Juan’s motorbike sputtered to a near standstill as we bounced up yet another rocky hill. I felt the throttle release and prepared for the downshift that would send the bike lurching forward and nearly topple me backwards onto the gouged up excuse for a “dirt” road behind us. Fifteen hundred miles from home, one kilometer to La Sevita.
Perhaps I should back up for a moment.
In the fall of 2008, I traveled with my family to India for two months. To say the very least, that trip opened my eyes. I had heard the term “global water crisis” thrown around in a couple of my science classes at Franklin High School, but to me it had always been some obscure event far from the here and now.
Those two valuable months spent in a country in which thousands of people die every year from waterborne illnesses wiped away at least a part of my blindness to the plight faced by approximately one billion of our fellow humans: lack of access to safe drinking water.
For me, India was the first step of a journey into something infinitely larger than myself. The vivid reality of the global water crisis has taken hold of me and inspired me to become increasingly involved in ways that I never would have imagined three years ago. Most recently, this has led to my graduating high school a semester early and traveling to Nicaragua with my older brother – a professional photographer – to document and work on water projects for El Porvenir and the Blue Planet Network.
Our first morning in Nicaragua, my brother, Forest, and I met with Rob Bell, the executive director of El Porvenir in Nicaragua. Over a breakfast of beans and rice we discussed a plan for visiting the various projects over the following week, and Rob gave us an overview of how El Porvenir operates in Nicaragua.
El Porvenir (which translates to “The Future” in English) is a nonprofit organization which works to provide access to water and sanitation for rural communities throughout Nicaragua. “Agua Limpia para Nicaragua” (“Clean Water for Nicaragua”) is both the slogan and mission of El Porvenir.
The central office of El Porvenir is in the capital city, Managua. In addition to the Managua office, El Porvenir operates a field office in each of the six regions in which it works. The field offices generally have three staff members; one devoted to water and sanitation, one to reforestation and one to hygiene and education.
Communities approach the field offices when they want to request a project. Staff members then visit the community to determine its needs, and if the project is accepted El Porvenir provides technical expertise and training, lends tools, and funds the materials needed to complete the projects.
The village benefitting from the project is asked to contribute what they can – usually 5 to 10 percent - and provide all the labor. In addition, each village elects its own project committee and takes responsibility for the long-term maintenance of its project.
After the project is completed, El Porvenir community health education staff does periodic checkups to work with the villagers and help them become self-sufficient so that they can maintain the project on their own.
Sustainability and sharing knowledge are two keys to El Porvenir’s success. The regional offices hold four education seminars per year. Each community elects two representatives to go to the regional meetings and share their projects and their knowledge as well as learn from the other communities.
“The two community educators from each village then return home and pass on what they have learned to their own community,” Dinora, an El Porvenir Health Educator, explained to me, “they become my right hand once they are trained, and send me reports every month on the progress of their village.” In this way the communities are able to become increasingly self-sufficient as they learn from others about long-term maintenance of projects, adopt better hygiene practices and learn about organic farming and protecting the resources that they have.
“I am old and already sick,” said Tranquelino’s wife Margarita, “but I hope better for my grandchildren.” “I am glad to see how young you are,” she said, “you give us hope for the next generation. I hope that you will spread the word. We need so much more. We’ll be waiting for you here.”
We were en route to our first community, La Sevita, and I was just figuring out how to stay securely on the seat as we navigated the rocky terrain, when all of a sudden Juan brought the bike to a stop. After prying my protesting fingers open and releasing their stiff grasp on the metal rack, I was able to dismount. Looking around I realized that we were obviously not to the community yet. A glance at the front of the bike revealed to me the reason for our sudden stop – a flat front tire. The thought of retracing our path on foot over the hot, dusty, barren terrain did not bring me any joy as Juan and I contemplated the sunken tire.
Fortunately, it wasn’t much further to La Sevita. And amazingly enough, there was someone in the tiny 17-family village who had the tools to fix the tire on the spot. Meanwhile, Forest and I spoke with community members and were shown the El Porvenir projects within the community.
Each family had a latrine courtesy of El Porvenir, as well as a water pump. However, the pumps had not been in use for over a month as the generator had burned out and was only just being replaced as we arrived. Tranquelino Treminio Tora, the village elder, explained to Forest and me that because the pumps had been out of service for the past month, the community had been forced to fetch water from their old source. Tranquelino showed us the source they were currently using: a trickle of water flowing out of the side of a bank below La Sevita. Nowadays it’s normally only used for watering the livestock, and Tranquelino explained to us that drinking from it had caused stomach sickness for a lot of people.
