On eating elephants

By Mike Muller

The World Plumbing Conference was a real challenge. How do you talk at global scale about the practical problems that working plumbers have to deal with in their day-to-day operations? The goal, remember, was to consider how regulations and international standards could help to support sustainable plumbing.

We could not expect all the speakers to bridge the gap between big issues — such as poverty, climate change, and new technologies — and seemingly small issues, for instance, what type of sanitation technology to use in a poor community, or whether drones can do better than people in finding leaking pipes. So the elephant challenge that I raised in my September column was pretty accurate.

Bringing the big WPC group together to discuss the big issues and then splitting the group up into smaller sessions to concentrate on the practical details worked well.

So, after a wide-ranging presentation on climate change, it was helpful to hear how Brazilians are reducing their energy use by improving water-use efficiency. The talk on ways to detect water leaks faster and more efficiently was a great way to respond to the dire warnings presented on the growing pressures of limited water supplies.

We needed to be reminded that the populations of Africa and Asia are set to grow by three billion in the next 50 years, while Europe and North America will remain largely unchanged. This means that Africa offers the greatest opportunities for innovation. We will have to do things differently, simply because we will need to cater for so many more people.

We will be among the first localities to roll out at scale the new sanitation technologies that were presented. These technologies are being developed in South Africa (among other places) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And if we are clever about it, this should see other countries and continents buying technology from us, rather than the other way round.

Professionals from the City of Cape Town brought their practical experiences from Constantia to Khayelitsha to keep the discussions real. Feedback on IOPSA’s Community Plumbing Challenge in Diepsloot was shared and, parallel to the main conference, trainee artisans worked hard to demonstrate the skills they had learnt at their various colleges. We even discovered that Fred Schilling — one of the American ‘Plumbers without Borders’ volunteers who takes time off from his company in Florida to help out in Haiti — was a closet jazz drummer, as he revealed by helping Hout Bay’s KMA Jazz Band keep up the beat during the gala dinner.

So we made the point. You can’t eat an elephant one bite at a time — it will be rottenlong before you get past the first leg. But if you invite family, friends and the whole community to make a party of it, you get the work done and have fun at the same time.

That’s what was achieved at the WPC — it showed us how we can work together to tackle some of South Africa’s big challenges. We can all make a difference in our day-to-day activities, but when we come together and allow each person to make his or her unique contribution to a joint effort, we can move mountains — or even eat an elephant.

You can’t eat an elephant one bite at a time — it will be rottenlong before you get past the first leg.



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