In an interview with Peter Sharry, director of Axiom Water Technologies, he discussed how addressing water challenges in rural communities required patience and listening. This was particularly so in the communities he works with, in the Pacific. Water resource management initiatives that do not listen to local people needs can often be subject to the tragedy of the commons, however, when community needs and local cultural aspects are fully realised, projects can be transformative.
Water development aims to make water resources more accessible and useable for the people relying on them but in rural areas, this can be challenging.
What research shows about rural areas
The research paper, ‘The impact of water scarcity on rural groups in the Asia-Pacific region‘, describes the incredibly diverse landscapes that can be found in rural areas, from mountains to forests. It also describes how many of these areas lack water sources or access to water management and development projects.
“Bringing water to remote regions can be particularly complex and standardised approaches must be tailored to suit local situations,” explains the paper. “Three important components required to provide safe water to people, who are geographically isolated, include technology, distribution, and culture.”
The technology used in water development should meet the needs of each rural area. For instance, installing a water system that requires a lot of parts and maintenance may not make sense for a remote part of the world. Distribution needs to factor in the entire delivery system, including the fact that water is often unsafe at the point of collection in rural areas.
Culture is perhaps one of the most important aspects of rural water development.
“When supplying water to people in remote areas, projects need to be implemented sensitively according to local cultures,” says the paper. “It is important that NGOs and businesses are not seen to merely impose new ways on rural groups, but that they are instead seen to work with them.”
Real-world rural water development
Sharry says that while there is a lot of policy in Papua New Guinea regarding water, sanitation and hygiene, there is a shortage of coordination and resources, implementation, and monitoring.
“That’s the biggest struggle and somewhere in that mix, is the capacity of people and their ability and opportunity to participate” he explains. “capacity is a major constraint everywhere I’ve been in the Pacific. It’s very slowly starting to change but it is still a big deal.”
Sharry echoes the need to work with rural populations, instead of pushing systems and practices that may not work with their culture. In Papua New Guinea, he says, he typically stays in the village, making himself available for conversation and getting to observe and understand daily life and how water issues actually impact the population.
“I believe that at the village level, there is a pragmatic understanding of many aspects of water management. A community can describe aspects of what we would define as integrated water management, through concepts of connection between land, culture, people, and the environment that sustains them.
“Getting that deeper understanding of how the social and cultural things play into the physical reality and attitudes and perceptions around water management, and access to sanitation, is really critical, that’s one extreme,” Sharry says. “It really is about sitting down under the trees with people, having a cup of tea and sharing conversations… It’s understanding the dynamics of the village too and making an effort to be there at the right time to find the people that you want to listen to or to talk to or provide the opportunity for them to come and talk with me.”
“Once we learn from the local people how they relate to water management in that place we as outsiders are empowered to relate new concepts to them in different ways as we develop solutions together”