Her eyes focused on the narrow walking path that zigzagged up the steep mountain. Her legs and shoulders burned with each step, but she was almost home. The plastic container strapped to her back weighed about 40 pounds. She strained to keep it balanced, careful not to lose a single drop of water. As a teenager, Sonia Quispe Viscardo would walk 13 miles every day to fetch water – an exhausting chore that never seemed to end. Back then, she wasn’t even sure if her precious cargo was safe to drink. “We felt like civilization would never reach our town,” she recalls.
But Sonia and her neighbors didn’t sit back and wait for civilization. They brought it to themselves – building a water system and health post with their own hands and some initial support from CARE. And 10 years later, that has made all the difference. Guayacondo, a community of more than 150 families sprawled across a valley in the Peruvian highlands, could be a poster child for lasting community development. For women and girls here, the era of hauling water is now over.
Clean drinking water, basic health services and even a simple dirt road were once dreams for poor indigenous villagers like Sonia. Today, community ownership and shared determination have continued to flourish in Guayacondo after CARE stepped aside. Villagers are leading healthier lives and drinking clean water from spigots instead of risking their health with every sip of river water.
“It’s crucial that local people feel they have a stake in our projects and are the main actors,” says Milo Stanojevich, CARE’s director in Peru. “In the case of Guayacondo, where CARE’s intervention ended in 2005, the community was engaged at every stage and at every level, from project planning to water system construction and ongoing financing and maintenance.”
In developing countries, water systems immediately improve people’s lives after being installed, often with great fanfare. Access to clean water near a rural village means that women don’t have to spend hours walking to collect water from an often-contaminated source that’s shared by animals. It usually helps girls to go to school and mothers to be more productive. It also means better health and fewer preventable illnesses like diarrhea, the second largest cause of child deaths globally. But too often when a water system breaks, it remains broken until the government or a charitable organization repairs it, mainly because communities were not properly involved before any shovel broke ground.
“Getting clean water for communities takes more than just installing a system,” adds Stanojevich. “It requires organization in the community so that there is a trained team in place to maintain the system long after CARE leaves.”
The residents of Guayacondo welcomed the prospect of working with CARE and the Regional Health Bureau to build a functioning water system. They knew that CARE had recently completed a successful water project in a nearby community. From the get-go, 48 families started digging trenches with others joining in soon after, eager to make the project a success.
“Health was a disaster before,” says Sonia, now a mother in her early-30s, who became a volunteer health promoter in Guayacondo. “Water and sanitation used to be only for urban dwellers and not for rural people like us. Mothers were constantly worried that their children would get sick. They knew that drinking dirty water was bad but didn’t have any choice. When a health emergency happened, we used to have to walk several hours over the mountains to reach the nearest town, often arriving too late.”
Growing up in Guayacondo, Sonia, like other women and girls, had to walk for miles each day to get water for her family. She was often weak from hunger and a lack of nutritious food. Today, Sonia is one of a number of women and men from Guayacondo and nearby villages who have taken on the role of educators, trained by CARE and health workers to teach families the importance of basic hygiene and good nutrition, and to help support a community health post that’s linked by two-way radio to a larger emergency referral network, including the regional hospital.
The training Sonia received and the creation of a new health post started in 2002, in tandem with the construction of a water system and organization of a local water and sanitation committee. Since then, there hasn’t been one maternal or water-related death in Guayacondo.
Hernan Quispe Solea was elected as the Guayacondo water and sanitation committee president last year, following in the footsteps of dedicated predecessors. A cabinet in his office in the center of town contains an assortment of spare parts and tools. Detailed charts on the wall map the gravity-fed system – all 10 miles of pipe buried three feet deep, water taps and locations of latrines – and outline standard costs each family is required to pay, the equivalent of a dollar a month to access clean water.
“It’s our role to operate and repair the water and sanitation system and manage the finances,” he says. Seventy-five cents from each payment goes towards maintenance with the rest put in a social fund. The committee, for example, provides $7 from the social fund when a family member gets sick to pay for medicine or other expenses like the cost of transportation to the hospital. The committee has also accrued savings over recent years and now provides small loans to help villagers start businesses or invest in their farms.
Hernan is extremely serious about his role. Seven years after CARE completed its work in Guayacondo, he holds himself, the committee and community accountable for the “gift” they have received. After all, they never thought they would have clean water. The committee cleans the water system every three months and conducts home visits every two months to rate hygiene conditions on a color-coded chart: green is good; yellow is fair; and red is poor.
“Families must maintain cleanliness,” Hernan says while explaining each chart in detail, noting that before there was no trash collection or toilets. Now all families have basic services and participate in a community clean-up every Sunday. “If a house or a toilet gets a red rating, the committee will cut a family’s water line and charge a [$2] penalty to reconnect it. It’s also mandatory for families to attend community meetings and develop plans on what they want to accomplish in the next year.”
Hernan and Sonia both agree that the most important accomplishment has been the reduction of chronic malnutrition, which according to local sources, dropped from approximately 39 percent to 15 percent between 2003 and 2008. “Everything we do works together to reduce malnutrition,” says Sonia. “We are driven to ensure healthy families.”
A glass of clean drinking water seems like such a simple thing. But for the people in and around Guayacondo, access to water has brought about improved health conditions and allowed them to earn more money through increased agriculture production. A few minutes down the road in Neque village, Karina Nicolas Zamora has constructed a better future for her family.
Nicknamed Torcaza (a wild pigeon) as a child because of her feisty spirit, Karina is living proof that the health and water system works. Suffering complications during her last pregnancy three years ago, she was quickly referred by the local nurse to the regional hospital where she received lifesaving care. Karina was part of the original group that worked to build the Guayacondo water system that stretches to her village, as well as an irrigation canal that has helped her land become more fertile. As a result, Karina has undertaken productive activities such as raising guinea pigs and cultivating vegetables and purple corn. Previously, with little water and no irrigation, she relied on rainfall to produce one harvest a year. Today she has two harvests and even exports corn husks to Japan, where they are processed to make a dark purple juice. Karina says she makes about $6 per kilogram from the sale of the husks.
“Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat,” says Karina, who also runs a small three-table restaurant out of her home. “Now we are fulfilling our dreams.”
In Guayacondo and Neque, locals say their annual income has significantly increased. And, as a result of this community’s incredible work ethic, poverty has been reduced.
Achieving project sustainability in remote rural communities is challenging but, if approached correctly, can yield life-changing returns. CARE has a long history of working hand-in-hand with communities and devising programs tailored to their needs. While the Guayacondo example integrates the development of a water and sanitation system with organizing a water committee and training volunteer health promoters, what has mattered most is that people themselves have worked together to address the real causes of preventable sickness and death and to turn their once distant dreams into reality. In short, community ownership has become the key to sustainability.