Meet Joseph Okullo, a groundwater research scientist in the making

Interview and photos by Isaiah Esipisu

With a Masters degree in geology from Makerere University, Joseph Okullo landed a consultancy job, to assist UPGro team in Uganda as a physical scientist. Since then, his star has been glowing brighter and brighter.

During the Africa Water Association (AfWA) Congress in Kampala, the 36 year old upcoming scientist shared his experience based on his involvement with UPGro, and what it means to his future career.

Here are his excerpts:

IE: What role did you play in the UPGro study in Uganda?

JO: I worked as a physical science research assistant within the Hidden Crisis project, through which I was involved in a number of activities.

The first survey involved scrutinizing 200 boreholes in different parts of the country. We did random selections of these boreholes in districts.

The main aim was to check the functionality of these water points and also the water quantity. Through this, we discovered that there were a number of boreholes that could not meet the set standard of the yield, which is 10 litres per minute with full stroke.

As a result, there is a clear understanding as to why many boreholes were failing soon after construction. By understanding the problem, it becomes much easier to search for the solution.

IE: What impact did this research have on your career

JO: Before I met UPGro, I was jobless. And because UPGro worked hand in hand with Makerere University, I begun to interact with scientists from the university from time to time and during this period, they saw my potential. That’s how I secured a part time job as an assistant lecture at the University.

Today, am in the process of PhD admission at the same university.

IE: What do you intend to research on if you manage to secure the admission?

JO: My research topic is about how climate change affects groundwater storage and recharge in the Northern part of Uganda.

Northern Uganda is an area that has not been studied well in terms of groundwater, given that it is a semi arid area. UPGro had researches in those areas and I am happy to build on the already existing knowledge developed through UPGro.

IE: How did it feel working with rural communities in different parts of the country?

JO:  It is interesting to work with different communities. But the first thing is to try and make yourself part of these communities because they have different cultures, different norms and different way of thinking. As a researcher you need to strike a balance with any given community.

However, it is so gratifying when you help them find solutions to problems that have bedeviled them for so many years.

IE: From the experience with communities under the UPGro research, what do you think is the perfect way of managing community water points?

JO: There have been several models. But most of them end up collapsing because of one reason or another. However, we have communities in places like Masindi District which are managing their boreholes in a very sustainable manner.

These communities operate like micro-finance institutions, where they collect money from members, and they can still lend the same whenever a member needs cash. Since they have an active account, it becomes so easy for them to fix their boreholes in case there is a problem.

IE: What did you learn during this research process?

JO: I have learned many things. For example, before this project, I knew that if a borehole is yielding water, then it is functional. But with the UPGro approach, functionality is far beyond water coming from a borehole. You look at the quantity of the water, the leakage, if there some underlying issues to indicate that it was almost breaking among other things.

IE: What do you think should be done to improve access to safe water for people in rural Uganda?

JO: From the UPGro experience, I discovered that there are so many boreholes that have been sunk, but they are not well taken care of. This is mostly because communities think it is not their responsibility to manage those boreholes.

Some of them were sunk by politicians during campaigns, and by the end of the campaigns, they are abandoned. Some of them are just functional save for very small hitches. Yet communities do not take responsibility because they feel that it was a politician’s project, or an NGO project

To solve this problem, there is need to strengthen the ownership, and strengthen water user committees.

Another problem is about spare parts. It is not easy to get a genuine spare part in the Ugandan market. If there was a groundwater policy, then the regulators will understand the importance of groundwater and regulate the importation of these spare parts. Before this happens, communities will be forced to live with what is available in the market.

Lastly, we have difficult hydrogeological environments. In some areas, it is not easy to site groundwater aquifers. This therefore calls for more detailed surveys to guide and inform on the water provision within those particular communities.