By Sarina Prabasi, Chief Executive WaterAid America
Take a moment to travel with me to a small town called Wawa Boom, one of the most geographically and culturally isolated parts of Nicaragua, situated along the Miskito Coast. There is only one dirt road into Wawa Boom. The marine life is unparalleled, the coastal rain forests second only to those in Brazil, and the winding rivers so abundant that they serve as one of the main means of transportation.
Anyone can see that there is no shortage of water in this region. So why would my organization, WaterAid, choose to focus its energies here, dedicated as we are to clean water, toilets and hygiene education? Much of it comes down to water pollution.
Surface water sources have become polluted with mercury and other heavy metals from mining activity in the area, groundwater in the coastal zones has become salinized as sea levels rise and naturally occurring arsenic combined with increasing erosion make water quality a critical issue. What’s more, less than 20 percent of the population in the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast has access to toilets. Rivers and streams are often the only water sources available to the people living here and are frequently contaminated with human waste that can carry deadly diarrheal diseases.
Despite the fact that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean region, few companies or organizations are working in this area. Operating costs are high, there are no paved roads and bridges are frequently washed out by flash floods. Hurricanes pose a perennial threat, malaria and dengue fever are common, security can be compromised by drug trafficking and communication is difficult for those unable to speak the local indigenous languages. In a world where clean, quality water is all too often taken for granted, clean water along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is as precious as liquid gold.
Life quality depends on water quality
We hear a lot about the scarcity of water. What we don’t often hear is that the planet has enough water to meet humankind’s basic needs—drinking and keeping clean and healthy—so long as it is managed carefully and basic needs are prioritized. What we really need more of is quality water that’s safe for consumption.
More than 650 million people around the world today struggle day in and day out to access enough clean water to meet even their most basic needs. That’s one in 10 people worldwide who have no choice but to drink dirty water and who struggle to get the water they need for washing, cooking, cleaning and producing food.
As a result, half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people suffering from preventable water- and sanitation-related diseases. Globally, women and children lose an estimated 200-million hours each day collecting water from distant sources; school attendance drops and the opportunity for people to earn a living is seriously diminished. In Nicaragua alone, as many as 800,000 people do not have access to safe drinking water.
Water experts understand that to be water-secure three things are critical for people: good quality, well-managed water resources and effective water-supply services. Water resources cannot be easily accessed without pumps, pipes, taps, tanks and skilled people to manage them as part of a service. Similarly, water supply services alone are of little use without water resources. If either is unavailable or unreliable, people will not have the quality water they need to lead healthy, dignified and productive lives.
Clean water transforms lives
WaterAid is increasingly combining the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services with improved water resource management. Our integrated WASH-water resource management approach provides a structure for identifying and monitoring water-related threats, carrying out risk-based planning and acting to mitigate these threats. The outcome is reduced risk and increased water security…and individual lives that are radically transformed.
Linda Felix, a 41-year-old mother of six, recently completed one of our training programs aimed at giving women in her remote indigenous community the skills and know-how to repair local wells and monitor water levels in rainwater harvesting tanks that provide a life line to clean water in the area. Her work is important because of the fact that people in the area have traditionally gotten their water from a nearby river or from unprotected dug wells that dry up seasonally and are in a poor state of repair. Cholera epidemics hit hard here in the late 80s and early 90s—epidemics that resulted from drinking water supplies being contaminated by fecal waste in the absence of good sanitation and hygiene. In a region where the water table is high and where latrines are often in close proximity to drinking water supply wells, epidemics remain a real possibility. Today, Linda not only enjoys a greater status and respect in her village as a result of what she’s learned about water resource management, but her entire community has a viable means of boosting both the quality and long-term access to clean water.
In addition to installing ferro-cement household rainwater collection tanks to supplement water supplies from rehabilitated wells, newly trained community members are helping to provide presence/absence water quality testing, promoting the use of clay pot filters and educating their peers about the importance of protecting local water sources. But it hasn’t been an easy road. Uptake of home water testing has been slow, supplies remain difficult to acquire and the ferro-cement tanks used for rainwater harvesting can be expensive. Progress, however, can clearly be seen.
As water management experts, we know that clean water is worth its weight in gold. But guaranteeing access to clean, safe water will never be possible unless good sanitation and hygiene practices are also achieved. WaterAid and our partners are working toward a world where everyone, everywhere has access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. It’s in everyone’s interest to address the global water crisis; the cost of inaction is simply too high.
Sarina Prabasi is the Chief Executive of WaterAid America. With 20 years of experience in international development work, she most recently served as Deputy Chief of Programs at Orbis International and as Country Representative at WaterAid Ethiopia. Prior to that, Prabasi spent nearly ten years at Pact Inc., serving both in Washington, DC and overseas. Originally from Nepal and mother of two young girls, she lives in NYC and is co-founder of Buunni Coffee, a fair trade, organic coffee company.
About the company
Since being founded by the water industry over 30 years ago, WaterAid has worked alongside partners in some of the poorest and most marginalized communities to reach over 21 million people with safe water and 18 million with sanitation. As the world’s largest civil society organization focused solely on water, sanitation and hygiene, WaterAid has built a deep understanding of the issues that face communities living without these basic services and of the solutions needed. Visit www.wateraidamerica.org