Thoughts on Water Projects

This post was originally posted on The Justice Letters, a social justice blog site started by one of my friends, Rebecca Applegate. I recommend The Justice Letters for anyone interested in reading thoughtful social-justice blogs.


What do you think of when you hear the phrase “water projects” or “global clean water issues”? Most people respond with images of small sick children or women walking long distances for semi-clean water. They think about drilling new wells and people happy once clean water pours forth from the new well. These are popular images that lead one to believe that this issue can be easily addressed by drilling new wells, but does the problem end once the well is in place? What happens after there is a nearby source of clean water?

A few years ago, I worked on a project in Guatemala with a small group consisting of five civil engineers, a geologist, and a nurse. This group is an established chapter of a US based engineering-related, non-governmental organization (NGO). The group was connected with a village nearby Antigua, Guatemala through a separate NGO working with the schools and communities in that region. This particular area had little to no access to clean water mostly because they were located downstream of pig farms and other industries that regularly released sewage and other pollutants into the river. This not only pollutes the river, but also pollutes the groundwater supply upon which the villagers rely.

The engineering solution to this problem was two-fold: (1) drill a well into another unpolluted aquifer away from the village and construct a pump, piping system, and storage tank to transport and store the water within the village and (2) develop a separate cleaning and disinfection system for the water sources already established in the village. Both systems needed to be designed so that they could be easily and cheaply maintained by the village.

The NGO group worked with the mayor and his office on this project. When we came down to Guatemala, he would rally up some men from the village to work on the water systems, since this project was a collaboration between the village political leaders and the NGO. Together with the men from the community, we built the well, pump, piping system, and the tank. When the well was in, we tested the water and found it to be clean enough to drink straight from the well.

Six months after we installed the well, our group followed up on the well installation by sending a member down to the village. The purpose of this trip was to see how the village was adjusting to the clean water and to test the water again to make sure it was still coming out clean. I volunteered to go on this trip to follow up on the project. When I made it down to the village, I found that the people were given less access to the “clean water” than before and were still using the polluted sources of water to supplement what was given to them. I asked why they had less water and they said that the mayor reduced the water rations from two hours everyday to two hours four days a week. When I took water samples from their faucets that should have been hooked up to the new well water system, I found that the water coming out had as much contamination as before we installed the well. What happened?

Water that came out of the sink in the village in Guatemala

Water that came out of the sink in the village in Guatemala

After some investigation around the village and inquiries into this issue put before some of the village elders (not associated with the mayor), I found that the well mysteriously “broke down” two months after we installed it, and right after the local elections. Some villagers told me that the mayor was claiming that he installed the well and pump, pipes, and tanks and, therefore, only he could fix them. The majority of the villagers were unaware of the NGO’s work on the water system and the rest told me how ineffective we were. I couldn’t investigate the reason why the pump stopped working as the locks on the pump house were switched out with new locks.

After meeting with people in their homes and seeing the dirty water come out of the faucets and the sick children home from school, reality hit me that the mayor chose to block the villagers’ access to clean water, even as the village’s children were sick from waterborne illnesses. I found mothers helplessly furious with the situation because it cost too much money to travel to the hospital (the closest was an hour ride on the bus, the most common form of transportation in the area) and to pay for the antibiotics. I found working men at home, sick because of the waterborne illness; their families, already below the poverty line, had to make due with less income for that week.

This project opened my eyes to the role of politics and power in clean water. Drilling the well was not enough; we also needed to ensure continued access to clean water, in direct opposition to the local government. The issue of clean water is not just a civil engineering problem that can be solved by drilling a well; it is one that must also be fought on a political level. As with other social issues, the lack of clean water cannot just be seen as only a hygiene issue, but must also be seen as a political issue.

Our project failed. We, as a group, failed to understand the political atmosphere. We did not make ourselves better known to the community elders. We relied on the other NGO established in Guatemala to be familiar with and communicate with the community, as our liaison, only to learn later that they were not as involved as we believed. In the end, this project did not meet its goals of providing clean water for the community, even though a well with clean water was installed and working. It failed because we didn’t engage the established social order.

Where does this leave us? Can we give support to charities to build wells and leave it at that? If we truly want to effect change in these communities, we need to support, through time and talent and/or through finance, charities who are involved with these communities and are aware of and willing to engage the community and local government. Here’s a list of questions to ask when researching a charity to whom you may donate time and/finances.

  • What is their level of involvement in the community? Do they understand the social dynamics where they are working?
  • What is their level of commitment to the community? Are they installing a well and taking off or are they in it for the long haul?
  • What is the local reputation of that charity in that area? Are they known for working with or separate from the locals?
  • What is their organizational structure? Do they have so much bureaucracy that they get bogged down with paperwork, limiting their support to teams in the field?

There are a lot of good charities out there who are involved with the community and provide long term access to clean water. A lot of these organizations do not focus primarily on water; instead, they focus on other social issues and clean water just happens to be a part of what they do because it affects the people they serve. I have often volunteered technical assistance for such agencies and have not directly volunteered with a charity that focuses on clean water only. For this reason and also because I want to encourage you to approach charities with these questions in mind, I won’t feed you a list of charities, but instead give you the parameters by which you should judge those you may be interested in supporting. Be responsible for the time and/or money you donate and remember that resolving clean water issues is not as straightforward as it appears. Water is power, and as such is given to corruption. Putting money or time into an organization who does not engage the political and social atmosphere is like constructing a well in an empty aquifer and wondering why you’re not producing water.

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