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Volunteer partnership tackles Gambia sanitation problems

SIX VOLUNTEER civil engineers from South Wales have returned home from Gambia after a six week project to improve health and welfare in one of the country's most poverty-stricken areas.

Gambia faces the common third world problem of a rapidly increasing urban population, stretching already overburdened infrastructure services.

In the capital city Banjul, any money available for infrastructure improvements is directed towards the tourist areas, leaving other regions desperately in need of help.

The problem was identified by charity worker Colin McCubbin during a routine trip to West Africa early last year. McCubbin learnt that the municipal council's foremost concern was the state of waste collection and sanitation services. The council could provide labour but, due to limited resources, was unable to buy the materials required.

McCubbin promised to solicit help when back in the UK. The challange was taken up by the Wales association of the ICE, which soon found six volunteer graduate engineers.

Members raised ú10,000, covering the cost of building materials for two sanitation blocks, travel and accommodation. Banjul council agreed to undertake design and provide labour for construction. An international partnership was formed.

The team travelled out to Gambia in pairs for two weeks at a time. The first pair of volunteers, Sarah McNae (Balfour Beatty Construction) and Lloyd Jenkins (Babtie Group), arrived in October.

They were immediately presented with the challenge of finalising design and costings, and selecting suitable sites for the planned sanitation blocks.

This was done in partnership with council employees, providing an opportunity for sharing skills and ideas.

Much debate surrounded the council's design of the latrines.

The original plan was for a single pit to be shared between all four cubicles. However, the volunteers managed to persuade the council that partitioned pits with individual vent pipes were essential for adequate ventilation.

Mobilisation of labour and purchase of building materials proved extremely time consuming due to transport and communication problems.

Progress was also slowed by technical difficulties and the fact that construction work had to be carried out by hand. As a result, excavation of the pits took days rather than hours.

The second pair of volunteers, David Hornblower (Gwent Consultancy) and Chris Sinclair (Montgomery Watson), took on these problems in taking construction further.

The final pair, John Cotton (Cardiff University) and Becky Marsay (Montgomery Watson), were left with the challenge of completing the project before time ran out.

They resolved the project's immediate problem of transport by hiring a Land Rover. However, the programme slipped during Ramadan, when workers observe fasting.

Despite this, one block was ready for an official opening by the council chairman on the last day of the project.

Over the weeks a good relationship was built up with the council, and all parties are keen to maintain it.

Plans are already afoot for more engineers to assist in further projects at the end of this year. This will also provide the opportunity to monitor the success of last year's project and take on board any lessons learnt.

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