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By John La Roche, a New Zealand engineer and author
Spring Protection is a widely used technique in developing countries to provide safe water supplies.
Conventional treatment of drinking water is not economically feasible for rural populations in developing countries. But the ground is usually an excellent filter for removing bacterial contamination, so springs bubbling up to the surface are an ideal source of water supply. However springs can be easily contaminated by surface water and are often in boggy areas with difficult access.
The first step in protecting a spring is to clean up the whole site by digging drainage trenches. Because the site will probably be boggy, a hardcore working layer is placed first. Over this there is an impervious clay layer. Spring water is collected and channeled through a gravel layer to the discharge pipe in the concrete wall. The pipe is located at a convenient height to enable villagers to fill their containers.
Above and to the sides of the gravel layer a further impervious clay layer is used to keep surface seepage water out. A perimeter drain is also dug to channel storm water away from the spring area. Paved access and concrete steps are constructed to enable villagers to walk down to fill their containers without the risk of slipping. A drain to channel excess water away is also important.
The improvement for villagers collecting their water is enormous. Before a spring is protected, villagers usually have to cope with a muddy hole with steep slippery banks where filling of containers is extremely difficult. You can imagine the difficulties of lifting, and the risk of slipping with a 20-kg container of water out of such a location!
With the new spring protections, villagers can walk down concrete steps, place their container under the discharge pipe and then safely walk out with their load. Water quality, of course, is greatly improved by the elimination of surface contamination.
Villagers take great pride in looking after their new spring protections -- often planting flowering shrubs to beautify the area. A fence is built to keep livestock out, and the grass surrounding the spring is kept well-trimmed. A village committee whose members have been elected to represent all sections of the community, including women, will coordinate the village's efforts. Members first apply for help, then assist in construction, and finally are responsible for maintenance through appointed and trained spring caretakers.
In some locations where spring flows are small, a reservoir chamber is incorporated to enable the water to accumulate in times of low usage such as through the night.
Unimproved springs are often shallow ponds or a stretch of soggy ground. These are sources of contamination in which mosquitoes can breed. Malaria is a real problem throughout Uganda!
The charity Water for Survival, with funds from New Zealand donors, has assisted villages in the Rukungiri District of Uganda in providing spring protections. I visited this project and saw much use of local stone to build the walls, thus minimizing the use of expensive cement. Skilled "fundis" or stonemasons were trained to do the skilled work. Twenty-three fundis have been trained by the Church of Uganda's water unit especially for this work.
Local people are responsible for gathering all the stones, breaking them up (by hand) for concrete aggregate and the gravel drainage layer. Often, villagers will have to cover considerable distances to collect sufficient stones. Villagers also provide all the unskilled labour, accommodation, and food for the fundis and others during construction.
Rukungiri, in the south west of Uganda, is a densely populated rural area where most people earn a living through subsistence agriculture. The main sources of water supply are rivers, swamps, springs, and rainwater.