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First peoples’ first right: water

WASH supports indigenous communities

In 2017, with his family gathered around, a boy of about ten years walks into the kitchen of his home and turns on the faucet of a brand-new sink. Out pours clean, drinkable water—for the first time ever! He is delighted and amazed because in his whole life, and in all his parents’ and grandparents’ lives, this had never happened before. This young Navajo boy lives in the United States. Today, about 40 percent of his people living in the Navajo Nation (Diné) in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah have no running water or plumbing in their homes. But thanks to the partnership of the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission—a Catholic agency, DIGDEEP—a nonprofit human rights water agency, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), more Navajo families will soon be turning on faucets—and lights, in homes that never had them before. The Navajo Water Project seeks to bring running water and light to 125 homes in Baca, New Mexico. Currently, people living in this remote area must get their own water or, for the more vulnerable who have no way to transport water, depend on the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission truck to deliver it.

A Navajo boy turns on the running water in his house for the first time. PHOTO: DIGDEEP UMCOR’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program is a new partner in this venture and is primarily funding the cost of a geohydrological study to explore new water sources in the area, testing and rehabilitation of an existing well to be brought online to serve the project, and the installation of home water systems for local families. The Navajo Water Project utilizes a combination of solutions to bring water to six towns in northwestern New Mexico, including new wells, individual home cistern and water systems, and better water delivery routes. In homes without electricity, DIGDEEP will install a solar power system to run the pump and provide electricity inside. This program is led by community members and local leaders who advise the project through quarterly meetings of the Navajo Water Council. Homeowners contribute to their systems and receive training to maintain them. The community will manage the finished project in partnership with the St. Bonaventure Mission.

Indigenous Peoples Without Water

It is difficult to determine global statistics on whether indigenous populations have access to water and sanitation or not because accurate data is scarce. Some countries will not collect systematic information because they refuse to officially recognize indigenous peoples. Still, research shows indigenous peoples systematically have lower levels of access globally than the rest of the population. Water, sanitation, and hygiene, known together as WASH, are essential for good health and well-being. Water is used not only for drinking but also for bathing, cooking, cleaning, waste disposal, and agriculture. Yet, 783 million people around the world do not have reliable access to clean drinking water and even more people lack access to water for agriculture and other household tasks to meet their everyday needs. Around the world, 2.4 billion peoplelack adequate sanitation facilities. This lack of access to basic services results in more than 1,000 children dying daily from diseases, many of which are entirely preventable when WASH is addressed and sustained at the community level. Global Ministries’ WASH program works with partners in the most disadvantaged places for WASH within the UMC network, particularly in locations with repeated cholera or diarrhea outbreaks. The program prioritizes institutional WASH support to schools, health facilities, and churches to maximize the impact of the projects across a whole community.

WASH Projects in Bolivia

The Evangelical Methodist Church of Bolivia (IEMB) is primarily a church of indigenous peoples. IEMB members include Aymaras, Quechuas, Tupiguarinies, and other indigenous peoples of Bolivia, reflecting Bolivian society’s many distinct ethnic groups. Engineers in Action (EIA), a nonprofit agency based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, dedicates its work to improve the health and welfare of vulnerable communities in Latin America. Global Ministries has partnered with EIA in the past for WASH projects in Bolivia, and the IEMB formed a partnership with EIA in 2007. In 2017, EIA proposed a project working directly with The Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia to implement WASH improvements at two Methodist schools in Ancoraimes and Eucaliptus, which are predominantly Methodist indigenous communities. Nearly 300 students and their teachers at Ancoraimes Methodist School lacked access to clean, reliable water sources and adequate sanitation facilities. Their system provided no more than three hours of flow per day. Unfortunately, what little water could be accessed was contaminated and could cause sickness. The latrines were too few and in very poor condition, causing additional health problems. In Eucaliptus, there was not enough water to meet basic needs. The existing water tanks at the school were empty because of a lack of pressure in the municipal water system. Sanitation facilities were not being used by the students properly. Sinks had been shut down to save water, and the only tap available in the front yard of the school was dry most of the year.

The marching band of the Ancoraimes Methodist School in Bolivia heads of the celebration of a new WASH project completed in their community. PHOTO: ENGINEERS IN ACTION To rehabilitate and scale the WASH infrastructure at Ancoraimes and Eucaliptus Methodist schools and their surrounding communities, priorities were set for latrine and well construction and rehabilitation, community WASH education programs, WASH education school curriculum, and connecting latrines and water run-offs to the main sewer system. Lorrie King, UMCOR’s program manager for WASH, notes that this project represented the first time that the indigenous EIA staff planned the WASH program, writing and submitting the grant applications to the UMCOR WASH office. “They knew we prioritized WASH in schools,” King explained. “They identified the Methodist schools in need of WASH renovations. They partnered with the Methodist Schools to create the project. When they received the news that we approved the grant and they would receive the funding, the staff in that field office cried. They shut the office down and held a party. They were celebrating their complete ownership of this indigenous project—they did the whole process themselves.” King described how working this way builds up the spirit and capacity of indigenous partners.

