February 2002
Volume 44 Number 2
 

World Spotlight: Organizations Team Up in Bringing Clean Drinking Water to Guatemala
by Salvatore Foti   Pages: 

Summary: In much of the Third World, water quality often suffers as the local economy and its endeavors take precedence over the environment. Two U.S. organizations recognize this environmental fact of life and have instituted a water treatment program to assist in Guatemala, which is discussed in detail here.

Chanmagua is an economically depressed community in eastern Guatemala near the Honduran border. There, residents eke out a living growing and processing coffee beans. An unfortunate by-product of this endeavor is an acidic, toxic waste produced from the disposal of the coffee bean shells. Until recently, this waste -- long discarded in local streams -- was a source of poison and disease to animals, vegetation and humans.

But with the help of two organizations -- Wissahickon Spring Water Inc. and Global Health Ministry -- this rural community of 350 homes is a healthier, more productive and self-sufficient village through a program known as Agua Limpia Para Todos, or Clean Water for All.

Wissahickon Spring Water, of Philadelphia, has 250 employees and revenues of $37 million last year. It’s also sponsored, through Lifewater Canada, construction of a water well for the village of Henry’s Town, Liberia. James J. Land Sr., the company chairman, is a former board member of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).

Founded as Global Outreach, a program of Eastern Mercy Health System, Global Health Ministry is sponsored by Hope Ministries and serves as a supportive health corporation of Catholic Health East, of Newtown Square, Pa., one of the country’s largest hospital networks. Its mission is to provide cross-cultural healthcare with a commitment to improving health in local communities that transform providers as well as recipients of care and their communities.

Today, residents of Chanmagua no longer need to travel great distances to gather and transport their daily drinking water, their livestock have a source of safe water and are less prone to disease and dehydration, and crops can be irrigated. All thanks to a partnership between these two organizations based in the Philadelphia area.

Lending a hand
Betty Scanlon, RSM, president and CEO of Global Health Ministry, has been working in Chanmagua since 1996, bringing volunteer doctors and other medical professionals to treat the villagers who had little or no access to health care.

She saw the opportunity to help this village as a natural fit for Wissahickon Spring Water as well, so she approached Wissahickon’s Jim Land.

“Jim readily understood what it would mean to provide access to potable water for the first time in a small rural community. He not only understood the needs but the hard work and commitment required for this level of development. I knew he would appreciate the community’s needs. For several years, Jim has been making a gift in honor of Wissahickon’s board to support the transformation of Chanmagua into a healthier, more productive community. You can imagine how grateful the people of Chanmagua are,” Scanlon said.

Shouldering the cost
The Guatemalan organization Fundación Inversión Social (FIS), a social investment fund that the World Bank set up in 1993 to alleviate poverty, had awarded a portion of some post-peace accord fund as a grant to clean up the drinking water and provide treatment of the effluent and coffee bean production runoff. FIS required the community residents to pay half of the project cost or donate the labor to build the project. Most residents, however, had no way of paying their share, and a fair portion of Chanmagua’s homes are occupied by just women or the sick and elderly. Land and Wissahickon soon entered the situation. In honor of Wissahickon’s board of directors, Land made several significant donations to finance the project, totaling more than $95,000 for those residents who couldn’t work or pay their share of the project. The board includes current IBWA board chairman William G. Bell of W.G. Bell Sales, Pittsburgh, and Charles J. O’Brien Jr., chairman of Quality Distribution Inc. of Tampa, the largest tank truck business in North America.

“Wissahickon’s board quickly appreciated the difficult position this village was in and saw an opportunity to make a significant difference in the health and economic future of an entire village,” Land said.

Today, that village has a source of clean water for drinking, cooking, washing and personal hygiene and each home possesses a toilet, a rarity in this part of the world.

Connect the ponds
In general, the funds for the project provided a simple answer to a big problem. Waste from coffee production and household effluent had poisoned a local stream, the main water supply. The solution was to construct three ponds. The system works something like this. Runoff from coffee bean production and household wastes is channeled into the first pond where solids fall to the bottom and decompose. The water then moves to two other ponds where algae grow. If conditions are maintained correctly, aeration and natural photosynthesis will not only consume organic materials but also produce wide changes in acidity or pH. That can be as good as chlorination. Photosynthesis caused by the sun (a big commodity in Guatemala) produces oxygen and consumes CO2 during the day. During the night, photosynthesis releases the CO2 back into the water. This consumption and release of CO2 creates a wide range of pH that could go from 10 in the day to six during the night. This variation kills bacteria and ultimately purifies the water. After 20 days, the water is safe to reuse. As a final bonus, fish are raised in the third pond -- an extra source of nourishment and possibly income for the village.

Valuing the relationship
At the heart of the Global Health Ministry program are four values:
1. Commitment to being a transformational presence;
2. Collaborative approach with others who share a common mission and vision;
3. Assure access to those most in need; and
4. Provide a range of services that supports healthy community development.

As such, Global Health Ministry programs are intended to transform selected, underprivileged, international communities into healthier, more self-sufficient places by collaborating with national and international organizations and focusing on providing health care and education around local issues for sustainable change.

Conclusion
Since Global’s first mission to Peru in 1989, they have served over 13,000 people in Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil, Peru and Guatemala, all with volunteer medical professionals. Last year alone, nine missions were sent to Latin America and the Caribbean employing close to 100 volunteers who spent 10 to 14 days treating poor people who have little hope of getting medical attention. The missions were transformative for the villagers and volunteers, who return to their practices with a renewed sense of caring and understanding.

About the author
Salvatore Foti is vice president of communications for Catholic Health East of Newtown Square, Pa. He can be reached at (610) 355-2017, email: sfoti@che.org or website: www.che.org or www.globalhealth ministry.org

A snapshot of Guatemala

Location: Central America, bordering the Caribbean Sea, between Honduras and Belize and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico
Area: 65,334 square miles (slightly smaller than Tennessee)
Climate: tropical; hot, humid in lowlands; cooler in highlands
Environment: deforestation; soil erosion; water pollution
Population: 12,974,361 (July 2001 est.)
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs
Languages: Spanish 60 percent, Amerindian languages 40 percent
Government type: Constitutional democratic republic
Capital: Guatemala City
Industries: sugar, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, rubber, tourism
Exports: coffee, sugar, bananas, fruits and vegetables, cardamom, meat, apparel, petroleum, electricity
Imports: fuels, machinery and transport equipment, construction materials, grain, fertilizers, electricity