Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Water: A Source of Health and Hope in Nicaragua

by Rob Bell and El Porvenir Staff

The Hernandez family lives in a one-room brick home in La Pita, Nicaragua. The house has a tile roof and dirt floor. It’s simple, yet clean. In partnership with El Porvenir, the Hernandez family and other members of their community now have water taps just outside their doors and latrines behind their homes.
In Nicaragua, many women and children still have to walk long distances to retrieve water for their families’ daily use. Photo: Forest Woodward

Victoria Hernandez Diaz can tell you how she used to walk two kilometers every day to get water from a creek—waiting in long lines to draw the water once she got there. The Hernandez family didn’t have a latrine; their latrine was the outdoors. This practice, followed by all the members of their community, contaminated the environment. It led to illness—parasites and diarrhea—not only in the people but also in the animals that the people raised for food. The people knew little about healthy hygiene, so their constant illnesses led to extra family expense: going to the doctor, buying medicine, missing work.

Many women carried all the water they needed (40 liters a day) in one trip to and from the creek. Carrying this heavy load of water when already debilitated by diarrhea was just too much for them. “I had two miscarriages,” Victoria Hernandez said, “because I had to carry water from far away—one bucket on my head and one on my hip. We didn’t have a latrine. We drank dirty water. We carried it long distances.” she recalled.

Continuing her story, Victoria added, “Drought affected us as well. The creek where we all went for water dried up. That meant we had to drink water from the stream where the horses that had skin disease got sick during that time, and some of them died. The children couldn’t go to class because they had to help carry the water. It took so long that they missed school.”

Today the families of La Pita have clean water right outside their front doors. Walking only a few steps, they can get as much safe water as they need. Family members can visit the latrine in their backyard whenever they need to. The families have also learned when and why they need to wash their hands. So they are healthier.

Having more time, now that she doesn’t have to walk back and forth to the creek for water, Victoria Hernandez opened a small store in her home. There, she sells rice, sugar, snacks, and her own baked bread. Her children have been able to attend school more regularly and they do better with their studies. Her husband works as a day laborer on private farms and also has his own small farm plot. The family now earns $6 per day—much higher than the $1 to $2 average for most rural Nicaraguans.

Water Resources

An El Porvenir water project, Nicaragua. El Porvenir means “the future” in Spanish. Photo: Jon Polka

El Porvenir means “the future” in Spanish. A bright future for Nicaragua is one in which all people have fresh, safe drinking water and sanitary latrines nearby. It’s a future in which they know the hazards of dirty water, how to avoid waterborne diseases, and how to maintain clean-water systems in their communities. El Porvenir has been working in Nicaragua toward this goal for 23 years. “Clean water for Nicaragua” is our slogan.

El Porvenir works on both water and sanitation—because sanitation goes hand-in-hand with water. Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) are at the core of our programs. Our water work concentrates on building gravity-fed water systems, digging wells, and teaching communities how to test their water. Sanitation includes building latrines and wash stations, in both the community and individual homes. Hygiene is the health education aspect of El Porvenir’s work, in which we teach people how to reduce water- and sanitation-related illness through good hygiene practices. But we also engage in watershed protection, working to protect the water sources that our organization helps communities to build.

Woman and Child Benefits

As Victoria Hernandez’ story shows, the introduction of clean water resources into a community directly affects the women and children. Of course, the health of the whole family is improved, but the women and children gain more time as well. There is time for children to go to school and time for women to return to school and even to seek higher education if they wish. We’ve seen many cases of this happening. Some of the women also get involved in our hygiene education. El Porvenir uses a “train the trainer” model in which our health educators (60% of whom are women) identify and prepare local hygiene and health promoters from the community to reinforce hygiene training on an ongoing basis. We have a standard 10 rules for latrine use that everyone is encouraged to learn and follow.

We also broadcast health and hygiene information on local radio stations to reinforce health learning and to reach a larger audience. El Porvenir’s health educators work with elementary schools to teach children hygiene and environmental awareness. We provide coloring books with topics such as forest conservation and proper hand washing. We find that if we teach thde children, their parents also learn and are likely to put the guidelines into practice much sooner.

Clean Water Partnerships

El Porvenir has a number of church partners working with its projects in Nicaragua. Volunteer teams from churches in the United States come from a variety of denominations, though United A community member speaks up at a community meeting on water safety and hygiene in Dario, Nicaragua. Photo: Forest WoodwardMethodist and Episcopal teams are more frequent than others. UMCOR has partnered with El Porvenir to provide small grants for specific water projects. But the main source of funding from United Methodists comes from individuals and churches who give anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 a year to the project through the Advance.

