In Times of Crisis
by Andy Bastable
I am one of those incredibly fortunate people who, by my late teens, knew exactly what I wanted to do. In my first year at university the lecturer asked each of us, "What would you be doing in 10 years' time?" and I said, "Supplying water to people in developing countries." And so I was.
In 1984, at the end of my course, I discovered Nichiren Buddhism. The first test of this inspiring religion was to find a job. Three months later, after lots of chanting and job applications, I was on my way to India to work for a local NGO in Maharashtra.
When I left India three years later, I left behind a team of local technicians who could build small dams and install boreholes. I felt very strongly that marginalized communities had all the skills they needed to look after their own water supplies; what was lacking was unity and political will. Despite notable successes by grassroots lobbying groups, there are still millions living in urban slums and rural communities who have little or no access to safe water and sanitation.
In 1990, after working on various other water projects, I got my first properly paid job for Oxfam in Somaliland. That year and a half was a pivotal period in my life--never had I witnessed such anarchy. If armed men decided to steal your car, there was nobody you could run to: no police, no army, nothing. After installing a borehole in a village, another group would attempt to loot the equipment, and a gunfight with the local militia would ensue; people got killed. I have often reflected on what we could have done differently, such as using less lootable equipment, but the technical options were limited.
Even though it was my harshest deployment, amidst all the violence and chaos were some outstanding people who never lost hope however bad it got--a lesson to us all. I grew up a lot during that time, witnessing the consequences of my decisions. I learned the hard way that unless all sections of a community are properly consulted, an intervention can lead to more violence and bloodshed. These tough lessons prepared me well for working in Central Africa after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
I had been working for three years in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi when I became part of an Oxfam team providing water and sanitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1994 a genocide was perpetrated by Hutu militias in Rwanda. Later, as the conflict developed, Hutus fled en masse into neighboring countries, creating a refugee crisis of hundreds of thousands of people. For three arduous years, pursued at every step, they fled north away from Rwanda.
I encountered many of these people at different camps along the way, hearing stories of more atrocities, their numbers growing smaller each time I met them. Finally, the UNHCR arranged to fly them back to Rwanda.
One night, we were called to attend to a coal train bringing the "last of the Rwandan Hutus" to their flight. Just after setting out, their train had been stopped by other Hutus fleeing machete-wielding militias. They had piled onto the open trucks until the people below died from suffocation. My task was to unbolt the sides of the coal trucks and get the bodies out. I felt for their pulse and put the dead to the right and the living to the left.
The survivors just looked on. They had survived, but for what? To be taken back to Rwanda and tried for war crimes. I have never since seen people look like this. They had a docile blank look, a total lack of hope. I reflected that night that to inspire hope in ourselves and others must be the key to forging a better future for us all. This is why I persevere with my work and my Buddhist practice.
After that, I was relieved to leave Central Africa for a while and took assignments providing water and sanitation in various countries in Asia, Latin America, West Africa and the former Soviet Union. In 2002, I became Oxfam's global water and sanitation team leader.
In my present job, the global challenge of ensuring better water and sanitation is enormous. We are so far behind in meeting international targets on water and sanitation that any shocks to the system such as conflict or natural disasters have a huge impact. There is some progress: when I first joined Oxfam, we just did water projects; now we always combine water with public health education and sanitation. Recently we have integrated projects that also support the ways that people make a living so that they have the money to sustain their systems.
It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the slowness of change in some of the poorest communities in the world. I returned recently to Liberia after 10 years and found nothing had changed at all. Small communities find it incredibly difficult to even maintain a handpump. Though trained and given tools by NGOs, they still have to buy spare parts--even more difficult now as food costs rise. Unless these community maintenance groups are linked into local government structures, there is little chance of sustainability.
Yet costs are continually being cut for rural water authorities, and privatization focuses on people who can pay. As population density increases, even traditional, cheap water systems such as the open well need chemical treatment. There are no magic bullets; technology helps, but it cannot solve all these problems. More often than not the problems are political. We will see progress when governments are held accountable for providing safe water and sanitation to all their people.
The inequality of aid is another challenge we all face. I was in Aceh, Indonesia, immediately after the 2004 tsunami, and the generosity of the public and donor response was unprecedented. Yet the post-tsunami health threats were nowhere near what people face in Darfur and Chad where there is never enough money (or political will) to improve their conditions.
Looking toward future trends, a host of challenging issues are coming our way: climate change (4 percent of Bangladesh is predicted to be underwater by 2020, displacing up to 4 million people), population increase (predicted to be 5 percent by 2050) and urbanization, increasing at such an alarming rate that urban slums are now the largest areas where people are prone to water- and sanitation-related diseases. At Oxfam, we are preparing, in terms of appropriate equipment, for an increase in extreme weather conditions such as flooding, hurricanes and droughts, and a small increase of in-country conflicts (due to resource scarcity), while hoping for a reduction in international conflicts.
Facing the water challenges alone is going to take an unprecedented degree of cooperation and coordination between governments, the UN and NGOs. Even more, for any political system to make sustained changes and prevent catastrophe, a shift is needed in the way that ordinary people view and relate to the world, addressing what Buddhists call the three poisons: greed, anger and foolishness. The hope for the future then comes from the fact that we are all, as individuals, capable of change and by changing ourselves the world will change in ways that are difficult to imagine right now.
[Courtesy of SGI Quarterly, July 2008]