Safe Water and Orphan Support in Southwestern Uganda by Sophie Watson

Lake Bunyoni
Photo by Ruth Linka


The Lake Bunyonyi Development Company (LBDC) was developed in partnership with the Church of Uganda, the Africa Community Technical Service (ACTS), a Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO), and the Lake Bunyonyi community of southwestern Uganda. The LBDC represents a harmonious relationship between Canadian and African partners, offering a holistic approach to sustainable development—tailoring projects to suit the environment and the community. In 1993, the LBDC started Bushara Island Camp as an income-generating campground whose revenues would go to supporting community development. The Canadian involvement in this initiative has come largely in the form of human investment. Over the years ACTS has sent Canadians to Bushara to do training with the Ugandan team as well as interns to work on ACTS’ water project initiatives. Missionaries Tim and Joanne Specht went to Bushara in 1997. As directors of the camp their mission was to develop the camp, provide training to the staff and oversee local community projects such as water projects and orphan-care programs in the surrounding area.

The most important criteria for the proposed projects is that they be sustainable and that they generate revenue to support orphans.

Uganda was once known as the pearl of Africa but during Amin and Obote’s regimes, the country’s economy plummeted and human rights violations soared to horrifying levels. Since 1986, President Museveni has gone a long way to stabilize and improve conditions in Uganda though the country’s GNP per capita is only $170—the seventh lowest in the world. Agriculture is the most important sector of the Ugandan economy, employing between 80-90% of the workforce. Women are responsible for up to 80% of the agricultural production, which involves both subsistence and cash crops. Two of Uganda’s most immediate problems are the increasing number of orphans and the limited access to safe drinking water for much of the population. ACTS and the LBDC tackle both of these issues admirably; their homegrown approach is sustainable because it maximizes existing Ugandan resources.

Orphan-Care Program

There are currently almost one million orphans in Uganda under the age of 15 who have lost their mother or both parents to AIDS. There are also a large number of orphans as a result of malaria, typhoid and other illnesses. In rural Africa, orphanages do not exist. Orphans are absorbed by their relatives and their communities. ACTS and the LBDC are concerned with the growing number of orphans and have decided to use business promotion as a means of helping the orphans. The idea motivating the LBDC’s orphan-care program is that by helping the orphans’ guardians you help the orphans for the long term.

The LBDC’s first orphan-care program started in 1998 after Benon Mugisha, an employee of the LBDC, died and was survived by his wife Loid and two children Penelope and Peterson. The LBDC met with the guardians of Bufuka and offered to start an orphan-care program in their community. After many meetings with the LBDC the Bufuka committee decided to start a milling machine business. The LBDC provided the revenue for the capital cost of the machine and its installation, and the community built a structure to house the machine. In August 2000, they started to operate the milling machine. It has been a great learning experience for all partners.

The LBDC is now initiating similar orphan-care programs in other communities. They approach guardians in particularly needy communities and ask if they want to start a project to help support their orphans. The community and the guardians form a committee that will work with the LBDC to put together a constitution as well as two project proposals. The constitution will clearly outline what an orphan is and how much project revenue must go to their orphans in the form of money or school fees. The LBDC and the committee will spend 6 months working through the proposals and then one of the two will be chosen and the LBDC will fund the project by providing the initial startup costs. The LBDC’s role in the proposal process is to ask questions that will help determine which project will be the most manageable and will yield the highest return. The most important criteria for the proposed projects is that they be sustainable and that they generate revenue to support orphans. Once the project is approved, the guardians start a business with the initial capital that the LBDC provides. The committee is accountable and is monitored at monthly meetings that the LBDC attends. Besides monitoring, the LBDC provides business training. What distinguishes this kind of initiative in the context of development work is that it really is hands on for the clients—they develop their own project to suit their needs. The LBDC is essentially there to help and advise. Once a year with the revenues from Bushara Island Camp the LBDC starts one or two more orphan programs.

local students from neighbour island
Photo by Ruth Linka

inside the classroom, students sing for us
Photo by Ruth Linka

Water Projects

The UN’s worldwide goal is that every person in the world has access to safe drinking water within a walking distance of 100 meters. ACTS works to provide a safe, dependable water supply for rural Ugandan communities as well as providing training that will enable projects to be maintained and sustained through generations. Additional training in health (including HIV/AIDS prevention) and sanitation issues, and environmental concerns, complements the technical training.

ACTS’ water project initiatives are mostly gravity feed and very low-tech. This kind of water system works using gravity and pressure; there are no pumps, no high technology. This simple approach means that the water projects are relatively affordable to install and to maintain. It’s a matter of capitalizing on the main existing resource—the hilly countryside. ACTS bring Canadian interns to Uganda to do either technical work (design and construction) or health education for 3-6 months.

