Local Perspectives Lead to Long Term Success

In my last article, I laid out the reasons why the most obvious water source is often not the one that works. So how can we identify the best water source?

At Green Empowerment we use a dual approach, weighing technical considerations and simultaneously working closely with the community to address social and political factors. Who owns the land around the stream or the spring? Are there multiple communities that directly, or indirectly could benefit from the water source? Has there been any significant changes in the water flow during floods or droughts? Does the water or its source have significant cultural implications? These are important questions to address when working with rural (or any) communities.

While other large international development projects may focus more on macro scale or regional/national scale implications, for us local community input is vital in order to provide significant information for the technical design team. As our field and partner staff test the quality of local water sources, we organize community meetings to understand historical, social and political attributes of these water sources. The outcomes of such community meetings could determine whether or not we achieve the public health goals envisioned as a result of the project.

For instance, in Rio Abajo, Nicaragua, during community mapping we noticed that about 20% of households were clustered away from the rest of the community and were reluctant to participate in water distribution projects or to even get water access. In this case, one may argue that if the households are uninterested in the project, we should move on and focus on the other 80% of the community. However, if one of the key goals of investing in water access infrastructure is to improve public health and reduce the risk of outbreaks, then building a water system that excludes one cluster of the community is definitely not the solution we should seek.

By the end of 2020, the people of Río Abajo built a new water system that would deliver treated clean water directly to all 129 homes in the community as well as the local primary school.

There are two main reasons for that: One is that inequitable service access may deepen the divide in communities and shatter the balance that exists between community members by pushing households with no water access to be further marginalized in the community. In addition, if the goal is really to improve public health, then when children from households with no treated water are in direct contact with children from households with treated water access, the vector for disease transfer is still exposing the whole community to the risks of outbreak.

In this case, together with our partner we organized community meetings to better understand the reluctance of this sector to participate in the project. It became clear that families were concerned that the project wasn’t going to work after previous failed attempts at water projects with other organizations. They did not want to waste their labor and resources on a project that they feared would not ever be completed. As a result, we invested extra time building a relationship and trust with these families, demonstrating our expertise and sharing previous projects. Ultimately the families decided to participate and now the entire community of Río Abajo has clean running water in their homes.

Beyond choosing the water source, input from and collaboration with community members is vital for each step of the water system design process. Once the best source of water has been identified, community members negotiate access to the water source among themselves in order to move forward with the project. With the source secured, our technical staff begin to map out system design given the unique topographical and social situation in each community.

Through community meetings Green Empowerment and our partner ALTROPICO worked with the residents of Felfa, Ecuador to find a water source and reservoir location that both fit technical specifications and were responsive to local social and economic factors.

Our designs simultaneously aim to minimize the cost of system construction (both in purchased materials and in community-provided labor) and ensure long-term system sustainability. For example, in the small Ecuadorian community of Felfa, while a relatively uncontaminated stream had traditionally provided the community with water access, pumping water from this stream would have generated significant additional maintenance cost for the community and created dependence on the unreliable local power grid. However, the area did have one elevated spring, located on private land. Extensive negotiations were needed to secure access and guarantee long-term conservation of the forest surrounding the spring. While the landowner eventually agreed to provide access in return for the construction of a watering trough for his cattle, the same landowner was unwilling to cede space on a hill overlooking the community for the construction of an elevated reservoir.

In consultation with the community, Green Empowerment and our partner agreed to not risk the agreement regarding access to the water source with further requests for a tank site. Instead the design team re-routed conduction pipelines to reach the new reservoir location on a smaller hill on the other side of the community. The new route avoided cattle pastures (which require pipes to be buried deeper to avoid damage, and thus more work for the community) and the design called for increased pipe dimensions to provide sufficient water pressure despite the lower reservoir location. Though the reservoir location was not the best option from a technical point of view, it became the best option when local social and political factors were taken into consideration.

From identifying water sources to mapping out system design local insights and perspectives are essential for creating a system that will withstand both environmental and social/political strain. Designing a system is more than a technical challenge – it is also a practice of relationship building, community organizing, and trusting local knowledge.

In my time at Green Empowerment I have seen first hand the challenges of designing water systems for last-mile communities. I hope you have enjoyed this deep-dive into some of the considerations that go into this work, from the need to focus on community-scale solutions, to the challenge of choosing the best water source, to the absolute necessity to include local perspectives in system design. Thank you for following along. May we all continue the conversation on best practices in collaborating with last mile communities to develop critical infrastructure.

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