Potable Water Projects: Supporting Community Unity & Women’s Empowerment in Ecuador
“For many of us, clean water is so plentiful and readily available that we rarely, if ever, pause to consider what life would be like without it.”
– Marcus Samuelsson
Lush jungle spills over the muddy banks of the slow-moving Rio Cayapas in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Province. The communities along the Rio Cayapas depend on this vast and isolated waterway for their way of life. The river and its tributaries provide not only food, livelihoods and the region’s only mode of transport, but also are the source of water for most of the area’s ~7000 families. “My whole life, when you needed water for the bathroom, for the kitchen, when you needed to bathe, for anything, you went down to the river,” María Roxi de la Cruz Cimarrón, a resident and mother from the community of Jeyambi explained. “Everybody had to go down to the river: men, women, children – if you used water, you had to go down to the river and haul it up to your house. But women, and girls, really had the brunt of the task, because we use most of the water – cooking, cleaning, other tasks around the house.”
Imagine you just finished a long day of work and you arrive at your home only to realize there’s no water for the meal you’re going to cook for your family tonight. You’d grab a large bucket and head down to the river to fill it. But it doesn’t stop there, you need another bucket of water for washing the dishes afterward and another if you want to wash your hands or flush your toilet that evening. Each bucketful is another trip to the river and back, the container feeling heavier and heavier with each new trip. Families in the communities along the Rio Cayapas face the challenge of not having potable clean water every day.
Contamination from agriculture, animal husbandry, industrial runoff, and a widespread lack of access to sanitation infrastructure has damaged Ecuador’s wealth of rivers, lakes and streams, with serious impacts on human and environmental health. Because of the geographic isolation of the rural communities along the Rio Cayapas, they also experience a severe lack of access to nearly all basic services and minimal attention from state and outside actors, thus limiting economic opportunities and human development. Unfortunately, they’re not alone – in fact, about 30% of the world’s population still lacks access to safe drinking water, with 1.2 million dying due to unsafe drinking water every year.
Changing Lives in Rio Cayapas
In 2016, Green Empowerment and ALTROPICO began working focusing our efforts on potable water projects, partnering with local communities to bring this vital service to households, schools, and clinics through community-run water systems. We believe that access to clean water is a human right, and the need has only become more pressing in the face of the current pandemic. Although COVID-19-related travel bans and curfews in early 2020 slowed our efforts, widespread pay-by-the-hour internet access in the Cayapas watershed allowed us to provide remote technical guidance for water committee technicians in various communities.
Bringing clean water to communities along the Rio Cayapas has changed families’ lives in more ways than you might think. From saving women and girls time to bringing back a sense of community and ownership and inspiring women and youth to take on leadership roles, these projects have changed people’s lives for generations to come. “Now that we’ve got the water system, things have really changed – it’s a dream come true, and we made it happen with our own hard work,” María Roxi de la Cruz told us. “I just want to express my appreciation to everyone who supported this project, and who helped make it happen.”
The Impact on Women and Girls
By providing access to potable water piped right to the home, families no longer need to worry about contamination from the river or the drudgery of collecting water. Now, instead of having to haul buckets of water from the river as part of a long day of work, women can focus their time on income-generating activities and their families, and young girls are free to focus on their education. Along with the external changes brought by having access to clean water, there is also a deeper, more internal change in families. ALTROPICO Water and Sanitation Technician, Gustavo Huera Cuases, describes it, “When clean water runs through their tap for the first time, you can see people realize that their lives are changing, especially women and girls, a change that is not only physical but emotional, because as they’re often told us ‘now we will have more time to devote to our children or simply more time to rest.’ The way people are so overcome by emotion about having water in their homes tells you how much this new service really creates happiness, additional free time, and peace of mind for the population.”
Unity and Ownership in the Communities
One of the main challenges that communities work to overcome through potable water projects is community disunity. Along with ensuring safe drinking water and saving women and girls time, these water projects have also restored a feeling of community and ownership in the villages along the Rio Cayapas. There is a sense of joy and companionship among neighbors when they work together to improve their community for generations to come. “The approach we’ve taken to implement these projects has revived communities’ trust in the communal work system (minga). People have lost faith in this system due to modernization and family individualism, and have missed opportunities to develop and improve their communities with it.” Gustavo recounted. “In the end, they’ve overcome their belief that they were not capable of doing something on their own, they’ve overcome the fear of feeling poor, of feeling different from those who live in big cities, they’ve learned to value their own efforts and defend what they call ‘their water project’.”
Women and Youth Take the Lead on Community Potable Water Projects
Through these local water projects, women and youth are taking on leadership roles, in many cases for the first time. GE and ALTROPICO help each community form a local water committee – which is legally recognized by the state – training community members on leadership, accounting, system operation and maintenance, which leads to long-term sustainability and community empowerment. “The establishment of these projects in Ecuadorian communities has made it possible to bring a new generation of community leaders to the fore since in most cases, older adults have traditionally held leadership positions in these communities,” Gustavo explained. “This practice has gradually changed and as a result, we have many water committees where young people have taken the lead and, with proper training, have gained the necessary tools to lead community organization. As part of this younger group, women have provided a key element for the organizational sustainability of the water committees, not only in traditional women’s roles such as treasurer or secretary but also as technicians and system operators.”
Meet Elena, a 24-year-old mother of two from the community Piedra. Since her community’s system began operating in 2019, she’s been working as the technician/operator of the water system, a position commonly held by men. Elena keeps a cheerful and positive attitude as she maintains the technical aspects of the water system and has set an example for others with her responsibility and dedication. “Her water system’s better cared-for and managed than any other in the area,” Gustavo told us.
By putting the power in the hands of local women, it’s amazing to see the solutions that come about. ALTROPICO and Green Empowerment are proud to assist the communities along the Rio Cayapas in changing their lives for generations to come. Having access to clean water is transformative, especially for women and children, and is foundational for community development. Beyond the physical benefits of having clean access to water, these projects have brought forth a sense of unity and ownership in the communities, inspiring a newfound inner strength and belief in one’s abilities. We are so proud of the women and youth in these communities who have embraced the challenges and risen to leadership, inspiring others and changing lives.
We at Green Empowerment would like to give special thanks to Gustavo Huera Cuases, ALTROPICO’s Water and Sanitation Technician for providing photos and community testimonials. Gustavo has been responsible for so much of the organizations’ progress in providing critical services in the Cayapas basin and elsewhere in Esmeraldas. Whether working nights and weekends to help train and organize communities, waking up at 3AM to transport water samples via canoe to a lab in Quito, or spending weeks on end working side-by-side with community members on system construction, Gustavo’s dedication, skill, and constant desire to learn and improve are the foundation for our success and that of local communities.