Clean water is about more than just digging wells

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 5:37 p.m. MDT

Though Water For People, which works in 10 countries in addition to Honduras, supplied building materials and instructional support, the goal Lopez had was to take the future of his municipality out of the hands of the nonprofit and give it to the community.

Lopez formed a local water committee, headed by a municipality-paid staff member, to oversee the maintenance and administration of the water infrastructure. Water For People trained local people as technicians to perform maintenance. To fund upkeep, Lopez started collecting a tariff to fund maintenance and repairs.

Water For People footed the majority of the $582,148 project bill, but the municipality of Chinda contributed 8 percent of the cost. As time rolled by, Water For People gradually stepped out until, by 2011, Chinda was supplying the majority of the necessary resources.

The approach reflects a recent shift in attitude among aid organizations. In 2010, a group of nonprofits that specialize in water issues organized the first of what would become an annual conference to discuss ways to improve failing water projects. In 2011, 50 organizations worked together to draft the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education Sustainability Charter.

The charter recognizes that there are still "enormous systematic challenges to providing sustainable safe water" and that "many of those who may have benefitted in the short-term ... now have systems that are not working adequately, or have failed completely." It calls on nonprofits to view water systems in the developing world "as a service, not as a project."

"We can see the mistakes we've been making and we're trying to look at things a different way," said John Sauer, director of thought leadership at Water For People.

In an attempt to focus on sustainability, Water For People recently penned the new "Everyone, Forever" motto.

"From the very beginning we are focusing on issues of financing in the community and finding resources to support ongoing maintenance as the system gets older," he said. "We recognize that they will have to replace or repair their pump and we help prepare them."

All villages and hamlets in Chinda now have a functional, gravity-fed piped water system with household connections, according to an independent study by the IRC Water and Sanitation Centre. But the work is far from done.

Chinda's tariffs only cover 15 percent of the depreciation costs, according to the report. While raising taxes might help, it would be difficult to close the gap.

But Lopez remains confident in his community.

"We started from zero just a few years ago," he said. "Now the communities know their role and are capable of being self sufficient."

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