WASH DONE RIGHT
by Kendall Matt
I recently read an article in Nonprofit Chronicles lamenting the frequency with which water and sanitation projects in the developing world fail. The article estimated a 30-60% failure rate of clean water projects; many clean water charities start out building systems that work – wells set up for communities, excellent filtration systems – but they fall short on sustainability. Organization often fail to train local people in maintenance, or they don’t have plans for the management of these resources once they’ve moved on.
I witnessed the repercussions of this first-hand. This past summer, I traveled to the Dominican Republic with (EAB) as a volunteer promoting education and human rights initiatives in an urban work camp of Haitian immigrants called Batey Libertad.
On one sweltering 100-degree day, I found two young boys staring at me as I drank from my water bottle.
“¿Tienes agua?” one of them asked.
I know enough Spanish to understand that he was asking if I had any water for him.
“¿Tienes agua?” the other one repeated.
I didn’t respond for a moment. It was a really hot day, and both boys had been sitting out in the sun to watch us work. I wanted to offer them some of my water, but we had been instructed to not share to avoid spreading foreign pathogens. Additionally, this was not my first time in the community—I had volunteered there in the summer of 2015—and I knew that there were hundreds of water spigots spread throughout the camp for residents to use. Instead, I suggested that they go home for water if they were thirsty.
To my surprise, the pair shook their heads and chuckled before launching into a pleading explanation that forced me to call our translator. In doing so, I discovered that there had been no running water for months.
This is why these young boys had no water: Years ago, another non-profit organization had partnered with the community to help connect them to the water line of Esperanza, the municipality closest to the camp. The Dominican government had rejected Batey’s pleas for access to water for years due to supposed “financial incapability” that was, in fact, easily traceable to the long, and sometimes bloody, history of Dominican discrimination against Haitians. However, their new partnership with a Western organization was able to convince the government to extend a water line from Esperanza into the camp. The non-profit then created a web of pipes that broke the surface in the form of spigots every couple hundred feet.
Unfortunately, the members of the community were not directly involved in the construction of the pipes, and were never taught maintenance or monitoring methods. Sometime in between my last visit and my current one, the water had stopped flowing. The nonprofit from years before had moved on, and Batey found all their complaints to local government falling on deaf ears.
The lack of sustainable solutions is pervasive in the WASH community, and organizations need to be held accountable for their oversights. Communities must be trained in maintenance and aid workers need to follow up on their commitments.
Models of success must be praised more frequently as well. There are many WASH nonprofits, such as Denver-based Water For People, that are doing it right. Their model, called Everyone Forever, commits to reaching everyone in a certain district with sustainable, community-owned water supplies. This model has been used to inspire a coalition of WASH organizations and funders to provide sustainable water services. This coalition, called Agents of Change, uses the Everyone Forever model to ensure WASH organizations honor their commitments to communities by involving locals in every step of the project and prioritizing the set-up of long-term monitoring and repair systems.
Currently, EAB is exploring options to fix the problem in Batey Libertad and implement a sustainable solution, but many communities facing a similar issue do not have such support. It is the responsibility of every aid organization to ensure their solutions are sustainable and their funding is not wasted.
Everyone should have access to clean water. Offering water – only to have the system run dry – is unacceptable.