Why failing drinking water supplies are a catastrophe for us all

When I started writing about drinking water supply in low income countries (like India and Pakistan) I saw it primarily as an economic issue.  It was only when I read recent papers on stunting that I realized the catastrophic health and economic impacts of stunting caused by faecal contamination of drinking water supplies, now common in many parts of the world.

Stunting occurs when infants drink contaminated water causing repeated diarrhoea attacks which result in permanent damage to the intestines, restricting nutrient intake so affected children suffer from malnutrition even if they eat enough. Nearly half of all children in South Asia and other parts of the world are now affected.  So many piped water schemes provide contaminated water at the point of consumption.  The water pumped into the system may be safe to drink, but what goes into the mouth is not.

The only way to start fixing this problem is safe drinking water distribution. Obtaining and treating bulk supplies of safe drinking water is relatively inexpensive: even desalination costs only $0.50 per ton. While there are many water-scarce regions, in most there is still plenty to drink once treated.  The scarcity affects agriculture more than drinking.

Piped water supply utilities are failing in most low-income countries and few if any provide a 24/7 supply of safe water. For example, “good” utilities in South Asia provide intermittent water for 1-2 hours every 2nd day: sewerage seeps in through leaks during the “off” time contaminating the network. Many leaks result from crude attempts by engineers to enforce revenue collection by temporarily disconnecting adjacent water and sewerage pipes to recalcitrant customers. Air trapped in pipes destroys meters. A downward spiral in service quality and revenue collection forces people to stand in line to bribe tanker drivers to refill contaminated domestic tanks. Water has to be filtered and sterilized to make it safe, or supplied in 20 liter bottles at $100-150/ton.

Low trust between consumers, utilities and government undermines attempts to improve service quality. Conventional water supply technologies require trust and collaboration between diverse social actors which is much more difficult than in high income countries so the problem persists.

And for the majority of people who have no piped water, the situation is even worse. When women carry and purify water their labour is unpaid but comes at a cost: more than $30/ton across South Asia using standard value of time models.

The consequences of drinking water safety failures affect everyone: the real cost of getting just enough can exceed 10% of family income. It helps to explain stubbornly persistent poverty, stunting and malnutrition from environmental enteropathy caused by fecal contamination. The economic and health catastrophe in low-income countries affects us all.

In the next post, I will describe why so many previous attempts to solve this problem have failed and how I came to see some elegant solutions.

Pakistan Launch: Islamabad

“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was officially launched in Islamabad at the Serena Hotel on January 7th before a gathering of 120 engineers, engineering faculty, aspiring engineers, and friends.  The Hon. Ms. Marvi Memon, Minister Chair of Benezir Bhutto Income Support Fund spoke about the potential impact of the research on the poorest 5.8 million people in Pakistan served by the fund. Lieutenant General (R) Syed Shujaat Hussein, former rector of National University of Science and Technology presided at the launch.Close-Comfort-FB-Logo-151207

The event was sponsored by Close Comfort Air Conditioning

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James Trevelyan speaking about the book – transcript of speech appears below.

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A Bright Energy Future for Pakistan

Despite current on-going energy shortages and load shedding, Pakistan has energy wealth that could be unlocked just by thinking differently about electricity distribution.

Electricity distribution

Electricity distribution systems are large engineering enterprises (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission)

Electricity supply is capital intensive engineering. Pakistan built the existing electricity supply network with the help of large loans on favourable terms from the World Bank and other international institutions.

In addition, Pakistan has benefited from the generosity of Saudi Arabia in providing low-cost fuel.

Pakistan has reaped the benefits of large hydroelectric generating plants at Mangla, Tarbela and other dams: they generate electricity with no ongoing fuel costs.

As fuel and capital borrowing costs rose for Pakistan in the last 20 years, and the proportion of cheap hydro power reduced, Pakistan governments shielded people from the real cost of electricity generation with generous subsidies but these cannot continue.

Another factor that frustrates efforts to find energy solutions is the high cost of engineering in Pakistan. Through research we have identified many factors that Pakistan engineers struggle to overcome, such as the deep social divides that inhibit effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between engineers, investors and labour. Given the same requirements for product availability and service quality, the cost is almost invariably higher in Pakistan than in industrialised economies like Europe and the USA. Just as an example, when indirect costs are taken into account, the cost of safe drinking water ranges from US$50 to $150 per tonne in Pakistan while the cost in Australia, the driest continent, is US$3 per tonne.

