This week the Humanitarian Engineering Program along with EWB/B2P, the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and ReNUWIt Research Center brought Jeff Walters from CU Boulder, their first guest Lecture of the semester. Jeff is a PHD candidate in Civil Systems Engineering at the University of Colorado and is a Mortenson Fellow in Engineering for Developing Communities (EDC).
Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A System Dynamics Based Methodology for Sustainable Rural Water Services in Developing Countries was the title of this weeks lecture. To begin, Mr. Walters started “in the trees.” It may be difficult to see any forest when projects are constantly failing, water projects in rural communities in particular have a low success rate, “30% fail within 2 to 5 years.” After graduating, Jeff started working with Engineers Without Borders to to put his new engineering skills to the test in developing countries. Many of his first few projects failed, but knowing this was the nature of projects in rural communities and that “failure is systematic,” he didn’t let this slow him down. Jeff and a friend started “Second Mile Water.” This organization not only wanted to get people water, it also “goes the second mile” and keeps the water projects going and sustainable. Jeff left the organization and decided to go back to school to get his PhD in this issue.
Today there are many groups and organizations that go to developing countries to install clean water sources and other infrastructure to help encourage development. After the groups and organizations put in the systems, the next issue and step to tackle is getting these new systems to be sustainable in the communities. Jeff saw that he had two options to going about this problem, he could “take the red pill or the blue pill.” The red pill being a linear approach, looking at indicators, and scoring them together. Jeff saw two big areas related to the red pill he did not like, firstly a linear approach is linear and second the data collected is not based on time. As a result Jeff took the blue pill or a systems approach, allowing him to see the “forest through the trees.”
The Systems approach is heavily weighted in the use and creation of models. Jeff is using the System Dynamic Modeling is a type of model used to describe economics and implications of complex business pursuits, to try and explain his findings. The project was broken into five steps. Step one is the problem statement: Inability to plan for and evaluate the systematic influences that affect sustainability of rural water projects; the purpose being to investigate and model these dynamic influences. Step two is where things start to heat up a little bit and also where Jeff is in the process, going through hundreds of academic articles relating the project and from this creating a dynamic hypothesis. Next comes step three, model building/simulating. To complete this step Jeff reached out to 40 different experts on developing countries water projects with a survey, to see what they think about different areas affecting developing rural water project as a whole, so far the experts and Jeff have only be able to reach a consensus on five of the sixty questions. From this tremendous amount of data, Jeff will complete steps four and five, creating a code for all of this and drawing references from it.
What it all comes down to is trying to create a model for culture and how it relates to the sustainability and success of the implementation of developing country’s water projects. Jeff Walter’s conclusion from this project could be the key to seeing the forest of issues related to sustainable water projects in developing countries instead of just each individual problem or tree.