Joshua Briemberg, WaterAid’s Country Representative in Nicaragua, discusses the launch of WaterAid’s Nicaragua program, the organization’s first foray into Latin America, and outlines future plans for helping some of the country’s poorest, least accessible and largely indigenous communities gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
Why did WaterAid decide to work in Nicaragua?
Nicaragua is considered the second poorest country in the region after Haiti with low levels of access to education, healthcare, water and sanitation, especially amongst the indigenous population in rural areas.
In addition to almost 20 years of war and armed conflict, Nicaragua has suffered a succession of debilitating disasters including a large earthquake in 1972 and hugely destructive hurricanes in 1988, 1998 and again in 2008, which damaged the economy and social fabric. Where communities live without access to safe water and sanitation, water-related diseases are exacting a huge toll on families’ health, keeping children out of school and stifling chances of economic growth.
Which area of the country are you working in?
We work in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region on the Caribbean Coast. It is a remote, isolated region that is hard to access — only one road comes here! The area has been subject to various enclave economies, such as mining, logging, fishing and lobster catching, but most of the wealth leaves the region and the majority of people here are very poor. There are many subsistence farmers. Just one in five of the 300,000-strong population has access to safe water and sanitation. Very few organizations have worked in this tropical rainforest region, with most focusing their programs in the northern and central mountainous regions of the country.
Who suffers most from lack of access to water and sanitation?
Infants are the most vulnerable to diarrheal diseases caused by unsafe water and sanitation. I recently visited a community where a three-week-old baby had just died from water-related diseases. It’s often hard to tell just how many infants die as many births aren’t registered or deaths aren’t reported. While access to official healthcare is low, a network of local volunteers has helped to lower infant mortality by distributing oral rehydration salts. However, many children are frequently too ill with water-related diseases to attend school.
The task of water hauling usually falls to women and girls. This exhausting work stops women from doing other activities like agricultural work and causes girls to miss school. They also face the risk of violence while collecting water from isolated riverside locations.
Where do people get their water from?
Typical water sources are surface water supplies like small rivers or creeks, which vary greatly in both quality and quantity on a seasonal basis. During the rainy season the rivers become flooded and full of sediment, so the water is very dirty. Collecting water from raging rivers can also be very dangerous. The water is increasingly contaminated by the expansion of cattle ranching and poor migrant communities living upstream without sanitation facilities.
Some people have set up rudimentary systems to catch rainwater from their roofs during the rainy season. Improving the design of these to make them safer and more effective is one of WaterAid’s aims. There are also hand-dug wells, but they suffer from the lack of maintenance and were often poorly constructed; many dry up in the dry season.
What has WaterAid done to date?
Our priority to start with has been to help communities to improve or repair existing water points that are unsafe or broken. We have been training communities to install, maintain and repair rope pumps, a simple type of water pump that although based on an ancient concept was first reintroduced and modernized in Nicaragua and is now in use in many WaterAid programs around the globe. In this region of Nicaragua there is not a ready source of spare parts or knowledge about the pumps, so we are helping to establish robust management and maintenance systems.
Through the vocational training of pump mechanics we’re setting up people with skills they can use professionally, so as well as securing people’s access to safe water, we’re giving local business initiatives a boost.
How will WaterAid help communities get water?
Together with active community participation we will map the water and sanitation needs so we know where to prioritize our assistance. We will develop prototype models of low cost and accepted water technologies — rainwater harvesting systems, hand-dug wells, rope pumps, claypot filters — and help communities with the construction work as well as setting up long-term maintenance plans. Sustainability of our work is a key concern — we are considering how to make technologies more resilient to threats such as natural disasters and vandalism.
Tell us about WaterAid’s sanitation work.
We will help families to build what are locally known as eco-toilets. They are pour-flush toilets integrated into the home that are connected to septic tanks and infiltration fields. It’s important to us that the toilets are in people’s homes as this means that people less able to leave the home, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, will be able to benefit.
In the town of Puerto Cabezas (also known as Bilwi) we are planning to market a range of sanitation options, with finance offered through a micro-credit scheme, so that residents can pay back the costs of their new toilets in installments over time.
As well as improving health, sanitation gives people dignity and pride in their surroundings. Our sanitation programs in schools will help create healthier and more pleasant environments there, which should encourage children to attend school more often.