Last week, Zimbabwe joined the world in commemorating Humanitarian Day in honour of thousands of aid workers who put their lives on the line to assist others in times of disasters and need.
The celebrations ran under the theme: “Women Humanitarians”, putting to focus the dedication by female humanitarians in their line of duty.
The Sunday Mail Gender and Community Affairs Editor Fatima Bulla and reporter Daphne Machiri caught up with an unsung humanitarian female hero, Mrs Takudzwa Chihanga (34) who is Oxfam in Zimbabwe water engineer. She is credited for spearheading a solar-powered piped water system that has improved access to water for women and girls who previously walked long distances to fetch water. Mrs Chihanga holds a first degree in Agriculture Engineering and a Masters Degree in Water Resource Management.
Question: You have shown that women can break barriers by venturing into spheres traditionally thought to be a preserve for men. Can you tell us more about your occupation?
Answer: I deal with anything that has to do with water, that is, water surveying or hydrological surveys; this is establishing where to set up water infrastructure.
Then there is water testing, yield capacity of the particular water sources to see if there is sufficient water and a look at the water quantity and quality. When we are looking at the water quantity, we need to see if it is sufficient to serve the population that it is intended for. With water quality we establish to see if it is safe and portable for human consumption. I also deal with human management, probably supervision of contractors doing the actual work. Then more importantly, I also physically assist those doing the work like trenching, earth-filling, pipe laying and other plumbing duties.
Q: Tell us about the solar powered water project?
A: We all agree we are experiencing the effects of climate change. There are many things that we used to do that are no longer possible. As such, when we are doing our work or designing certain infrastructure we now take certain aspects into considerations.
For example, we need to look at how the water infrastructure we are setting up can be affected, negatively or positively, by the new weather patterns. I have worked for other organisations on water systems that are diesel or electricity powered. But with the local shortages and cost of electricity and diesel, it calls for alternative thinking. That is why I have decided to capture green energy which is readily available in Zimbabwe.
It was a question of how best can we harness solar energy in water pumping systems. We said, let us resort to the use of solar energy in pumping water so that people have access to this resource.
Q: What is the target group for this project?
A: The project currently targets women, especially in the rural areas. We are trying to reduce the burden and the time that women and girls spend in fetching water for care work. When I say care work, it is in reference to household chores; laundry, cooking, firewood collection and other duties that are “normally” prescribed for women and girls. We are trying to erase the stereotypical nature of our systems where society ascribes certain duties on the basis of one’s sex.
We don’t want women spending more time fetching water, but we want the resource to be available at the homestead so that they also get time for social interaction with their counterparts. We have noted that most rural girls drop out of school to undertake care work. Our research shows that many rural women and girls spend up to six hours daily doing work that involves water.
That is why there is this drive to reduce the burden through provision of water. We then moved in to avail tap water to women and girls in rural areas. We want then to travel shorter distances to access water or probably give them an opportunity to open a tap and access water within their yards. That is how I came up with the solar powered water project.
Q: To what extent has this project reduced the burden women and girls face in fetching water?
A: I have worked on solar water piped system projects with Oxfam Zimbabwe in different provinces in which I can say we have achieved a lot towards attaining sustainable development goals and empowering women to access clean, safe and portable water.
I think indeed we have achieved our objectives because from our evaluations, the project has reduced the burden on women and girls. You find, for example, in Summerton, Masvingo, there used to be a manual hand pump borehole where one person would need 15 to 20 minutes to fill a 20 litre bucket because the queue would be long. But now because the system is now tapped, the queues have disappeared.
Q: Can you explain how this system works and how many households have benefited so far?
A: Basically, we have a system that uses solar panels to capture sunlight and convert it into electricity. That energy is then used to run a submersible pump which draws water into an overhead reservoir.
From there, the water is channelled through pipes to taps closer to households. Each water system takes up to two weeks to install and we have successfully implemented the project in Gutu, Masvingo, Zvishavane and Bubi districts. In terms of beneficiaries, they vary because of different setups of communities. I can say for Masvingo, we had about 8 000 people from various villages benefiting and these represent an average 1 000 households. There is also a primary school, clinic and business centre that are also getting tap water.
We involve the communities and even get additional labour from them. This instils a sense of ownership and in the event of breakdowns, they can attend to the faults.
We also make it a point that the trenching and earth filling work should be left to the benefiting community. I should say when we involve members of the community to undertake some of the work, we have not had an encouraging participation from women considering this programme is expected to empower them. We have noticed that whenever a project targets rural communities, men tend to be on the forefront especially where labour is required for an incentive. But we are coming up with measures to address this so that our target — women — get the utmost benefit.
Q: Do you think authorities or policy makers are doing enough to utilise renewable energy.
A: Renewable energy is something we need to take up. It is costly at initial stages, but once adopted, it has huge benefits and is economic. Most solar systems have a guarantee of up to 25 years and this shows how durable the equipment is. I believe we need Government subsidies so that we can invest more in solar equipment.
Q: Finally, how do you manage to balance your career and role in the home?
A: It is challenging considering that the work is strenuous and time demanding. I am always on the move. Being a mother of three, I am also expected to take care of the family. Responsibilities may be too much, but I have to be strong. I thank my husband for supporting me. I am also grateful to my employer who has given me flexible working conditions as I am currently nursing a two month old baby. Whenever I travel, I am allowed to take my child and maid along. That is great motivation for me to continue changing lives.