By Sisi Towers
As most of you already know, contaminated water has been identified as the most pervasive cause of health problems throughout developing countries. Water contamination has the potential to threaten the lives and welfare of numerous families especially infants up to 5 years old and the elderly. In many rural villages around the world, a child has only a 50 percent chance of reaching the age of 5. Those who do survive learn to live with stomach cramps and poor digestion. This causes their bodies to reject the nutritional value of the food they eat. In some cases, it may lead to serious developmental problems. Just think, only 20 percent of the world’s population has access to safe, potable drinking water.
At the charitable organization, Gift of Water Inc. (GWI), the mission is to provide clean drinking water and community development to children and families in developing countries. This is accomplished through use of a home-based water purifier manufactured by employees and volunteers of GWI in the United States and Haiti. The purifier is composed of two, five-gallon buckets placed one on top of the other. The top bucket is detachable for carrying to the water source, and the bottom bucket holds the clean drinking water. Through the use of a 5-micron, absolute, string-wound sediment filter, a granular activated carbon filter and liquid chlorine, the purifier greatly reduces bacteria and viruses and filters parasites. It also removes a large number of organic chemicals often found in urban areas. To the best of GWI’s knowledge, the purifier is the only one with a technology appropriate for Third World use that meets all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) standards including trihalomethanes (THMs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for most freshwater sources. For additional information on water quality standards, refer to the USEPA website at http://www.epa.gov/wqsdatabase.
Laying the groundwork
GWI was founded in 1995 by Phil and Barbara Warwick. Prior to founding the organization, Phil spent four years studying water problems in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. While visiting re-nourishment centers in these countries, he came into contact with several children who were very near death from diarrhea caused by bad drinking water. Given Phil’s research, this didn’t come as a big surprise. Having children of the same age, Phil decided to do something to help. He began by designing a simple and affordable water purifier.
In November 1995, the organization began a nine-month study of water quality and needs assessment in Dumay, Haiti. (Dumay is located 12 miles southeast of the Port-au-Prince airport.) The initial distribution of 50 purifiers to Haitian homes took place in August 1996. The organization trained and certified six community technicians to monitor use of these purifiers in homes. The technicians visited the homes weekly. When this pilot phase ended after 15 months, the tests showed a 90 percent drop in water-related diseases in the children. They also showed that 80 percent of the homes consistently and effectively produced clean water.
Soon, the organization began to expand throughout the country. The project in Haiti now includes 20 other communities in seven different regions and 48 technicians. By the end of 2002, the program is expected to reach nearly 130,000 people in rural Haiti. This spring, the organization also started a pilot project in rural Jamaica, which is currently being monitored and research has begun in other communities throughout Haiti including the regions of Hinche, Caracole and the countryside near Jacmel.
Purifiers as tools
More complex parts for the purifiers are manufactured in a workshop on the campus of the Space Coast Marine Institute (SCMI) in Melbourne, Fla. (see www.uwbrevard.org/marineinstitute.html). SCMI is a court-ordered, residential facility for male juvenile offenders. Boys learn new skills while earning community service credit. Since 1997, they have helped to produce parts for over 25,000 purifiers. In addition to vocational skills, the boys learn important job skills, such as teamwork, problem solving and time management. They work alongside GWI workshop employees, who are disabled and non-disabled adults who started as volunteers. Thus, the workshop helps everyone involved—juvenile offenders leave the court system with skills to help them be productive members of society, disabled adults gain employment to help them be more self-sufficient, and people in Third World countries get access to clean, safe drinking water.
When these parts are shipped to other countries, GWI employs local people to assemble, distribute and monitor the purifiers. These factories abroad employ single mothers and others who are underemployed—again multiplying the benefits of the program.
To the doorsteps
Community technicians form the heart of the GWI program. They also go a few steps beyond the common community health monitoring. The technicians visit new homes at least once a week; in some areas, visits occur three times a week. Once a family is established, technicians visit every two weeks. While there, they test the purifiers and the water, monitor the health of the family members and, most importantly, provide one-on-one instruction. GWI audits the technicians’ job performance four times a year.
Studies show that over the past 50 years, most developing country water projects implemented for the poor have failed dramatically. One reason includes well contamination. In Haiti, for example, GWI has only found one drinkable well. Other reasons are poor education and training, lack of resources, underestimation of certain tasks, lack of money within the communities to allow for self-sufficiency, “first-world” technology in a third world setting and lack of follow-up. Because of these failures, standards are set very low.
GWI wanted to change this to make a lasting difference. The organization decided not to give these purifiers away, as most other programs do. Instead, it made a commitment to work with the communities and decided to charge a small fee so users could gain a sense of ownership. This money, in turn, is used to pay community technicians. Other similar projects claim success rates of 10 percent, 30 percent and 50 percent. GWI consistently exceeds 80 percent. This is based on independent studies that verify GWI’s own data.
Getting in touch
GWI does it with support from companies’ board of directors, foundations, local leaders and churches throughout the Unites States as well as various vendors like Tomlinson Industries, FSHS Inc., and Aqua Products among others. GWI has been able to make several contacts and establish important relationships with local companies and vendors. For example, one vendor provides spigots at a dramatically reduced rate. It sells excess stock from production runs of different colors. With the cost savings this year alone, GWI will be able to provide 500 more purifiers. This win-win arrangement has helped to meet the needs of the less fortunate. Various publications have also helped us to better understand the industry to improve our purifier. Through monitoring, testing, educating and training here and abroad, projects have been kept alive.
Local education and improved communication within the industry can only lead to professional development. Charities can really benefit from this. Increased exposure of various worldwide charities’ activities in water treatment can only help such organizations obtain much needed assistance and spread the benefits around the world.
By following their hearts, the Warwicks have made GWI one of the most successful charities of its kind. With the help of water industry vendors, the dismal child-survival statistics due to water-related diseases in developing countries can become a thing of the past.
About the author
Nitza L. “Sisi” Towers is operations director for Gift of Water Inc., of Satellite Beach, Fla. Towers, who holds a bachelor’s degree in construction management from the University of Florida and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Central Florida, has been involved with the charity since 1996. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Towers works with dealers from around the country in bringing potable drinking water to the Caribbean and Latin America. She can be reached at (321) 773-9468 or Gift of Water Inc., P.O. Box 372323, Satellite Beach, FL 32937.
A peek into Haiti
Location: Caribbean, western one-third of the island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, west of the Dominican Republic
Map references: Central America and the Caribbean
Area: 16,650 square miles (slightly smaller than Maryland)
Climate: tropical; semiarid where mountains in east cut off trade winds
Natural resources: bauxite, copper, calcium carbonate, gold, marble, hydropower
Environment—current issues: extensive deforestation (much of the remaining forested land is being cleared for agriculture and used as fuel); soil erosion; inadequate supplies of potable water
Population: 6,867,995 (July 2000 est.)
Ethnic groups: black 95 percent, mulatto plus white 5 percent
Languages: French (official), Creole (official)
Government type: elected government
Exports-partners: U.S. 86 percent, EU 11 percent
Imports-partners: U.S. 60 percent, EU 12 percent