Posted by: Wasrag | April 25, 2015

From Marginalized to Thriving: The Long-term Impact of a Partnership Between Rotary and Water Missions International

By Carrie Melchers

Life in the Peruvian Amazon is governed by the massive Amazon River; water is everywhere. In 2012, communities along the Amazon experienced the worst flooding in recorded history and nearly 200,000 people were displaced. Since then, Peruvian officials have been relocating and constructing permanent villages outside traditional flood prone areas.

Most of the new communities are constructed quickly without detailed planning. The village of Villa Maria is one such community. Light poles were erected with no source of electricity, and basic water and sanitation services were not provided. Villa Maria’s only source of water was a dirty, contaminated Amazon tributary.

There is no government water authority working with the isolated communities in the Amazon, as all oversight stops at the city limits of Iquitos. However, the Rotarians in Iquitos have supported these communities with humanitarian outreach for years and understand the challenges of life on the Amazon.

Communities along the Amazon are usually small; Villa Maria has only 350 inhabitants. In a world driven by return-on-investment, cost-per-person for any development project is a key driver. Unfortunately, this limits the most marginalized communities. Typically, projects for small communities are underfunded and implemented with inferior technologies, insufficient trainings and lack post-project support, all in an effort to meet an arbitrary cost-per-person metric. The challenge for Villa Maria was finding funding for a sustainable safe water solution that could be financially supported by a community of 65 families.

The children of Villa Maria needed safe water, not just improved water that still contains bacteria and virus. The Iquitos Rotary Club and Water Missions International have partnered on numerous water projects along the Amazon. The lessons learned are starting to challenge the cost-per-person metric. More significance is being put on long-term operating expenses versus initial investment costs. Communities along the Amazon are resilient; their capacity for progress should not be underestimated.

“If ten dollars per person provides a solution that will only produce improved water and may last a year, then what have we solved? But if fifty dollars per person provides a community with a safe water solution, convenient access, WASH education, management training, and follow-up and support, we can honestly say that sustainability is our goal. Our focus should be on implementing a program that addresses the issues. The program dictates the resources needed, not visa versa,” said Juan Simon, Water Missions Peru.

The Hillsboro Rotary Club (Oregon, USA) shares these ideals and partnered with Iquitos Rotary Club (Loreto, Peru) on a matching grant to bring safe water and WASH promotion to Villa Maria.

“We see [WASH] as a huge focus for obvious reasons; there are so many people around the world who do not have the money, knowledge or equipment to access safe water and sanitation. And we want to change that,” said Leon Thompson, the International Service Committee Chair for Hillsboro Rotary Club.

The goal for Villa Maria was sustainable safe water with convenient access; typically defined as within one kilometer. It is commonly understood that the closer the access point, the more that water source is utilized. Health improvements are greater when safe water is used for drinking, as well as cooking and hygiene.

Water Missions International’s research has proven that an individual will walk 50-100 meters for safe water before settling on a more convenient source, safe or not. Convenience regularly surpasses knowledge. The plan for Villa Maria called for centrally located access points no more than 50 meters from each house. This required the construction of a water tower and gravity-fed distribution network. Water Missions International’s corporate partner, Solar World, donated solar panels for the project, eliminating the need for fuel, the largest operating expense. Solar pumps are used to pump dirty water through the Living Water™ Treatment System into an elevated storage tank on top of the tower.

The efforts of Rotarians go far beyond funding the safe water project. Over the course of the project, 10 Peruvian Rotarians and 19 Rotaractors spent time in the community participating in the implementation of training programs, system commissioning, and emphasizing the importance of safe water, sanitation and hygiene. The Iquitos Rotary Club involved local Rotaractors in WASH programs, where they taught hand-washing and other hygiene practices to students.

Villa Maria, Indiana, Peru - February 7, 2015“It was exciting to see the Rotaractors interact with the children. Their age made them effective teachers because the young children saw the Rotaractors as role models,” said Victor Valderrama, President of Iquitos Rotary Club.

Through the WASH training children receive in school, the entire community is impacted. Information is shared, not just from child to parent, but from community to community. Older students, who travel 50 minutes by boat to a different village for school, spread the news about the importance of WASH to those students as well.

Not only has safe water been flowing constantly since September but the community is also successfully covering operational costs and has already saved over $250 for future maintenance. In addition, proper hygiene practices are improving due to proactive WASH training in schools. Dirty water from the Amazon displaced the Villa Maria community, but now, thanks to Rotary, safe water has restored them.

Carrie Melchers is the Peru Programs Manager for Water Missions International, a Christian engineering non-profit located in Charleston, SC. Carrie can be reached at cmelchers@watermissions.org or (843) 769-7395, ext. 229.

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