Obscherning Involved In EDGE Project, Grassroots Development To Uganda
Eric Obscherning, who has come to Mackinac Island every summer since he can remember to visit his grandparents, Carl and Mary Doolen, exchanged one island for another this June when he and a team of fellow students from the University of Wisconsin traveled to Lingira, Uganda, to help the community there gain access to clean water and provide medical assistance through a program called Empowerment through Development and Gender Equality, or EDGE.
“It was a way to try to help people much less fortunate than ourselves,” Mr. Obscherning said.
Lingira is one island in the larger Buvuma island chain in Lake Victoria, which straddles the borders of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
“The Lingira community began as a hideout for political refugees,” Mr. Obscherning explained. “These were people unpopular with the government, who opposed the government. It’s very isolated from the rest of the country, and a lot of illegal trade cropped up there, too. It’s basically the Wild West of Uganda.”
Mr. Obscherning described the community as severely depressed, with little education and lacking development.
“They’re the last to receive aid from the government, or from humanitarian organizations, because they’re so remote compared to other places in the country. They’ve grown to a population of about 100,000 people, and it’s very dense, and, because of that, they have a lot of problems with water contamination,” he said.
Mr. Obscherning attributes the water problems to the lack of infrastructure and education in the community.
“They don’t really understand what’s wrong with the water, because they don’t understand the medical or scientific reasons it would become contaminated,” he said. “There are a lot of biological contaminants there, like bacteria and parasites. That’s a lot different from the chemical pollution you would find in the more industrialized parts of the country, and it’s a lot harder to control.”
Mr. Obscherning and his teammates went to Lingira with help from WE International, an organization dedicated to fighting global poverty and injustice, and with funding from the Clinton Global Initiative. They assessed water quality and installed a water filtration system to its households.
“They’ve developed these very fine ceramic filters,” he explained. “It’s effectively a ceramic bowl with very small pores, so you fill it with water, which slowly filters through the pores and leaves all the contaminants behind. We used a version of this, which takes two of these bowls and sets them one on top of the other to make a sphere, and then you submerge the sphere in water and let the water run into it, rather than out of it. This filters out 98.5% of the contaminants and keeps the water cooler for the people using it.”
They planned to sell the units to the people at highly subsidized prices.
“I know it doesn’t sound quite right, selling the things to them,” Mr. Obscherning said, “but what we’ve seen is that, in a lot of development projects, you have these very wealthy people or groups coming and running a project to help a community, but then they leave and don’t leave the people feeling any sense of ownership in the project or its equipment, so they neglect it. That’s what’s led to a lot of large-scale failures in development projects. They’re not sustainable. We wanted this to live on after we left.”
Mr. Obscherning’s team represents only the third effort, worldwide, to implement this device, with the other two being in the West African nation of Ghana and in the Central American nation of Guatemala.
“This was considered a pilot project for this technique,” he said. “That’s where a lot of our grant money came from, like from the Clinton Global Initiative.”
The team’s efforts to get the community to adopt the filtration technique did not reward them with immediate success.
“Unfortunately, we saw little interest from the local people, and our contacts from WE International were unwilling to continue promoting the filtration system after we left because they weren’t comfortable with the filtered water being less than 100%,” Mr. Obscherning said.
He attributes the lack of a 100% filtration result to the sheer contamination of the water.
“Even a mosquito bite [exposed to] that water is a gaping doorway to viruses and parasites and all kinds of terrible things. It’s impossible to get it 100% clean with something that people can afford there. By eliminating 98.5% of the contamination, though, we stand to really reduce the risk these people face every day.”
Past development project failures fostered the lack of interest among locals, he believes.
“Many water projects here have failed before, and I think the people are just untrusting of new initiatives at this point,” he said, “and building trust is the most important step in getting something like this off the ground.”
“It was frustrating at first, but, after talking to some of the people from a nearby island called Namiti, which we all consider a development success story, we realized just what this would take. They’ve adopted a community filtration system there which was proposed by the pastor of their church. It took him five years to sensitize and educate the people about the threats they faced from their water conditions before they could make a successful project work.”
In addition to their water filtration work, the EDGE team provided medical assistance to a community without direct access to medial facilities.
“We helped heal a fisherman who received a really deep cut on the bottom of his foot,” Mr. Obscherning explained. “My most dramatic memory is of helping evacuate a woman who went into premature labor. We got her on a powerboat and to the mainland hospital. The doctors there, who are not as well trained as ours here, can only supply medical attention. You have to bring everything with you. They tell you what you need, and then you have to go buy your own IV or medicines, whatever you need. It was eye-opening.”
The EDGE program intends to return next year.
“We learned a lot,” Mr. Obscherning said. “It wasn’t a true failure because we learned a lot about what we have to do in order to succeed in something like this.”