Planting 15000 trees in Madagascar

by Zahana
Jun 8, 2012

Why we do it this way

Building the water reservoir on the mountain 2006
Building the water reservoir on the mountain 2006

Dear friends: In this report we wanted to take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. We apologize for cross-postings in our GlobalGiving projects.

The report has been inspired by watching the TEDx talk by David Damberger: “What happens when an NGO admits failure” and our recent webinar hosted by GlobalGiving about the WASH Sustainability Charter
We learned from David Damberger’s talk, that many water systems built in Africa don't function much longer than one or two years, for many reasons, eloquently explained in his TEDx talk. We encourage you to watch his outstanding 13-minutes critical analysis. He is works with Engineers Without Borders having  built many water systems over the years, but also has implemented the lessons learned in an innovative, inspiring way. Without mentioning it explicitly, if you look at the talk for our angle, he presents a good case why GlobalGiving's approach of directly matching donors with projects is better for both sides.

Bonus Day begins at 12:01 am EDT on Wednesday June 13, 2012. The formula is simple: your donations to Zahana will be matched at 50%. Last time GlobalGiving ran out of matching funds, please try early in the day if you want to supersize you donation by 50% with the click of a mouse. There is a total of $75,000 in matching funds available. Once funds have been depleted, no more donations will be matched. Details

But now to the before mentioned bigger picture (keep in mind that most water systems might not work beyond two years after being built):  Our very first participatory development effort in 2006 was to build a gravity-feed, clean, safe water system. We did this in a village that never had clean water before. This gravity-fed water system is still flowing uninterrupted for six years now, providing clean water for over 1000 people. Way up on the mountain, some 2.5 km or 1.6 miles away from the village, the clean spring coming out off the ground has been channeled with pipes in a water storage container on the mountainside. From there it flows, with the help of gravity, through PVC pipes into the village. Collected in a second large water container at the edge of the village, the water flows into seven communal faucets, accessible to all. It is still the only village with a safe clean water system far and wide in the region.

We built this water system by hiring the water engineers, and paying them to live for three months in the village. Living in the community, they built the water system together with the villagers. This way, not only did they put in (unpaid!) village sweat equity, digging trenches, cutting stones, carrying cement and sand, and laying pipe that made the system more affordable; but they also learned how their water system functioned. A crucial part of this approach is that the villagers could be trained by the water engineers how to fix the system, should it break one day. All systems built by humans are bound to break sooner or later, but now the villagers are not only prepared for what to do, but also hopefully have the skills to do it themselves without outside help. As an additional safeguard, one man, jokingly referred to as the ’water police’, has been assigned to walk up and down the water system every day, to check for leaks or potential problems. Besides recruiting and paying the salaries for the water engineers, Zahana paid for materials the villagers could not afford, such as PVC pipes, the water storage containers and cement, with the help of our donors.

It is exactly the participatory element that made it successful. Zahana worked together with the villagers to build their water system, instead of an outside organization coming in and building it for them, making it ‘their water system’, not ‘ours’. With this proud ownership of ‘their water system’, comes the responsibility to take care of it and maintain it for years to come. The only complaint that people from Fiadanana make (and that makes us proud) is that they don't like to drink the water in other places anymore, and are forced to carry their own water with them now if they are leaving their village.

It wasn't easy to find water engineers willing to live in a rural setting for many weeks, far away from home without any amenities, and work with an untrained workforce, since this was and is quite a novel concept in Madagascar. But it paid off in more ways than one as we were able to build the water system for less than 20% of comparable water systems’ (normal) cost, and it is still flowing strong for almost 6 years. Although still the single biggest success for us is that no child has died of diarrhea since the clean water system was built.

Building our schools we have used the same approach: The community contributing the bricks and their labor and local materials and Zahana paying for the rest (doors, roof, cement, etc.,) they could never afford. We also hired and trained the teachers. We found an educational expert teacher-trainer willing to live in the village and train the teachers in their school and future teaching environment. Both schools are also still teaching children every day. Another first in the village’s history: four students have moved on to secondary school (more on CEPE). Our two gardeners live and work in the community where they grow seedlings and work the school gardens with and for the children. The gardeners salaries are also paid by Zahana.

Participatory development means, and this is at the heart of it, to trust people that they will do their best when you give them a chance to take charge of their own development. That is neither easy nor commonplace in the development community. And there will always be failures and mishaps as well, as much as we would like to avoid that. And: Yes, it does require outside money, too. In a country, such as Madagascar, where a farmer may barely “makes” US$ 300 in a year growing rice with backbreaking manual labor, we will always need people like you supporting our efforts to make this participatory development possible.

And yes, everybody wants to know, including us, how do you measure success? Well, get a glass of water (most likely it comes out of a tap or even a bottle for you), and take a good long look - at this clean, crystal clear, safe drinking water - and think about it where your water comes from, before you quench your thirst.

Ihanta, Jeannette and Markus

Cutting the stones for the water reservoir
Cutting the stones for the water reservoir
The communal water tank in the village
The communal water tank in the village
Communal water faucet in the village
Communal water faucet in the village
School water faucet
School water faucet
Communal water faucet with new fence (2011)
Communal water faucet with new fence (2011)

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Organization Information


Location: Antananarivo, Capital - Madagascar
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Markus Faigle
Honolulu, HI United States

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