July 2002
Volume 44 Number 7
 

World Spotlight: Central America -- A Water Professional’s View of `Water For People’ Program
by Karen Zack, CWS-V   Pages: 

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There’s a vast distance between hope and despair, and sometimes what spans that distance is water. Clean, safe, abundant water.

You might expect that this would be an article about the types of equipment and technologies used to treat the water in developing countries. Let’s save that for the engineers. I would rather talk about people and places and feelings.

Roaming the island
In March, I was privileged to join a group of Water For People (WFP) volunteers and staff for a country tour of Honduras. Our host was Diana Betan-court, a WFP engineer and coordinator in that country. She was joined by Jody Camp, the project manager from Water for People’s Denver office. With seven other people from all over the United States, we embarked on our journey.

Water For People is a non-profit organization started in 1991 by a dedicated handful of North American water professionals from the American Water Works Association (AWWA). These people understood the importance of water and wanted to help. WFP has a vision -- a world where all people have access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and basic health services. A world where no child dies from a water-related disease. The WFP work is done primarily in Honduras, Guatemala and Bolivia in Latin America and Malawi in Africa, and the goal for each project is to work with communities to build sustainable water treatment systems.

Imagine for a moment that you wake your children in the morning and, before they go to school, they must walk two-and-a-half hours to get safe water for the family to use that day. Or, imagine getting drinking water from the same river in which you wash your clothes and from where animals drink. Then, imagine carrying that water uphill in five-gallon buckets.

Making do
Pretend for a moment that you live in El Cielito, Honduras. Your whole village is being relocated because, when Hurricane Mitch struck, there were mudslides that buried your friends alive. You and your neighbors escaped by crossing a raging river on a cable. Your children still cry when it rains, but you feel safe now because you have an escape route. If you had water and latrines, you would be much happier.

Think what it would be like to be a community leader asking for help to bring safe water to your village, and then you learn that there’s no money for new projects. How would you tell the people that there’s no help for them?

Welcoming nonetheless
I wish these weren’t real stories. I wish these memories didn’t hurt so much. Still, there are happy stories, too. We had so many unique and wonderful experiences throughout the week. We crossed a river on horseback to reach one village, and often had to ride in the back of four-wheel drive trucks to reach others. One truck ride took more than an hour on barely passable roads. What an adventure! In the village of Sitio, we met many of the 250 villagers and Andreas, the head of the local water committee.

He said, “Welcome to our community. We are very content for you to see the people you have helped. You can see this with your own eyes. We waited a very long time (10 years) for the project. We hope you feel very welcome here.” We were given coffee to drink that was hot and sweet and tasted unlike any coffee I have ever had. Of course, Andreas grew the beans and his family roasted and ground them that day. As I sipped my coffee from an orange cup, I felt a great sense of welcome.

Learning young
Nathan Reents, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, took us to the village of Santa Cruz to see a project that uses a gravity fed system where the water is hyper-chlorinated and stored. The president of the project is Victor, a young man in his 20s. When I commented on his age, he shared that he was very proud that his community elected him because they had known him since he was young and they respected him. It was easy to see why. He seems very competent and confident. We learned that, along with labor to build the system, each family pays 30 lemperas -- approximately $2 per month -- to maintain the system. The balance goes into a trust account for future repairs to the system or for long-term replacement. This was a wealthier community that collected less per month than the others we had previously visited.

There were so many villages to visit, and some of my favorite memories are of the children in the schools. At the school in San Jose, the children were thrilled to show us their new latrines and one little boy showed us a new tap with running water. Their little faces were filled with joy. One of the men in our group had a digital camera, which he used to take pictures of the children. When he showed them their pictures, it was like magic before their eyes.

In Vilamieto Villejo, I met the most wonderful older man. Even though we spoke different languages, there was a connection as he hugged me. Another elderly man on the path to San Francisco pulled large leaves off a tree and placed them on the ground so I could rest in the shade. My favorite was an old woman at a tent city, whose face lit up when we arrived. Meeting all these people was a wonderful gift.

Conclusion
On our final day in Honduras, we played. We visited the Mayan ruins of Copan and then had some time to shop before heading back to San Pedro Sula. I was thrilled to find an orange cup identical to the one I used in Sitio. My cup now has a special place on the end table where I read. It serves as a constant reminder of how much I have -- as I recall being assured the water was boiled for a Kool-Aid-like drink I was handed in one village and seeing meters of simple pipe being laid by villagers to extend water services in another small community. It reminds me to appreciate the water coming out of my tap. It keeps me humble.

Acknowledgment
The author would like to thank Water For People and Amy Douglas, former fund raising manager for WFP, which can be reached at (303) 734-3492 or website: www.waterforpeople.org

About the author
Karen Zack is manager of global customer care for Kinetico Inc., of Newbury, Ohio. She is a former president of the Ohio Water Quality Association and a former chairwoman of the WQA’s educational services committee. She also has earned the WQA designation for Certified Water Specialist, Level 5. And, as of this month, she is a board of directors member of the Water For People. Zack can be reached at (440) 564-4229, (440) 564-7664 (fax) or email: kzack@kinetico.com