Agile Aussie charity makes a big splash for WASH access
Image: supplied by Water For A Village.
With lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) still a huge healthcare hurdle around the world, one agile charity has been working with Ethiopian communities to help facilitate grassroots water infrastructure projects to improve access to water.
Founded by Dr Catherine Wheatley and her husband Peter in 2014, Water For A Village has since supplied about 52,000 people across five Ethiopian municipalities with reliable access to water.
Coming from a background in healthcare – including 15 years as a nurse and midwife, and a doctorate in biochemistry – Wheatley said she was moved after seeing firsthand the healthcare challenges communities were facing because of a lack of clean water.
“I was hiking through the mountains in Ethiopia for two weeks with a guide and a donkey. People in the villages learned that I had healthcare experience and just started approaching me with really, really sick children,” she said.
“It was horrific. These kids were incredibly malnourished and had lots of skin and chest infections – the type of infections children die from.”
Wheatley said the health threats from lack of access to clean water are twofold: bathing in dirty water causes a raft of infection issues, while consumption of contaminated water leads to life-threatening gastro-intestinal disease, as well.
“It’s estimated by the WHO that 50% of malnutrition is caused by dirty water,” Wheatley said.
“Although kids are consuming the calories and nutrients they need, they have such bad and frequent infections that they can’t recover properly. Aside from skin infections, these kids have really severe gastro-intestinal infections every two months.
“These diseases are really deadly. And it’s impossible to help overcome these challenges without clean water. When you’ve got repeated infection of the skin or eyes or ears or gut, there needs to be clean water to drink and to wash with. It's very hard to keep a child free from infection if you can’t clean them well.”
After consulting with her husband, Wheatley returned to one of the villages with an interpreter and asked how she could help.
“Everybody’s feedback was that they just needed water. I employed a contractor from the nearest town and engaged a water specialist from the local council. We spoke to the villagers, recruited some of them, and they built their own well,” she said.
“Everything was done by hand, smashing gravel and digging holes, mixing concrete and making 330kg rings of concrete to line the hole. We concreted the top of the well and put a hand pump into it. All the village needed was a little technical know-how and resourcing, otherwise they did it all themselves.”
When Wheatley returned, the news of her work with the village led to donations, and so Water For A Village was founded, with the funding applied to get straight back to Ethiopia.
“We created a charity straight away and used the money to go back and build another five of the same wells in Ethiopia the same year,” she said.
On the ground
Since the first project in 2014, Water For A Village has put in 111 improved water sources, including running water to a health clinic and eight schools. And while the charity’s operations model has changed, many of the ways they work are still the same.
“I still work with councils and use some of their resources. The contractors we use are all qualified and local. After the end-users, contractors and councils come to an agreement, we employ local people from the village to build. Everyone gets paid and they get paid the going rate,” Wheatley said.
“It’s not my role to say what we should put where. My role is solely project coordination and management.”
Wheatley still oversees how funding is allocated and spent, including procuring materials and transporting them to the site.
“We go and purchase all the materials ourselves, which means we get better pricing for it. There is also a lot less wastage. We organise all our own hardware, sand and stone. It helps us be more efficient and improve or adapt to certain circumstances. Buying our own also means we quality control all the materials that we use,” she said.
“The municipalities are very spread out and some of the roads between villages are non-existent. We still do a lot of walking. We will sometimes walk three hours to a village. We also use donkey transport.
“We still don't have anything mechanised. Because of the remoteness and terrain, there is no way to supply the huge amounts of gravel needed, and so this is all done by hand. All the concrete mixing, gravel smashing, digging and rock chipping is done by hand.
“Doing all of this work gives the community and the workers a real sense of ownership and pride. It’s their site, their work and their water.”
Wheatley said the charity now also has a training program, focused on providing a village committee with the information needed to maintain the infrastructure.
“The training program is all about the importance of WASH, but then also the particulars of their site and how they can look after the infrastructure. This is supported by the councils,” she said.
Wheatley said it’s amazing to see the changes Water For A Village is making to the lives of people within the communities.
“As soon as a new water source is secured, kids go to school. They don’t have to spend time fetching water. Young girls can lose one in three school days because they have to spend their time fetching water,” she said.
“The health of the children improves and so they spend even more time at school. And women have more time to care for their home and family because they’re no longer walking for water all day.”
Despite the successes achieved by communities, there’s still a lot of work to be done to address the issue of lack of access to WASH globally. Wheatley said there are still projects being run without appropriate consultation with communities.
“In some instances, infrastructure will be installed but can’t be used or will just fall to bits. The install will be recorded as a success without being a success. It hasn’t helped send any kids to school or saved any children from disease. It hasn’t saved a woman an entire day of her life spent walking to collect water,” Wheatley said.
“I visited a school and took a look at the water provision infrastructure that had been installed. I couldn’t believe it. Someone had installed a huge expensive tank and built a wet area for washing and drinking, and none of it was connected up to a water supply.
“It’s an awful waste, and we can’t afford to waste any more resources or time.”
Wheatley said this is one of the reasons why she still oversees the charity's projects – to ensure that funding and resources are allocated effectively and efficiently, so that more people can have access to water.
“My husband and I feel really strongly about it. We need to model to our children and grandchildren that they have a social responsibility to help other people,” she said.
“The fact that we have access to clean, reliable water 24/7 is just mind blowing. It’s linked to everything, starting from being able to get an education because you don’t have to spend your day walking for water. There are millions of people who don’t have that privilege.”
Learn more about Water For A Village here.