There is a water crisis afflicting 2.2 billion people around the world, and El Pedregal — a small rural community in Chinandega, Nicaragua — provides a case study in how we can bring relief and hope to those who need it most. It helps us see that when it comes to providing water solutions, it can take flexibility and different approaches to get the job done.
In El Pedregal, families that once languished from a lack of clean, reliable water sources now enjoy a modern, electric-pump-operated system that delivers up to as much as 300 gallons of filtered water a day to household taps. The water is so clean that even foreign visitors with sensitive stomachs who might normally avoid village water sources for fear of getting ill, can drink straight from any household faucet without worry.
Reyna, a local resident who volunteered to serve as treasurer on El Pedregal’s water project leadership team, said, “Water is life and will help my children and grandchildren, as well as my community, be healthier.”
One might see the success in El Pedregal and assume replicating that water project in every needy community would be wise, but that is not the case. Water is needed elsewhere, but each village, situation and local geology is different, and all those factors must be taken into account to solve a community’s problems efficiently.
The abandoned, unusable wells taking up space in many impoverished communities are a sobering wake-up call to the fact that charitable — as well as governmental — interventions often fail. Even with the best intentions, a project can fall short of a community’s hopes and dreams.
Such failed or incomplete water projects foster skepticism. Local families might have lost money and are not eager to take another risk. Community leaders meet your offer of a new solution not with cheers and open arms, but with hesitation. “We’ve heard these promises before.”
It’s easy to think, “The last group just did poor work. We will build a better one.” But there is more to the story.
For starters, what works in one location may be inappropriate or even impossible in another.
For a past project in the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where construction projects are heavily restricted by law and a municipal water system already exists, Cross Catholic Outreach partnered with the Holy Rosary Sisters to help families purchase the supplies needed to connect their homes to the waterline.
More recently, in the Kenyan Archdiocese of Mombasa, we have been helping Father Fabian Hevi install solar-powered wells along with distribution kiosks.
And in the Dominican Republic, the social outreach arm of the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana installs gravity-fed systems that sometimes connect to irrigation lines.
While each situation may pose different challenges, what makes these — and other — projects succeed are the same principles that ended the water crisis in El Pedregal.
Catholic social teaching discourages heavy-handed top-down charitable efforts that rob communities and local Church leaders of self-determination and control. A Catholic ministry should empower local leaders and beneficiaries whenever possible.
A big reason El Pedregal’s water project was successful was because it involved the community on every level. We placed control in the hands of local experts, who used the experience to grow social connections in the community. Our in-country partner in that case had many Nicaraguans on its staff and specialized in developing projects in rural Chinandega.
By supporting local efforts, we empower people who understand the community’s problems, strengths and culture, who know local laws, who are trusted by the beneficiaries, and who deeply care about the families they serve.
In the case of Ethiopia, for example, our local partner understood that there was only one way to get clean water to the slums and that the families could afford the recurrent water fees but needed help with upfront costs.
This also means that the shape a project takes depends on the partner’s own capacity. Some of our partners are sizable organizations with the tools, knowledge and resources to pursue large-scale water systems; others are small, grassroots ministries that undertake humbler projects but do so effectively and with great care and compassion.
To ensure that good drinking water is flowing weeks, months, years after a project is done, our partners work alongside the people they aim to help.
To begin, we need to consider a community’s own hopes and desires. Does it truly want the water system we are offering, and is it willing to share in the work? If, for example, most of the beneficiaries have no interest in growing crops, an irrigation canal may be unnecessary.
Education is also important. Families that have always lacked access to good sanitation facilities may not know how unsafe their water is, or that the waste from their old latrines is poisoning the water table, or that the new wells must be treated with care. In many cases, families will keep their old hand-dug water pits that attract mosquitoes and disease, or they will continue the habit of storing water in large open barrels that also attract mosquitoes, because they don’t realize the full danger.
In most cases, community organizing must be done. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) committees must be appointed to manage and maintain the water source, set some rules and collect a monthly maintenance fee. Individuals are recruited to educate their neighbors on basic hygiene and sanitation.
While a quality water system does not technically require spiritual faith to run, we believe that aid given in the name of Christ has a special significance and that a strong faith community increases the likelihood of lifting the poor out of hardship.
Just as different communities require different water solutions, the efforts at Catholic formation can also vary widely, ranging from overt evangelism to communicating how our social actions and generosity are motivated by Christ. In every case, souls are edified, the Church is strengthened, and God is glorified.
Every month (on the 25th)
Proceeds from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2023, 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.