Posted by: wfpdc | May 16, 2012

Empowering Communities is Key to Water For People’s Mission

Hi, my name is Rachael Moxley and as a new member of the Water For People DC committee, I’d like to share some thoughts about what inspired me to get involved:

My first introduction to Water For People was the panel discussion hosted by the DC committee at George Washington University earlier this year. At the discussion, John Sauer, the Assistant Director of Thought Leadership for Water For People, highlighted their Sanitation as a Business program in Malawi. The program was intended to address the problems that pit latrines will fill up over time until they can no longer be used, while others don’t work from the start. The latrines are often installed as a means of improving sanitation services with the help of foreign aid.

I was reminded of a similar failure with foreign water solutions, of which I became aware in college while I was part of a project team called AguaClara. AguaClara is a team of students at Cornell University led by Professor Monroe Weber-Shirk, a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. AguaClara has a niche in small-scale, water quality treatment options for communities in Honduras whose primary drinking water source is surface waters that become turbid during the rainy seasons.

Some communities in Honduras were given or had purchased packaged water treatment plants by international development organizations. The shiny, metal, computer-run systems were flown in and handed over, and the companies who brought them were gone as quickly as they came. However, because of their poor design, high electricity demands, and lack of local supply chains for replacement parts, there has been little success with these systems. According to Monroe’s blog, 50% of the 20 package plants installed in Honduras between 2003 and 2008 have already been abandoned.

The project team developed from the realization by Dr. Weber-Shirk that although the water quality issues being dealt with by Hondurans were easily addressed by the standard methods of designing water treatment plants in the United States, once you took away electricity, the design was not well understood or well researched.

If you go to AguaClara’s wiki website, you’ll notice four words: research, invent, design, and empower. The first three underscore the focus of the efforts to improve and invent technologies to meet the needs of the communities, such as improved understanding of flocculation that have led to reduced tank sizes and lower costs, the invention of stacked rapid sand filters, which can be backwashed without electricity and the open-source web-tool that lets communities create custom designs complete with AutoCAD drawings. The result is eight gravity-powered water treatment plants serving thousands of people in Honduras. However, the last word “empower” is just as important as the first three.

AguaClara empowers local communities by partnering with the local non-governmental agency Agua Para el Pueblo, which although it translates to “water for people,” it is not affiliated with Water For People. Agua Para el Pueblo constructs the plants and offers capacity training for communities that have or want to have a treatment plant. As more plants are built, the network of communities with these plants, becomes a resource for community knowledge sharing and troubleshooting. And because the communities now have a more reliable water supply, the local water juntas have more leverage to collect the funds necessary to keep them running.

As a result of my experiences, I was impressed by John Sauer’s description of Water For People’s goal to identify research and development hurdles for sustainable water and sanitation practices to be developed in the countries where they work. I was also impressed by the importance that he placed on the involvement of the local community.

He explained that in Malawi there is a large demand for pit-latrine-emptying services, or else there would be if someone offered them. The research and development hurdle that Water For People identified was how to empty the latrines. In the US, septic systems are emptied with vacuum trucks. In Malawi, a motorcycle truck, or a Piki-Piki can more easily access remote pit latrines, but because it is so light, waste pumped into a tank on the cart could cause it to tip over. By figuring out how these pit latrines can be emptied or re-used, a local business for servicing the pit latrines can be established.

Through research and development Water For People aims to create incentives to spur local private sector businesses, so that the sanitation solutions become sustainable as they become profitable. In this way, the goal for addressing sanitation evolves from simply the installation of pit latrines to ongoing sanitation services, and improved sanitation will be made available to more people.

Volunteers through World Water Corps, an arm of Water For People, reaches out to communities to find out what is happening and what is needed by the people who need it the most. They record observations and interviews with community members in homes, business places, and schools that hold the Water For People programs accountable.

Working on the AguaClara team has shaped my perception of water development issues, and they align well with Water For People’s mission. The real challenge facing water and sanitation development is to develop solutions that use appropriate technology and provide local capacity-building to maintain and expand their own water and sanitation services. I am looking forward to supporting Water For People and its mission through the DC committee!

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