October 31, 2011

Water for All: Sustainable water projects need ownership

David Weaver
David Weaver, Church World Service senior advisor for Global Advocacy. Photo: Fredrick Nzwili/WCC

David Weaver, Church World Service senior advisor for Global Advocacy attended the Oct. 25-27 Global Forum of the Ecumenical Water Network of the World Council of Churches.  EWN is a network of churches and Christian organizations "promoting  people's access to water around the world."  In this interview, from the WCC, Weaver  discusses how the Mwingi Water for All Project is attempting to contribute to water justice with Kenya journalist Fredrick Nzwili.

Can you briefly outline the work you are doing in the area of water and sanitation in your country or elsewhere?

The Mwingi Water for All Project is a Church World Service partnership project and it’s a classic example of adapting, finding locally appropriate, easily managed projects that can improve access to water for local communities.

I think the key thing that was identified in the visit [by Global Forum participants] to Mwingi is the importance of mobilization, organization and ownership.

In fact, a lot of the work that we do in partnership to create water projects in Africa or Latin America or Asia or elsewhere, is precisely that, community mobilization and organization.

We recognize that as absolutely critical and without that sort of community arc – both ownership and management – the projects themselves will not be sustainable.

What would you say are the key lessons from your work on water issues?

I mean, anyone in the development field who is honest will look around the world and say, since the age of development started in the post World War II period, there are plenty of projects that were initiated, that were discovered to be unsustainable. So the best way to create a sustainable project is one that has community ownership and where the community is accountable itself, but also does it in a way, and with the kind of materials and resources that the community itself can mobilize and maintain.

Bringing in inputs that require constant re-supply from outside, especially if they are beyond the economic means of the community at that stage, probably means that the project will not be sustainable.

In other places we’ll do household projects. One of these highlighted by the EWN when we did the testimony before the United Nations Human Rights Council was a program in Cambodia which is focused on households.

Cambodia does not suffer from water scarcity. They have an abundance of water but what they do have a problem with is water quality. That’s both from pollutants either agricultural or industrial but also simply things like water borne pathogens and other things that contaminate water.

So we devised a very simple sand and gravel filtration system that can be built from local materials at extremely low costs for each household. These have been extremely successful at filtering the water and removing a lot of pathogens and parasites.

It’s that kind of adapting your interventions to the community at a stage at which they themselves can sustain and over which they have ownership. It’s a critical first sustainable development around water.

How is your organization benefiting from being part of the EWN?

The Ecumenical Water Network has two focuses; one is on mobilization and advocacy around the human right to water and sanitation. The second has been the exchange of good practices among people who are actually implementers of water projects.

So we took some of our staff from our Cambodia project to the regional meeting in Asia; they were able to meet with other people from the Asian context, share information about what works and what doesn’t work, what produces sustainable intervention and what doesn’t produce sustainable intervention and how to work in various contexts.

One of the things about water, like anything else, is that you really do need to pay close attention to the specifics, even things like social and cultural factors, in the way the community has developed and used it’s resources.

For instance we noted how women are the principal organizers of the water systems in the African village context. That’s because women have always taken responsibility for the provision of water for household use, even when it means walking five hours a day back and forth to the nearest water source.

It was a woman’s responsibility so women themselves had in a sense of social and cultural background, a kind of context within which they would be the ones to take responsibility for organizing themselves to provide water for the community.

You need to be sensitive to those kinds of social and cultural facts wherever you’re working in the development field.

See also:

Water: a political issue needing political solution

Steering for human rights to water