In a lively conference in early September, members of national and state governments, technical advisors, and programme beneficiaries gathered to review the progress made and discuss where to go from here
Celebrate, reflect, and conclude
As the Water for Eastern Equatoria project in South Sudan comes to a close, a consolidation conference was held in Torit, South Sudan, from 10-11 September to look at lessons learned and discuss possible next steps. The six-year project has had an exciting and successful run so there was a lot to celebrate and talk about. Despite project interruptions caused by outbreaks of violence, most of the programme’s important goals have been met: more than 300,000 people in Torit and Kapoeta States gained access to clean water; 20,000 farmers are now able to better cultivate livestock and crops; and the region’s water resources are being better managed by trained and committed local staff and users. While Water for Eastern Equatoria’s activities included activities as diverse as training farmers, supporting women’s cooperatives in poultry production, building toilets, and drilling new boreholes, the overall objective was to change how the South Sudanese in Torit and Kapoeta States interact with and manage their water resources.
As a testament both to the practical impact of the programme and the enthusiasm among stakeholders at all levels, more than 100 people gathered in Torit for the conference. From farmers to government ministers, everyone had a chance to tell their story and contribute to the dialogue.
Water is essential... life depends on water.
Despite the heat, the conference was a lively affair conducted in a mix of English and Arabic for the benefit of local participants.
The success of the Water for Eastern Equatoria project was not a foregone conclusion. Just six weeks after Phase I began on 1 November 2013, a civil war broke out in South Sudan. This conflict devastated the country and led to the withdrawal of international organisations including the NIRAS technical support team for safety reasons. When the project team returned to the region in 2014, local populations faced even more challenges in accessing water and sustaining health and livelihoods than they had before – and yet again in 2016, the team was withdrawn for several months as the situation deteriorated.
To recover from these setbacks, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which funded the project, gave the team the freedom and flexibility needed to refine and adjust their approach for phase two, which commenced November 2016. Ole Stokholm Jepsen, the team leader responsible for NIRAS technical assistance, described this as an invaluable first step in getting back on track – and at the conference, nearly every speech began with a heartfelt thanks to the Dutch government and people.
Coming “down to the ground” to find a way forward
Even with this flexibility, how did the programme end up having so many notable successes despite the challenges? The Deputy Governor of Torit State, Dr. Margaret Itto told the conference “I have seen a lot of projects, but this one, I can talk a lot about.” In her opinion, it was so successful because it “came down to the ground with its commitment. It involved community mobilisation, so the community owned it.” Having worked in government at the state level for many years, Dr. Margaret spoke from deep experience. “Other projects just come without explaining to the community what they are about, so people see that it belongs to [the implementing organisation], not us. But right from the beginning this project came down to the ground.” This sense of ownership proved to be a key theme, and was revisited throughout the conference as a major reason for the programme’s successes.
Dr. Margaret Itto, Deputy Governor of Torit State, was one of the earliest champions of the programme.
From the beginning, the direction of the project was determined in a truly consultative process with the local communities. In closing remarks at the conference, Mr. Jepsen put it this way: “We have shared some ideas from our experience of what can work and what cannot work … in a participatory dialogue with all of you, with the stakeholders at all levels. You were the ones who actually decided what you would like us to try and go ahead with.”
In practical terms, this meant choosing interventions with the right approach that could make a difference to the local communities right away. Rather than purchasing tractors for local farmers, for example, the project helped provide ox ploughs – because the tractors would have sat unused due to lack of fuel, skills and maintenance costs.
Hearing every voice in the room
Key national government officials participated in the conference, traveling to Torit to deliver remarks and underscoring their long-term involvement. Representatives from several national- and state-level ministries contributed to the conversation. Alier Bullen Ngong Oka, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, noted the importance of bringing a regional approach to the management of water resources. “The watershed has got to be protected … you have water flowing from upstream in the catchment, to the mid-level, to the lower parts. In all these sections you have activities, farming, irrigation, fishing, livestock watering and water for drinking.”