While partnership is important and financial aid is always needed, in reality, Nicaraguan communities don’t need physical assistance to build their water projects. El Porvenir partners with communities to build—with or without outside group involvement—and most of the community projects are done without outside help. That’s also important because these communities need to be empowered. A big component of our program is the “sweat equity” through which local communities build their own projects. Community members dig their own wells, dig their own latrines, lay the bricks—all the labor or “sweat equity” for the project. They take ownership of these projects, putting in a lot of time, effort, and money.

The community contributes a minimum of 5 to 10 percent of the project material costs—and some communities contribute up to 30 percent. That includes the cost of whatever materials or other valuable resources the community members contribute beyond their labor. Also, the local municipal government contributes an additional 10 to 15 percent of material costs.

We do encourage outside groups to come and visit, however, because that gives local community members an opportunity to work side-by-side with a group from the United States, or Canada, or Europe. It’s an opportunity for mutual learning, as other nationalities gain an understanding of how things work in Nicaragua and what it’s like to live in our communities. It also allows the local people to gain some insight into the mindset of people who come from a different context. Nicaraguan community members really appreciate visiting groups. They enjoy fellowship with them and usually throw a party for them at the end of their stay. Then the groups return home and tell others about water projects and ways to support them.

Protecting Water Resources

Once a community has a clean water source and adequate sanitation facilities and its people have learned better hygiene practices, there is still another step to take to ensure the proper maintenance of water projects. El Porvenir’s hygiene education program includes an environmental component—sustainability. We are currently modifying our community educational training to include watershed protection. We’ve been doing different aspects of watershed protection, such as reforestation, for 12 to 14 years; but earlier, we hadn’t focused on watershed protection specifically.

As a pilot project, El Porvenir has chosen a watershed site to rehabilitate so as to make it a model for other communities. Creating a model site calls for going beyond a well and latrines and planting a few trees. It may involve getting the owners of the land that forms a community’s watershed to change their agricultural practices. In general, agricultural matters are not our area of expertise. In this particular case, however, three or four large landowners own most of the land in the area, which is not actually a full watershed but is what is called a micro-watershed. The larger, full watershed covers five or six municipalities and is beyond our scope. So, we’re looking at only the micro-watershed. It’s small but not minor, being the water source for the whole town. So it will have a high impact.

In Nicaragua, it’s not unusual for farmers to burn the land before planting. Even when the land is relatively clear of vegetation, the farmers will burn it again to prepare for planting the following year. They call this practice “traditional planting,” although it has been the practice for only about 100 years. While it’s not a longstanding indigenous tradition, it is hard for them to break this habit.

El Porvenir has a strong partnership with the local municipal governments of the communities in which it works. These governments also help to fund the projects. So with the watershed site, we’re going to work more closely with the mayors and other municipal leaders. They can help convince the landowners to do things in a different way. Since the watershed pilot project we’re planning is the source of water for the whole town, it’s definitely in everyone’s interest to cooperate.

Health for All

Victoria Hernández Diaz in La Pita, Nicaragua, in her yard.  Photo: Courtesy El PorvenirAlong with the other women in her community, Victoria Hernandez Diaz now has time to take care of her family and her store. To maintain their water system, the La Pita residents created a Water and Sanitation Committee, which meets occasionally with staff from El Porvenir to discuss water, sanitation, and hygiene in the community. This committee devised a way to maintain the water system by collecting a small fee from community residents. Victoria was elected to be the treasurer of that committee. She collects the payments, deposits them, does the accounting, and reports on the fund to the committee. Hernandez has gained more than clean water and good health for her family. She has gained pride, new skills, and new purpose. “I like to go to the El Porvenir meetings,” she says, “and share with my family and neighbors the things we can do to better our lives and be healthier. If we do things well, we are going to be well. My dreams are to have a clean and united community—one without sickness and with strong relationships with my family and our neighbors.”

Rob Bell is the executive director for El Porvenir in Managua, Nicaragua. Visit the El Porvenir website at www.elporvenir.org .

Captions

In Nicaragua, many women and children still have to walk long distances to retrieve water for their families’ daily use. Photo: Forest Woodward
 
An El Porvenir water project, Nicaragua. El Porvenir means “the future” in Spanish. Photo: Jon Polka

A community member speaks up at a community meeting on water safety and hygiene in Dario, Nicaragua. Photo: Forest Woodward

Victoria Hernández Diaz in La Pita, Nicaragua, in her yard. Photo: Courtesy El Porvenir


United Methodist Support for El Porvenir

United Methodists can support El Porvenir through the Advance by donating to “Clean Water, Healthy Nicaraguans,” Advance #525000.

For more information on sending a volunteer team to Nicaragua to work with El Porvenir communities, visit the work team page on El Porvenir’s website.