When the United Nations – that is, the organization that brings the countries of the world to the negotiating table – formulates goals that apply to the whole world, they are generally well thought out and thoroughly discussed. On the issues that affect everyone because we all inhabit the same planet, formulated goals provide important guidance for the governments, which implement them, but also for the non-governmental organizations that use them as a guideline for their actions.
The “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) came into force on January 1st, 2016. They are scheduled for 15 years; they cover no less than 17 areas. Some of the headings already sound very ambitious, for example when “no poverty” and “zero hunger” are promised for the end of this period. But everything suggests setting yourself big goals in the face of great challenges.
MIVA’s procurement company (BBM) works directly to implement the sustainable development goals. We did not wait for the UN target to be formulated, but have been realizing technical projects in rural areas of Africa since 1995. It is about supplying people with water and energy and better equipping hospitals and medical facilities. From the very beginning, the BBM has paid attention to sustainability and ensured that nature and the climate are treated with care. Of the 17 development goals of the UN, four are of central importance for the BBM:
3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulation emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy
Hospital St. Kizito, since 1998
One of the BBM’s first projects in Uganda was the laundry at St. Kizito Hospital in Matany, north-eastern Uganda. An Ebola epidemic in 2000 and 2001 showed that the hospital’s hygiene standards urgently needed to be improved. The main focus was on the laundry. In Matany – as is still the case today in some hospitals in the country – the hospital washes were done by hand and sometimes with cold water. That doesn’t kill bacteria; the risk of transmission of pathogens is great. The BBM installed a solar system that supplied the laundry with hot water. A partition-washing machine that is loaded in one room and unloaded in the other now ensured the necessary hygiene. Ebola has not been an issue for some time. However, the washing machine is getting old. After many repairs, it is still in operation. Due to the old age of the machine, the operation costs increase, so that a new purchase is considered.
St. Kizito has remained an important BBM project partner over the years. The water supply and wastewater treatment have also been modernized. Water tanks, pipe systems, pumps, new toilets and a central plant-based sewage treatment plant enable the recycling of wastewater and have significantly reduced the pollution of the groundwater.
Norbert Demmelbauer, 56, is head of major projects at BBM. He has been active in development cooperation since the age of 21; amongst others, he completed a seven-year engagement in Nicaragua. He began working for BBM on a freelance basis in 1990 and became a regular employee in 1995. Each year, Demmelbauer spends about three months on the road – predominantly in East Africa – monitoring BBM projects, sharing key expert knowledge in training courses and last, but not least, to meet and talk with the people.
You have been here essentially since the beginning. In your view, what were some of the achievements of BBM in the past 25 years?
BBM emerged out of the necessity for technical expertise for aid projects. Development experts very often are lacking technical proficiency. Franz Xaver Kumpfmüller, then managing director, recognized this challenge and consistently set up a new division to specifically address this issue. In the beginning it mostly involved projects where the content was determined by European organizations and missionary orders, whereas now we are predominantly approached directly by the local partners who intend to use our experience. Even in 1997 we were focusing on ecology – long before it was recognized and emphasized as a crucial issue for development cooperation. We install solar-powered water pumps, dry toilets, facilities for biological wastewater purification, and use photovoltaics instead of or in combination with existing generators. Once we have installed our systems in hospitals, schools, radio stations or workshops, people quickly notice improvements in their life situation. The cooling appliances for vaccinations or blood reserves in hospitals can be run on solar energy. Operations become possible at any moment. The lives of many patients suffering from malaria can be saved through oxygen from oxygen concentrators. I could list many more examples.
How mindful does any technician need to be of the culture of the respective country?
The cultural aspect often represents a key factor for the success of a project. Customs and traditions play a vital part in people’s lives. For instance, I have experienced that some societies do not use white mosquito nets since white is the colour of the shroud. With dry toilets we frequently use ash in order to dry faeces more rapidly and increase the pH value. This kills off the pathogenic germs. However, ash carries negative connotations in certain cultural areas. If you are already aware of that, then you can replace the ash with lime.
In what way has the work changed in the past 25 years?
Over the decades, we have gathered a large amount of institutional knowledge and in East Africa we now are able to rely on a local network of excellent technicians who have been trained by us. Engineers from both Europe and East Africa work collaboratively in the planning of the respective projects. Previously, most of the material supplies had to be imported from Europe. This has changed considerably with the establishing of local production facilities. For instance, water pipes are produced in Uganda these days. Their quality is good and they are much cheaper than competing products from Europe. We see it as our task to compare the prices and quality of local and international manufacturers and find the optimal solution for our project partners. Compared to our earlier work we have also increased our consulting services. And we realise a greater number of innovative projects. For example, in the northern region of South Sudan a team of experts under the guidance of BBM planned an energy self-sufficient operating room that is currently in construction. In any case, the projects have become more complex and require longer periods of time.
What has changed in terms of the aid services offered by BBM compared to the founding years?
There has been a shift from mere procurement to more advisory work, training, and concerted planning and realisation. What was and remains important to us is to provide our project partners with access to new, high-grade technology equipment. The African market is flooded with devices that in our region have long become obsolete, yet which are still sold as expensive new equipment. In our projects we rely on new and durable technology and at the same time train the local technicians how to use it. The equipment needs to be understood and maintainable by our local experts since this is the only way to guarantee that the operation span of the devices will last a long time.
What is the reason for BBM’s emphasis on sustainability regarding development cooperation?
The term ‘sustainability’ includes several different aspects. With regard to technical aspects it is primarily the exposure to extreme climatic conditions that will put a strain on the equipment. For instance, some refrigerators that would function perfectly well in Austria have a severely reduced life-span when used in subtropical climates. The high ambient temperatures, humidity and the dust during the dry season will impair any technical or medical equipment. Nevertheless, sustainability involves much more than that. We have formulated a specific list of criteria.
To us, sustainability means something that
– is practically sensible and needed (efficiency and effectiveness)
– is affordable both in acquisition and maintenance
– can be installed, operated, maintained and repaired by local personnel
– guarantees that spare parts will be available for many years
– can withstand environmental conditions and outside influences
– makes use of renewable and local resources
– is produced locally or as close as possible
– strengthens the role of women in society
– is beneficial for health and the environment
What are the reasons for the importance of BBM projects in the area of electricity supply, water and hygiene?
The biological purification of wastewater protects potable water resources. Purified wastewater can in certain projects be reused for the irrigation of fruit trees – this way, drinking water is conserved. Solar energy improves living conditions in a variety of ways: in huts, solar home systems provide better lighting and reduce potential fire hazards – the majority of huts are thatched with grass. Solar-powered water pumps in village squares improve the living conditions of women and children. Well water is clean water, and consequently prevents waterborne diseases – diseases that can be caused by contaminated surface water.
What has been your best moment in development cooperation?
My best experience as an aid technician was when during the Ebola crisis in Uganda (2000/2001) we were able to install a new hospital laundry within three months to prevent further infections with the deadly virus among the laundry staff.