Communities in need make a proposal to ACTS for a water project. ACTS goes in and sees whether it is feasible—if there is enough water, how many people they can serve—and then, usually a couple of years later, if ACTS has secured the funding for it, they will go into the community and work with them. The ACTS team is made up of African masons and carpenters who teach the local people about installing a water system, how to glue pipes and do fittings and repairs. This is an essential part of the process because once the ACTS team leaves, the community needs to know how to repair and maintain the pipes and taps.

There needs to be a great deal of cooperation with the community. The community forms a management committee which will represent the community (the water users). ACTS works with the committee to draw up a constitution which will feature a system to manage the project. The community needs to have decided how they will raise money for repairs and for the overall maintenance of the water project.

Gravity-Feed System

The first step with a water project involves locating a water source high up in the hills. The source is tested to see if there is enough water to supply the surrounding community, especially during the dry season when a lot of the springs and swamps dry up. When they find the source, they start by digging around it to find the eye of the source and then they build a catchment area around it to catch the water. From there the water is piped down to tanks where it is gathered. The tanks build up the pressure and act as storage. From the tanks it is piped down into the community usually along several different pipelines. And then in each communities at various spots they will install a tap stand. People still have to walk to get their water, but it is a much shorter distance than before when people were walking several kilometers and getting water from swamps which were quite contaminated. This new water that is piped to these people is not pure, it still needs to be boiled or filtered, but it is much cleaner than what they had before. On average ACTS’ water projects have been 14 km long, serving up to 6000 people. All ACTS projects are designed to have minimal impact on the physical environment.

Canadian Tim Specht
Photo Ruth Linka

Tim showing us the gravitation water system.
Photo: Ruth Linka

Joanne Specht’s first experience working on an ACTS’s water project proved to be quite challenging. The project was in a remote village, almost on the Tanzanian border. “The road there was brutal, just hideous. You needed physiotherapy by the time you got there,” Joanne remembers. “This community was very poor and sick. It had been called a cesspit of disease. There was a malaria epidemic all over Uganda, but it was particularly bad in this area. We lived next to the church and there were funerals every day.” Conditions were so terrible that the villagers could not be convinced that Tim and Joanne were missionary volunteers. The villagers were sure the Spechts must be convicts doing hard labour.

Joanne was primarily in charge of cooking for the ACTS team. Her other, unexpected job became first aid. “We were driving slowly through a trading centre and we saw some children. We noticed this one little girl who had a big burn on her chest that was totally infested and was oozing and there were flies so we stopped and found out where she lived. I came back later with one of our Ugandan team members and I cleaned it and put some ointment on it. I taught her mother how to treat it, because they often don’t know basic health care. I showed them how to use boiled water with a little salt which is a natural disinfectant. Other people then heard that the Muzungu could heal and so people started coming to our gate. This one woman brought her child who was in advanced stages of cerebral malaria which was awful. We took them to the doctor for treatment. The treatment only costs five dollars, but these people can’t afford it. It was too late for this child and she died a few days later. People wait too long, they hope they’ll get better without going to the doctor and so by the time they get there they are often too far gone and they die—it’s a very common thing.”

This was Joanne’s first experience of human suffering on this scale. She recalls, “The day that child died I walked home crying. And then my little friend, the one with the burn on her chest, came and held my hand and walked home with me. That was a real blessing for me to see one person who we had been able to help.”

Joanne Specht walking with teacher/friend from local school.
Photo: Ruth Linka

There are two components of a water project, the technical side and the educational portion. The health education component happens 6 months before a project starts and 4months after. Before a water project goes ahead the health education team made up of Africans and Canadians goes into the community to do a baseline survey to get an idea of what kind of training the community will need. They check for pit latrines, screens on windows, garbage areas and gardens. Once the survey is done the team starts educating the community about water health, agroforestry, basic health care, first aid, aids education and family planning. Sometimes they’ll use theatre to teach: the team will perform educational skits. The whole process from baseline survey to the water system installation and follow-up normally takes 10-12 months (6 months before, 2 building, 2 follow-up).

Participating communities’ knowledge of health, sanitation and environmental concerns increases dramatically over the course of the project. Women, the primary water collectors, have been afforded extra time previously spent in water collection to pursue other activities. Joanne explains: “When we went back to that village you could really notice a difference in the health of the people and the cleanliness of the children because they have clean water now.” Health education, water provision and orphan-care programs such as these can offer true long term development for rural communities. For more information about the LBDC please visit

This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in 2003 in The Ambassador newsletter of The Council of World Affairs.

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