Serving Mayan Communities in Guatemala

Water collection is a traditional women’s activity among the indigenous Mayan population in Guatemala. Women and their daughters carry water each day, often multiple times a day, reducing the time they have to care for their home or go to school. Because they carry the heavy load on their heads—neck, back, foot injuries and spinal compressions are common. Maria Santos Baquiax, a young married mother of two in the Santa Apolonia area, estimates that she carried about 75 lbs. 12 times a day most days. She carried water jugs and balanced another jug on her head all while carrying a baby strapped to her back. Today, because of a WASH partnership between UMCOR and Asociación Bienestar Progreso Desarollo (ABPD), she can turn on a tap and get clean water just outside her door. Since 2014, ABPD has been a reliable Global Ministries integrated program partner, serving the indigenous Mayan communities in rural Guatemala through programs of nutrition, community health, water, and sanitation. ABPD’s mission is to promote integrated development services that improve the well-being of families with limited resources, especially in rural Mayan areas. The Santa Apolonia project targeted two communities, Chiquex and Choantonio, for water infrastructure improvement by constructing chlorinated water systems, latrines, and gray water filters, and by providing community WASH education. Using community-owned spring sources, the project freed up water flow at the municipal well and provided enough water for these two villages and their two neighboring communities. “My life has totally changed,” Maria reported to an ABPD evaluator. “Doing all this takes me only an hour or two every day, which has allowed me to have time to harvest strawberries with my husband and sell them in the market.” The entire community owns the water project. “We all use clean water now,” Maria said. “Families are practicing better hygiene, and we all have a better understanding of the importance of washing our hands.”

Maria Santos Baquiax no longer needs to carry 75 lbs. of water to her home 12 times a day. Her new tap is just outside her house. PHOTO: COURTESY ABPD

Learning in Nicaragua

According to UNICEF, only 19 percent of Nicaraguan schools have access to handwashing facilities. Rural schools across Nicaragua lack critical WASH infrastructure including access to nearby safe water, sanitation facilities, hand-washing stations, and educational opportunities on health and hygiene. In the areas where El Porvenir (EP) works, only an estimated 42 percent of schools have access to water, and 74 percent have access to sanitation. This situation affects the children’s health and can lead to chronic illness. School children in Nicaragua show their pride of ownership in the new WASH facilities by painting them brightly and giving instructions for proper handwashing. PHOTO: EL PORVENIR El Porvenir is a trusted and well-established Global Ministries’ partner. The WASH program has partnered with El Porvenir over the years on a number of projects. Last year, the agencies worked together on the “WASH in Rural Nicaraguan Schools” program, which seeks to improve the health and educational attainment of students by partnering with local communities on WASH interventions in rural schools. El Porvenir provides building materials, technical expertise and ongoing education on health and hygiene while communities commit to providing all manual labor and a portion of the costs of all projects. Beneficiaries of this program are children ages 5 to 18 and their teachers. Indirectly, their families also benefit. The location of this project includes the six municipalities in three departments where El Porvenir operates in rural Nicaragua. Through a second project, Food Security and Watershed Restoration in Rural Nicaragua, UMCOR WASH funding is helping El Porvenir to improve the health of watersheds in indigenous, rural communities of Nicaragua through agroforestry and agricultural land reclamation. The effort mobilizes community action committees in watershed protection interventions. This project, which began in 2018, will encompass the six municipalities in which El Porvenir operates in rural Nicaragua, building on former successes in Community-Led Total Sanitation programs and school/household gardening. Although schools in rural Nicaragua rarely have the resources for beautification projects, the El Porvenir wash stations stand out—brightly decorated by the staff and children, showing real pride in ownership. The bright and beautiful stations draw children to them, encouraging good hygiene!

A Promise Fulfilled

UMCOR WASH is committed to continuing work with indigenous communities. Lorrie King of UMCOR confirms: “We have additional projects pending on both domestic Native American reservation lands (ranging from New Mexico, Arizona, Alabama, Montana) and international project sites with the partners mentioned above. The Navajo Water Project will continue to scale up; we will be part of a small consortia undertaking a water desert/water access study to serve indigenous and marginalized populations—such as the Colonia residents in Texas border towns in partnership with DIGDEEP.”

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