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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Water Source Protection

Africa, Cameroon
Personal Essay

More than 2 billion people—over a third of the world's population—lack access to basic sanitation such as flush toilets or even outhouses. And more than 1 billion people in the world do not have safe water to drink. That's almost 1 out of every 6 people on the planet.

Hi. My name is Lauren Fry.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa.

Cameroon is a remarkable place, with mountains, deserts, beaches, rain forests, gorillas, elephants, and lions, among its many rich resources.

I lived in the region of Cameroon that is home to the Eton people. Many of them farm, harvesting cacao beans—the bean used for making chocolate. This picture shows cacao beans drying in the sun.

I am an environmental engineer. My job in Cameroon was to help communities build water and sanitation projects. My main job was to help the local people obtain clean water that was safe for drinking, cooking, and washing. Think about what life would be like if you didn't have clean water in your house or a flushing toilet. Abundant water at home is a luxury that most of my friends in Cameroon did not have.

There is plenty of water where I lived in Cameroon. The Sanaga River, the largest in Cameroon, flowed right through my town. Unfortunately, even though river water is easy to obtain, it is often polluted by human waste, farm runoff, and other contaminants. We also got water from rain—and from underground. Water that comes from under the ground is called groundwater and is usually a good choice for drinking water, because it is less likely to be contaminated than water on the surface.

There is a problem, however, with obtaining groundwater. It usually requires energy to bring the water to the surface. Pumps for bringing water to the surface can be powered by fossil fuels, wind, the sun, or people. But pumps cost money and require maintenance,

…and carrying water by hand takes time away from other activities; for children, that includes schoolwork and fun. The expense of pumping water is often too much for communities, driving them to drink unclean water from elsewhere and risk water-borne diseases that can cause diarrhea and other illnesses.

Groundwater is likely to be free of biological contaminants, if there is no source of pollution nearby. But when it pools on the surface at a spring, a place where groundwater naturally comes to the surface, there are opportunities for contamination. For example, children would use buckets to fetch water from the spring. If the buckets were contaminated, the water would become polluted when children dipped them into the spring. Smaller children, who did not understand the importance of clean water, might walk through the spring, or even throw litter into it. Not only was the spring open to pollution from people, but forest animals were also potential polluters.

This picture shows the water source in one community where I worked; a natural spring that the community covered with roofing material. The water does not need to be pumped to the surface, but as you can see, the spring is not well protected and any kind of debris can enter this water source.

I worked with four villages to develop solutions to their water problems. When I arrived, villagers drew water from natural springs like this one, where I'm standing in the red T-shirt. The spring is the small pool of murky water just below me.

These are some of the children who lived in my village. The communities knew that their water was making some of the children sick. They brought me into their villages so we could work together to improve the situation. They were right about being sick. When I first went into each community, I conducted a health survey, asking parents how often members of their family were sick with diarrhea. On average, there would be someone in a household suffering from diarrhea 10 to 16 days of every month.

We decided to protect the springs by building springboxes. A springbox is basically a concrete box built around a spring. You can see a typical springbox design here. Its three sections include an area for collecting the spring water, on the left; a filter to remove particles from the water, in the center; and a reservoir to store the water.

Water enters the primary filter and capture area, and then moves through the gravel layer entrance into the filter. It then enters the reservoir through another gravel layer entrance. We included a collection pipe so that the users no longer had to dip their dirty buckets into the water. Instead, they could simply open the collection pipe with a spigot and wait for the bucket to fill.

Here's the springbox under construction. The photographer is standing over the capture area above the spring. Three men are standing on top of the filter area. The mason, in the white t-shirt, is preparing the form for the concrete wall of the reservoir. Water will flow in the direction of the blue arrow.

The springbox is complete. The man in the blue shirt is my colleague from the Ministry of Agriculture. He is an experienced rural engineering technician, and we did all our work as a team. The group is standing on top of the springbox reservoir. Behind them, underground, is the filter, and behind that is the capture area.

Remember what the spring looked like before construction?

The spring pool is now filled up with rocks and covered with soil and clay.

I went back to two of the four villages a year after completing the springboxes to conduct a follow-up health survey. Lo and behold, diarrhea—among the most common problems brought on by drinking unclean water—had been reduced by 29% in one village and 64% in the other. I later included this research as part of my master's degree, and published it in the summer 2006 issue of the Journal of Engineering for Sustainable Development.

Improved water availability, water quality, sanitation, and personal hygiene are all effective ways to reduce diarrhea incidence in a community. Improved sanitation includes connection to sewers and septic systems or the use of different types of latrines. Interestingly, many sanitation technologies require large amounts of water, making water availability and sanitation closely related.

Here I am with several villagers on one of my last visits to the springbox. It was rewarding to see that children's health had improved and that water was clean and clear. This work inspired me to continue research in water availability and sanitation in developing countries. Thanks for letting me share my work in Cameroon with you.

* Map of Cameroon courtesy of National Geographic Xpeditions.

World Wise Speakers

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