(This is an updated and extended version of an article published in The News, Pakistan, 31st May 2013)

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Opportunities for Pakistan Engineers

In my last piece I pointed out some of the challenges for engineers in Pakistan.  Yet each of those challenges is an opportunity for any engineer who is prepared to take advantage of them.  Yes, water and power are far too expensive. However, reliably supplying water and power at a lower cost represents a huge commercial opportunity because ordinary people will happily pay for a high quality service that provides real economic value over the alternatives.  Given that water is the equivalent of US$50-$150 per tonne today, supplying safe drinking water at $10 per tonne is a huge improvement.

Here’s an example, my own personal invention, mentioned in the book (Ch13). Air conditioning is unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistan people because most Pakistan buildings are not insulated. Conventional air conditioning consumes large amounts of electricity. Too many people are using conventional air conditioners, leading to electricity load shedding. Continuous air conditioning requires a generator and the electricity cost (with fuel) for a typical room air conditioner is about 20,000 Rs or US$190 for one month.

Take a look at www.closecomfort.com.

This technology can provide similar comfort, running continuously through load shedding on a UPS, for about 1,200 Rs or US$12 monthly electricity cost which is much more affordable. The first production units will be on sale in Islamabad and Lahore in a couple of months time.

Challenges like climate change also represent a huge opportunity for engineers.  Engineers can do more than almost any other occupational group, and can earn high rewards from grateful people at the same time.

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Challenges for Pakistan Engineers

A Pakistan university Vice Chancellor told me how, when he first took up his position, he challenged his engineering faculty.

“Listen, he said, you and other engineering schools in Pakistan have graduated tens of thousands of electrical engineers, yet, the more you graduate, the worse electricity load shedding becomes.”

“Sir, they replied, that is a political problem, it’s nothing to do with engineering! The politicians have accumulated a huge circular debt, which is not real debt, just an accounting aberration to cover the fact that rich people don’t pay for electricity.”

The Vice Chancellor smiled. “Please remember, he said, electricity and water utilities are staffed and run by engineers. Furthermore, the debt is real debt: Pakistan State Oil now has to pay cash in advance of delivery because it ran up too much unpaid debt with suppliers. As long as people can use electricity without paying enough to cover the cost of fuel to run generators and maintaining and extending all the transformers and cables, the problem will get worse. So whether you like it or not, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it is an engineering problem. That means it’s your problem too!”

Pakistan’s politicians and business community have a low opinion of Pakistan engineers: it is not just load shedding and poor water service quality. Pakistan is a high cost operating environment, and Pakistan engineers (with a few notable exceptions) have a poor record for delivering on promises: on-time, with good quality, high safety standards, and within financial constraints. In short, Pakistan is an unattractive destination for capital investment because engineers (among others) don’t deliver what they promise.

That’s the bad news.

There’s good news, too….. well sort of. Continue reading

How can engineers help eliminate poverty?

Nobel prizewinning economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty” how extreme poverty can be eliminated by implementing six priority actions (Ch12, p234-5):

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

Although Sachs did not allude to this, we can see that all require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly by providing productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity to be available for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

If you look at Pakistan, a middle of the road low income country, around half the workforce is needed just to supply enough food and water for everyone. In Australia, less than 2% of the workforce is needed, and they produce a substantial surplus for food exports. It’s engineering, successful engineering, that makes the difference. That of course relies on lots of other things as well – education, effective means to enforce contracts – law and government regulation, health care and so many others. Once engineers have lifted human productivity, there are people available to provide these other support services. That’s what’s missing in low income countries.

I think there’s no better illustration than the real economic cost of safe drinking water. In Pakistan, the cost (including the indirect cost of unpaid female labour) typically ranges between US$50 and $150 per tonne. In Australia it’s about $2 per tonne. I explain why in my book and my 2012 TED talk. In other words, because we have not enabled engineering to work so well in Pakistan, the poorest people have to pay far more for water ( and all the other essentials for life ) than wealthy Australians.  There are many contributing issues here.

There are wonderful social and commercial opportunities for engineers who set out to fix this and help eliminate poverty. They can start by recognising the economic needs and by devising affordable mass-market solutions. The next step is to provide a credible financial case for investors, along with the reputation for delivering on promises. This last aspect is probably the most difficult: engineers currently have an appalling reputation in both government and commercial investment circles. That’s why it’s best to take small steps, one at a time, and gradually build the reputation needed to achieve results on a grand scale.

In the book I explain some of the insights gained by truly expert engineers. You can learn how they think and how they deliver for their organisations. In doing so, they earn 2 – 5 times as much as other engineers because their organisations recognise the value they contribute.

You can do that too and become a real contributor to the Global Citizen Project. As an engineer, you can do much more than adding to the noise.  I hope you take up this challenge. If you do, please write and tell me about what you have been able to achieve.