Tim Larson, a retired geoscientist from the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), brought his four decades of experience in locating groundwater in Illinois to connect people in four African villages to fresh water. Although Larson originally began traveling to Africa through church mission trips, he eventually developed relationships with colleagues at Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi, and obtained funding from Geoscientists without Borders for a two-year project in Malawi, where nearly 4 million people lack access to clean water according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“I’ve always been moved to do water resources research as my career and helping people find water is what I’ve done for 40 years. And in Malawi, it was an obvious need that people had, and I was excited to have the expertise to help do that,” said Larson.
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In 2018, Larson completed the project to help build sustainable water wells in four remote villages in Malawi, and fund three graduate students in the process. A research paper documenting this project has been accepted into a special edition on Humanitarian Geosciences in the journal GEOPHYSICS, which will be available in print in January 2022.
“In the paper, we talk about our approach of combining natural and social science tools to optimize the location of new water wells,” said Larson. “Typically humanitarian projects use either natural science or social science tools, but not both, which usually is not successful long-term. With our combined approach we had a high initial success rate -- all four wells produced good water-- and all wells were still operating a year later.”
According to Larson, scientists usually take a top-down approach, which involves sending out a crew to find the water and drilling a well where the water is located, despite the fact that it may not be convenient to the village or align with the often-complex social ecosystems.
Larson and his colleagues Zuze Dulanya, a University of Malawi geologist, and Evance Mwathunga, a geographer and social scientist on the project, found that changing how you scout potential water well locations can change the entire dynamic of the water resource system. Mwathunga worked one-on-one to engage local villagers in the process. To avoid any bias, Larson didn’t attend those meetings.
And in a few of those boreholes, this bottom-up approach changed the outcome.
“It took me a while to learn this with the top-down approach, but if you just drill a water well then there’s no ownership of the well from the village,” said Larson. “We wanted to give the villagers ownership and engage them in the process, so they would have interest in maintaining the well.”
According to Larson, every well has its own story about using this community-oriented approach, but each outcome was the same – a success.
“Ultimately, we listened, honored, and respected the people’s wishes and we greatly benefitted from their rich knowledge about their geosystems and that they were strong partners in the process,” said Larson. “They weren’t just clients; they were an integral part of this process.”
Soon after the construction of the wells, Larson and his team hosted public seminars to educate people about the mechanics of the wells and how to maintain them.
“From a scientific standpoint, I learned a lot about how my instruments respond and the geophysical markers, but more importantly, I learned how to work and interact cross-culturally,” said Larson.
Larson hopes this paper will help those working in the humanitarian community understand and implement this approach and recreate it to build a sustainability mindset.
He plans to return to Malawi after the COVID-19 pandemic.