That’s why – while the first programme activities involved small steps which local communities could take – another key component of the programme included the establishment of the Kenneti Catchment Management Committee (KCMC) to provide integrated water resource management (IWRM) along the entire Kenneti River Catchment. Peter Mahal Dhieu Akat, the Director General of Rural Water Supply and Sanitation at the national level, told the attendees “I can see the reality now … the expertise [has been] brought into the localities, and the capacities built on local ground.”
Left: Alier Bullen Ngong Oka, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, was among several senior government officials who spoke at the conference. Right: Participants were invited to visit the KCMC office in Torit which will continue operations after the programme comes to an end.
But government officials were just some of those who spoke during the conference. Project beneficiaries were equally ebullient and vocal about the importance and value of the project for their lives in ways large and small. Lagua Jilda is the Treasurer of a Water Management Committee supported by the programme – composed mostly of women from the community, these committees collect fees for the use of water to be able to pay for repair and maintenance service of the water pump or borehole and thus sustain availability. She told the conference that since her village’s borehole and pump had been repaired, “the community has been so grateful, they have started contributing towards water management,” and had established a plan for long-term investment in their shared water resources. In just three months, nearly SSP 15,000 (€105) has been collected, and other Water Management Committees have recorded as much as SSP 120,000 (€845) in contributions in a year.
Left: Lagua Jilda (second from left) poses with the cash box from the local Water Management Committee Right: The amount of cash collected in contributions demonstrates the ownership local communities feel.
Emidio Regol is a ‘progressive’ or model farmer who for the past year has received support from the project to adopt new farming techniques and technology. Though he’s only been making these changes for a short period, he says he can already use the additional revenue for “expanding and making the whole thing more sustainable. And above all, part of it goes to the house for feeding, paying for school fees, paying for medical fees, and even improving nutrition … in the old days, sometimes eating chicken was a problem, but these days, it’s no problem.” Beyond the direct impact on Emidio and his family, the progressive farmers have been able to supply the marketplaces of Torit with fresh and locally grown produce – at a fraction of the price of imported produce.
Emidio Regol works hard to improve his small plot of land with support from the programme, cultivating watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, and more – he’s not afraid of hard work, even at the age of 68.
Sustaining progress and identifying next steps
While much of the conference was dedicated to celebrating the achievements and reviewing progress, it also served a forward-looking function. Consolidating lessons learned and thinking about ways to sustain the results were important topics to address. For government officials, one key takeaway from the programme was that as a National pilot, Water for Eastern Equatoria project and implemented in Torit and Kapoeta State’s proved the viability of integrated water resource management in South Sudan, in particular when combined with locally-adapted practical innovations and interventions. According to the Honourable Undersecretary, “In this area, the challenges are greatest, and that’s why we started piloting it in Torit and Kapoeta. … We believe it can be replicated – and with the same level of success.”
On a more local – but no less important – scale, beneficiaries see a future putting what they have learned to good use. With just a year of project support under his belt, Mr. Regol says exuberantly “I’m two hundred times better off now” than when the project started – “and I may get this for three or four years!”
Conference presenters and participants took part in lively discussions during the two day event.
While the project may be ending, it has left behind a great deal of local knowledge, capacity, and motivation to improve management of water resources on the part of communities and governments. It has laid the groundwork for a slow movement out of dependency culture, created over decades of conflict and fostered by long-running emergency and humanitarian aid. Beginning with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands encouraging a flexible and adaptable approach, continuing on to the NIRAS technical team’s involvement of the local community from day one, and carried to the finish line by the unwavering support of the South Sudanese government and local communities, Water for Eastern Equatoria has been a great success in both its immediate objectives and in longer-term transformation in the communities.
As the Honourable Deputy Governor Dr. Itto concluded, “I’m a blessed person to have witnessed this project right from its birth to today. The testimonies are real, and it is something that can take us far as South Sudanese.”