supply. We not only helped to construct water supply systems but also formed and trained Community Based Water Supply Organizations to operate and maintain them. A well-managed water supply system that is financially viable stands a better chance at bouncing back from climate-change-related stressors. We also sensitized organizations on climate change and how they can mitigate the impacts of climate change through water resource management and conservation.
What is a multiple-use water service and why is it important
Multiple-use water services, or MUS as it’s called for short, is basically a water system that designed to serve multiple functions, such as irrigation, drinking water and productive uses for income generation at the household and community level. It’s important because that’s the way people actually use water. Especially in rural communities, most livelihoods are related to agriculture, and they require water to be economically successful.
What are some of the issues around sustainable water access in Tanzania?
I think the biggest challenge is willingness to pay, because it does cost money to operate and maintain a water system. We’ve built systems for communities of anywhere from 2,000 people to 25,000 people. Pipelines have to be replaced when they are leaking or when they break. These water systems are owned and operated by what are called community-based water supply organizations (CBWSOs). The CBWSOs need to be able to collect revenue so that they can continue to maintain a water system. But then they also require skilled technicians who can actually do the operations and maintenance. In Tanzania, the communities were kind of on their own, but in 2019 new regulations were developed, requiring each CBWSO to hire a certified technician. That’s really a game changer that will help them get skilled operators.
How have the projects you’ve worked on helped address Tanzania’s water challenges?
We’ve built 50 water systems over the last five years. We really pride ourselves on our approach, which includes scoping the project with the community, which tells us what their current water supply is then gives us information so that we can design rehabilitation or new water services. Then in the actual construction itself, we make sure to maintain quality through supervision and materials controls. We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re handing over well-constructed systems that we hope will work for 10 to 15 years to come.
And then there’s improved sanitation. The Government of Tanzania has a quarterly data collection system where every single sub-village and village reports how many people in their communities have a latrine. We supported that program, which is called the National Sanitation Campaign, by providing registers for over 1,400 villages to do quarterly data collection. We also promoted improved sanitation, which together with the data collection and analysis led to improved access to sanitation for 700,000 people. Over 600 villages became what you call open-defecation free, which means that every single household has a toilet. That work goes hand-in-hand with our water supply work because if your community doesn’t have proper sanitation, then drinking clean water is not going to get you very far. It’s been amazing to see this shift. When I started there in 2013, I rarely saw an outhouse or latrine on someone’s property. And now it seems that just about everybody’s got one. It’s been really impressive to see these changes in Tanzania. Now the country is focusing on upgrading the quality of latrines to ensure they are beneficial to the health and wellbeing of the community.
How does WASH affect women and girls in particular?
In East Africa and in Tanzania, specifically, women and girls are in charge of collecting water. So if they do not have water access near their household, they have to travel longer distances to get the water. That means that they have less time for other activities, whether that is economic activities, going to school, or just resting. It can also sometimes put women and girls in dangerous situations if they have to walk several kilometers to reach water. What we’ve seen is that when you do provide easier access to water, women and girls are able to start income-generating activities around the household, whether it’s gardening or other activities that also improve their livelihoods.
On WARIDI, when we built the water systems, we hired site supervisors through an internship program for recent graduate engineers and were able to staff that program with at least 25-percent female graduates. Then, we hired four interns for the project, three of whom were young female engineers. They were able to work with us for over a year on the project and I believe two of the three are now certified professional engineers.
What role will innovation in rural water play in Tanzania.
The innovations that we worked on were in water quality and smart metering. However, many projects are not functional because they can’t collect revenue, so innovation in financial management processes and getting people to be willing to pay for water are also important. Also, while every single one of these systems needs to hire a certified technician, quite frankly there aren’t enough certified technicians out there right now. So it will be important to continue to educate new graduates.
What do you think is the most important thing we can do to combat climate change?
In the context of water and sanitation programming, the most important thing is to mitigate the effects of climate change by preparing communities and cities and towns to deal with those effects, whether it’s more frequent floods that affect water systems, or water resources that are affected by drought. When communities are healthier, they are more resilient and able to tackle other challenges. And one of the ways that communities become healthier is through access to a clean and dependable water service.