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UV light is helping to ensure clean drinking water in Sierra Leone in West Africa

Group picture in front of water tower

Kjeld Jensen

Watertower in Nomo Faama, Kenema district

Watertower in Pottor, Freetown


By: Denise Abrahamsen

A newsletter from Engineers Without Borders (EWB-DK) drew Kjeld Jensen’s focus to Sierra Leone.

‘In 2018, EWB-DK was looking for someone who could help send home data from structures supplying drinking water because they didn’t know when the structures had broken down or for how long they had been out of service. Therefore, they didn’t know how long the people of Sierra Leone had lived with unsafe drinking water,’ says Kjeld Jensen.

‘The goal is to use engineering to do something good,’ he adds, pointing out that ‘a good way to do that is by constructing drinking water supplies.

Access to clean drinking water is fundamental for all people, but there are still many people who don’t have it.’

When the infrastructure supplying drinking water, such as water towers and water pumps, becomes defective, the population either has to walk long distances to reach clean drinking water or drink surface water, which often leads to diarrhoea and vomiting. Therefore, Kjeld Jensen, along with a team of engineers, has produced a prototype of a monitor that sends consumption data, etc. to the Internet, so that water towers can be monitored, and action can be taken when they break down.

‘In 2016, a study by the government and the UN showed that 65.5% of the water towers and water pumps in Sierra Leone were functional; the rest were defective,’ says Kjeld Jensen and points out that the problem is that a professional is needed to repair the drinking water supplies, as the population currently has neither the ability nor the resources to do so themselves.

Watertower in Gandorhun

Break down bacteria with UV light

What we have done at SDU is to work with Engineers Without Borders to keep an eye on drinking water supplies, to start with in Sierra Leone. In addition, we have started conducting experiments to purify the drinking water from existing water supplies using UV light.

Kjeld Jensen, The Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute

This experiment is being conducted in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

The first experiments have already been initiated, and data show that UV light purifies the water effectively, but the challenge lies in getting the population to use it.

‘The UV light doesn’t technically remove the bacteria, but it breaks them down and makes sure they don’t do any harm and can’t multiply,’ he explains.

So far, data show that disinfection via UV light has reduced the number of faecal bacteria by a factor of 15. Faecal bacteria end up in drinking water because cities typically have no sewage system. Therefore, bacteria often land in the drinking water well via rainwater.

‘Technically, the installation works, but we need to use it some more so that we also build up experience with how it actually functions,’ Kjeld Jensen explains.

Today, many water towers are produced with built-in UV disinfection. The next project will be to investigate how best to install UV technology in the old water towers so that they can also produce clean drinking water.

The population must own the project themselves

An important aspect of the project is that it does not have a commercial aim. Instead, the aim is for the people of Sierra Leone to manage and have ownership of the drinking water supplies themselves. However, management is associated with a number of complications:

‘One of the big challenges is that when you come up with a solution that can help a population, for example, in Africa, if they don’t take ownership of it themselves, it’ll just fall apart,’ says Kjeld Jensen.

And that is what they are working on right now.

‘We’ve succeeded in being able to send data home,’ says Kjeld Jensen, and continues: ‘But we haven’t actually come that far yet, because we still need to find the right model for how operations and servicing, etc. can best take place in practice.’

Therefore, it is also important that the population takes ownership of the water supplies. In this way, not only will clean drinking water be ensured in Sierra Leone but work and training opportunities will also be created.

‘Only the population can find the right solutions for themselves. What we can do from SDU is to help them with new technology and pass on our knowledge,’ says Kjeld Jensen and explains that he is currently in the process of establishing online teaching at a university in Sierra Leone.

‘We are trying to help in a way that they themselves have a chance to maintain drinking water supplies, so we’re trying to train them to be able to do it too, and we go to the universities because they’re quite skilled down there,’ says Kjeld Jensen, explaining that the inhabitants of Sierra Leone are very entrepreneurial, have an interest in creating a business and want to make money.

In this connection, he also points out that they have the right attitude – to the extent that they are able:

‘If you can help them and facilitate things, then you actually do the best for them, because then they are the ones who have ownership, and they are responsible.’

Financial resources blocking the way for repairing water supplies

It is currently rainy season in Sierra Leone, and the population puts buckets on the rooftops to collect rainwater that they can use for washing. Kjeld Jensen points out that ‘if they have to pay for drinking water, they will of course conserve it.’

The water tower in the village of Gandorhun, Sierra Leone, supplies approximately 2,300 people, and from this tower water flows out to 4–5 taps from which the population can draw water.

In most places, villagers pay either per container they pick up or pay a fixed fee per family per month. Therefore, money is collected in the villages to pay for the drinking water, as the resources are otherwise not large.

‘There’s actually an NGO from the US down there that’s pretty good at making water – they do insurance schemes,’ Kjeld Jensen explains.

‘The difficult thing is to get the population to prioritise that now that these water towers have been built, they also need to be maintained. The challenge is to make them understand that it’s just as important to set aside money for upcom-ing repairs as it is to set aside money for what is needed right now,’ he says.

Through insurance schemes, local businesses and professionals will be able to handle any repairs. Therefore, it is in the interest of Kjeld Jensen and EWB-DK that the people of Sierra Leone are trained to be able to carry out these tasks themselves.

Clean water and sanitation do not stand alone

As the above also suggests, the SDGs are often linked.

On the one hand, Kjeld Jensen also advocates for education as the way for the people of Sierra Leone to gain ownership of drinking water supplies and thus create labour, further education and clean drinking water in the country.

On the other hand, drinking water supplies mean that fewer people have to live with unsafe drinking water and the associated health consequences.

According to the official website for the SDGs, more than 1,300 children die daily due to diarrhoea caused by unsafe drinking water.

From this, it is clear how SDGs #3 (Health for all), #4 (Quality education) and #6 (Clean water and sanitation) are connected, as clean water and sanitation are of utmost importance for health, and to maintain well-functioning drinking water supplies quality education is a crucial factor.
The work in Sierra Leone is far from over but has taken one step closer to ensuring universal access to clean and affordable drinking water.

Follow the project in Sierra Leone

Do you want to keep yourself updated with the watertowers in Sierra Leone? Click on the link below. EWB Water Monitor is developed by Engineers Without Borders and SDU.

EWB Water monitor

Last Updated 27.01.2023