Deeper Than a Water Shortage: The True Culprit of Nicaragua’s Water Crisis

“Water crisis” isn’t a term most people connect with a country’s “heavy rainy season.”

When a water crisis is mentioned, the images more likely to pop into your head are of desert landscapes, failed crops, dry riverbeds, dead cattle, and parched wanderers desperately squeezing every last drop of liquid from the cracked, dust-blown earth.

While these images aren’t wrong — as anyone can attest who has flown into Managua and spotted Nicaraguans spraying down the dirt to reduce dust clouds — the full story is much more complex because the water woes plaguing rural Nicaraguan communities have as much to do with wet days as dry days. In fact, the drinking water that many families depend on for survival is at its most toxic levels when the rains are pouring and the wells are full. That’s because Nicaragua’s water crisis isn’t just about how much water is available to drink. It’s also about the quality of the water.

Water: Nicaraguans Can’t Live With or Without It

Roberto met our greeting with a flat expression and bloodshot eyes. Standing outside his palm frond shack, the poor farmer, father and husband told us he was out of work. The farms would not hire him since he was diagnosed with kidney disease — a killer that takes more lives than almost any other cause in Nicaragua.

This particular encounter took place in the community of El Pedregal, but the details he revealed could just as easily have described the challenges other poor farmers in the Central American nation face. Like Roberto, many of them also lack the awareness that their high-heat, labor-intensive work environment was likely a contributing factor in their dehydration and loss of kidney function.

Nicaraguan families often don’t know how severely dehydrated they are. They’ve been surviving the same dry and rainy cycles their whole lives, and the consequences are not obvious. What they are aware of is the far more immediate impact of a related problem — drinking water that is contaminated.

These families do not have plumbing in their homes, so they fill their buckets several times a day from murky streams and shallow, hand-dug wells. Visible insects and debris often float in the water, and even if the source appears clean, it is densely polluted by pesticide-laden run-off from local farms, as well as animal waste, insects and parasites.

Children, whose immune systems are less adapted to the water, suffer frequent diarrhea, which contributes to dehydration. This means the very water their parents must give them to keep them alive is the same water that makes them sick, forces them to miss school, and prevents them from enjoying a healthy, thriving childhood.

Related: Poverty in Nicaragua: Causes, Stats & How to Help

Water from hand-dug wells is often riddled with contaminants.

The Latrines Have to Go

A major culprit in the poisoning of the water supply is the crude, fly-infested latrines many rural families depend on. Think of a portable toilet, but with rusted sheet metal or even just a tarp wall providing privacy. These latrines typically use a cement seat that deposits human waste directly into the ground and ultimately into the water table.

Such latrines pose the greatest risk during storms. As rainwater saturates the ground, human waste is carried by runoff into open wells, along with all the other contaminants that transform a community’s drinking water into a petri dish of disease. 

These latrines are so unsanitary that any comprehensive plan to improve rural health must include their eradication.

This is why, when our local partner in the Chinandega area approaches a community about providing a water system in partnership with Cross Catholic Outreach, it also offers to replace the old latrines with sanitary modern bathrooms. What’s more, it’s not enough that new bathrooms be built alongside the latrines. The families are asked to commit to tearing down the existing structures. The latrines are a major health hazard that must be eradicated.

Related: The Nicaragua Food Crisis

Clean water is more than just for drinking: It is essential for cooking, washing and bathing.

Old Hygiene Habits Die Hard

When families have lived for generations without running water or many of the basic necessities the modern world takes for granted, they might need to learn new habits.

Along with providing new infrastructure, a truly transformative intervention also promotes good hygiene. A community must learn to avoid deeply ingrained practices, such as using old latrines or storing water in open barrels. Simple things like hand-washing and showering must be incorporated into their regular routine.

And of course, it can never be stressed too strongly that drinking water should only come from sanitary sources and that those sources should be protected from contaminants. The long-term preservation of clean water access is one reason why our partner focuses on empowering local leaders and inspiring communities to truly take ownership of their new resources.

The Process of Reaching Water

There are several important steps taken to guarantee the quality and longevity of the water systems. Drilled deep into the earth (to around 200 meters), the boreholes reach into the clean, abundant water table. Such measures ensure that the water systems will endure through seasons of drought and bless communities for generations to come.

  1. Contract trusted drilling company Geotronics Engineering Ltd. for project.
  1. Conduct a hydrogeological survey/determine best location for drilling. Case/drill borehole. Conduct pump and water quality tests to confirm the quantity and quality.
  1. Install additional components: elevated water storage tanks, solar panels and water kiosk.
  1. Train water committee members on borehole maintenance and sanitation. Provide community training on water, sanitation, hygiene and agriculture.

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Lives Transformed Through Your Generosity

To say your support of Nicaraguan water projects quenches thirst is an understatement. What you really unleash is a health revolution. Families learn a new way of life focused on thriving instead of just surviving, and communities come together to prevent the waterborne illnesses that have plagued them for so long. You deliver joy and hope and a new beginning to those who have prayed a day like this would come.

So much has been accomplished, but there is still a widespread need for clean water and sanitation that can only be met as long as caring Catholics like you intercede with your prayers and generosity.

Pit latrines like this one are a source of the contamination that makes people sick.

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.