Every village we visited radiated warmth and gratitude for all that El Porvenir has done for them. They were also very upfront about how much more they still need as a country.
“I am old and already sick,” said Tranquelino’s wife Margarita, “but I hope better for my grandchildren.”
“I am glad to see how young you are,” she said, “you give us hope for the next generation. I hope that you will spread the word. We need so much more. We’ll be waiting for you here.”
This plea struck home with me, and even weeks later it continues to occupy my thoughts. As I contemplate what seems to me a huge challenge – how to pay for college – I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt as I consider the fact that some of the smaller villages that I visited survive on less per year than it would cost for me to attend even one of the UNCs. (More than 80 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day.)
In rural Nicaragua, you are fortunate if you have the opportunity to attend a K-8 one-room school. And as for high school, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) only about 45 percent attend secondary school in Nicaragua. So in the rural areas, unless you are one of the extremely privileged, forget about it. In the United States for the vast majority of our population – those who have enough drive and vision can overcome the obstacles facing them and make for themselves the life that they picture. In Nicaragua, beyond earning the means to support a family, the opportunity simply isn’t there.
During our time in Nicaragua, Forest and I traveled from region to region being shown the various projects by staff members from each of the field offices. We visited more than 20 different villages. Each one had a different story to share.
Some have completed projects, and some are waiting for funding or still constructing their wells. In the villages without wells, people are walking anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and a half round trip to collect water. Of these, most have to make several trips a day to the source and some then have to boil the water before it is safe to drink.
The men of the family are usually gone during the day, working to earn an income for the family. For this reason the women and children shoulder the burden of fetching water, often spending hours each day carrying 40-pound buckets of water from streams or open wells to serve all the household needs. With so much of their days devoted to finding water, many children do not have time to go to school and get an education. Thus the vicious cycle of poverty continues, and without access to clean water there is little hope of rising above it.
With water comes hope. As El Porvenir observes first-hand, “Access to clean drinking water dramatically improves family living standards, reducing disease and child mortality, freeing girls’ and women’s time, as well as improving school attendance and performance.”
More than two thirds of rural Nicaraguan communities lack access to safe drinking water. I hold no illusions that the projects can provide an overnight transformation. But for the next generation of Nicaraguans, water is the first step. With every well dug, and tree planted there is a tangible promise of a better future.
Sadly, Nicaragua is only one piece in a crisis that kills 2.2 million people every year from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. The Blue Planet Network is an organization that works to provide water to rural communities around the world. I became involved with the organization last year after I was inspired by their book “Blue Planet Run” and the movie “Flow” to organize a race to raise money for the cause. Sustainability and accountability are the key areas in which the Blue Planet Network really sets itself apart from other organizations.
The Peer Water Exchange (PWX) is essentially the implementation arm of the Blue Planet Network. In a nutshell, PWX allows funders, NGOs, communities, monitors, and the general public to collaborate transparently to end the global water crises. As expressed by the Peer Water Exchange, “The real problem is that we continue to apply the same ineffective solutions hoping the crises will go away. The world’s crises cannot be solved by traditional approaches; we need to first change our mindset to overcome deep-rooted roadblocks in our system.
“[Successful solutions] involve community organization, appropriate technology, hygiene, sanitation, transfer of ownership, change in behavior, and long-term maintenance. Integrating these dimensions - one project at a time - is hard. This difficulty has made our ability to scale the work within our current bureaucratic philanthropic process impossible. PWX creates a new mindset and model… that with 100 percent transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness destroys our roadblocks to help us solve humanity’s crises.”
The Peer Water Exchange makes funding available for organizations like El Porvenir around the globe. But even more importantly it provides a fresh platform for change. It allows for dialogue, sharing, and accountability between peer organizations and implementers, as well as providing needed transparency for funders that will be a key to the long-term effectiveness of this new approach to solving the global water crisis.
To learn more about El Porvenir, the Blue Planet Network, or the Peer Water Exchange, and how you can get involved – or to make a donation – visit their websites: http://elporvenir.org/, http://blueplanetnetwork.org/, http://peerwater.org/.