Thursday, March 22, 2007

World Water Day:
Scarcity in rural Nicaragua

This grinning gentleman has ingeniously rigged a water pipe from a newly built El Porvenir well. When a household member pumps and pours buckets of water into an improvised funnel 200 yards uphill beside the well, running water becomes available from a spigot outside his house.

In this International Decade for Water for Life, 2005-2015, the UN-Water program sponsors World Water Day annually on March 22. The theme of this year's observance is "Coping with Water Scarcity." Some world water facts:

There are 1.1 billion people, or 18 per cent of the world's population, who lack access to safe drinking water. About 2.6 billion people, or 42 per cent of the total, lack access to basic sanitation.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for halving "by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation."

It is estimated that an additional investment of US$ 11.3 billion per year would be needed to achieve the MDGs for drinking water and sanitation at the most basic levels

El Porvenir, the nonprofit group under whose leadership I've recently traveled in Nicaragua, works to remedy the water shortage that afflicts rural subsistence farming communities. And very inspiring work it is!

In the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, the plumbing appears adequate to an observer from the affluent world -- if a little antiquated. We can drink the water out of the tap without getting sick and we can't see that sewage flows directly out of the toilet into Lake Managua (a treatment plant is in the building stage!)

But out in the countryside, plumbing is simply nonexistent. Nicaragua has been through a couple of cycles of government-provided water followed by privatization, but none of this has touched the little subsistence farming communities where less than 100 families scratch out a living miles from paved roads. These are the kind of communities where El Porvenir works with residents who can organize themselves to build simple wells and latrines.

El Porvenir provides materials, technical assistance, and health education; the people provide the sweat labor: digging, mixing concrete, erecting latrine shelters. As of 2005, El Porvenir had partnered with 262 communities to build 259 hand dug wells, 14 small town water systems, 36 spring captures (moving groundwater from source to people), 58 communal washing setups with sinks (lavanderos), and 5771 latrines.

A well-kept rural dwelling might look like this. Note the absence of windows -- more light isn't worth letting in more rain in the six-month-long rainy season, not to mention more points of access for the household chickens. The pigs use the doors.

A poorer rural dwelling. This isn't even a really bad house -- on those, the walls are cardboard and/or plastic sheeting.

This woman and her children are dressed in their best to receive the El Porvenir water tourists.

This woman holding a child shows how easy it is to pump an El Porvenir well. The rope pump uses a wheel like one from a bicycle, recycled pieces of rubber tires, rope, and PVC pipe. Those are North Americans from our group of seven looking on behind.

Plastic pistons on the rope inside the well draw the water up when she turns the pump handle.

To keep the water clean, people need waste facilities. These folks aren't going to see flush toilets for many a moon, but well built outhouses provide a huge improvement over just using the bushes.

A young woman proudly displays the Cerritos community's new latrine.

This line up of toilet houses in a Terrabona district settlement shows the reusable metal and steel design El Porvenir is now adopting. After all, pit toilets fill up and have to be redug and the houses moved periodically. These can be disassembled and reassembled.

A few really well organized and demanding communities (they come to El Porvenir with requests and negotiate plans with the aid workers) get lavanderos, communal washing facilities. Since without such facilities rural Nicaraguan women wash themselves, their children and their clothes in streams or not at all, these are huge improvements.

And when you have shared facilities, you need a schedule!

None of us are born knowing healthy sanitary practices. The Nicaraguan health educators staffing El Porvenir follow up on the construction and technical work, reinforcing the lessons embodied in the communities' new facilities. An evaluation in 2004 found that 75 percent of the projects remained in good working order years after construction.

Water is a women's issue

It is no accident that most of the rural Nicaraguans pictured above are women.
  • In poor rural areas, women and girls spend hours daily hiking to water sources and carrying water to their families.
  • Women and girls' family responsibility for getting water means they have no time for education, other economic activity, or leisure.
  • Where this is no running water, very young children are often chronically ill. Caring for sick children adds to the already heavy workload of women and girls. High infant mortality makes having large numbers of the children a rational survival strategy, further burdening women.
For more on water as a women's issue, see this UNICEF report.

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