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A couple weeks ago Melissa and I attended the Canadian Water Network’s Connecting Water Resources Conference with the theme of “From Knowledge to Action.” The conference focused on three key aspects of water: Blue Cities, Resource Development and Agriculture, and Small and Aboriginal Communities. Unfortunately this blog post is lacking in water-themed puns but I would like to point out that nearly half the delegates each day did wear blue coloured clothing.

I became interested in water management after a co-op placement last summer with the Tingathe Fellowship, a program started by the WASHCatalysts venture of Engineers Without Borders. The Tingathe Fellowship provides districts who apply with an idea to improve service delivery of rural water supply with a short term embedded support. I worked with the District Water Development Office of Machinga, Liwonde, Malawi with their idea to develop a communication system to motivate and support local Area Mechanics, volunteers who repair boreholes in their traditional authority areas, by utilizing local community structures already in place. Melissa Nielsen, who also worked for Tingathe in Thyolo district, and I presented about our work at the conference during the poster session under the Small and Aboriginal Communities conference stream.

What struck me most during the conference was the commitment of all of the speakers to improving water management here in Canada and how similar the challenges and opportunities here are to those in Malawi. I attended most of the Small and Aboriginal Communities sessions and was inspired by the work of the operators, consultants, government workers, professors, Assembly of First Nations members, and Band Councillors. My key take-away, to quote Keith Smith from the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada, is that “if it’s not driven by the community, it’s not going to work.” This is consistent with the work of WASHCatalysts, and, though it seems to be obvious, forgetting this important concept has led to many problems here in Canada and abroad.

Part of our poster presentation was analysing whether the Tingathe Fellowship structure could be transferred to a Canadian context. I noticed that governance challenges, proper community consultation, and above all, communication, are at the forefront of so many environmental and social concerns all over the world, so perhaps an embedded support staff supporting locally-generated ideas could be beneficial here too. I almost left the room when Cecilia Brooks, Assembly of First Nations Chiefs and Water Grandmother at the Canadian Rivers Institute, noted that sometimes funding from the national level to reserves for water operations can come very late. This is one of the biggest challenges facing districts in Malawi and it seems that the solutions to consistent funding should be so ridiculously straightforward. I do think it is simplistic and orientalist (“othering” of non-‘Western’ cultures) to be surprised that we in Canada have similar issues to Malawi, but it still makes me frustrated that these issues are present everywhere.

Below I have listed some of my “thinking points” and how it relates back to my district’s work in Liwonde. In my opinion, these points are incredibly important for anyone who wants to work in the public service, engineering, consulting, and environmental management.

  1. Heather Castleden, professor at Queen’s University, urged the attendees to question how the work we are doing is actually useful in the real world. I think this is crucial for everyone, particularly those who are at school, because it can be easy to lose sight of actual realities of people on the ground. This reminded me of a question my coach asked me while in Liwonde-is this plan truly the most effective? Sometimes you get excited by an idea and go forward without really thinking if it is truly the “only way”. Though I think it is very important to try new things and take risks, we must constantly monitor and evaluate our work and stay in touch with what is actually needed and wanted in this world.
  2. Smith also noted that co-creation is key. Any development must come from within the community and there must be a local champion to take lead. This is exactly the goal of the Tingathe Fellowship.
  3. Do not be prescriptive. This sums up the first two points. I think when we are in school or in a work placement, we can let our power go to our head; we have been studying or working in a certain field for so long that we start to believe our way is the only way. It’s about respect and not telling people what you think is needed.
  4. Resilience is the main goal. A “systems approach” truly is the only way to make lasting change and this aligns with WASH’s values of continued service delivery.
  5. Do not have any preconceived notions. About the people or context you are working within, but also about the plans or policies that are hoped to be enacted. Too often I think we rely on the assumption that the plan will work or that this is the “best” way, which leads to blind action and challenges down the road.

To summarize, it’s all about collaboration and taking a holistic, adaptive, respectful, and contextual approach. Listening to and allowing whoever you are working for and with to take a lead role and looking far into the future – the “Seventh Generation” principle-is the most important. At first it seems like policy makers, consultants, and extractive industry professionals should go back to kindergarten to re-learn these basic skills, but when deadlines, resource constraints, and the ego of academics and professionals get in the way, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important.

For a process of decolonization, sustainable resource management, and development, it’s obvious that policies of coordination, environmental protection, self-determination, and consent are needed. This must be reflected in policy and companies’ culture where these activities could be incentivized from the upper level, but also must be taught in all courses at school so we grow leaders that have a full understanding of these issues and have humility in their work.

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