Kaitlyn's Trip to Haiti with Water.org

Last summer, the lovely Caroline Urdaneta of Salsa Pie approached us here at the The Mission List to do a fundraising campaign for Water.org. With help from Caroline, the folks at Water.org, and many amazing bloggers we were able to raise nearly $3,000 -- enough money to bring 118 people access to clean water for life. Little did I realize that each person who set up a fundraising page was entered to win a trip to Haiti with Water.org to visit their well sites and see how fundraising dollars were being put to use. I won! And thus, last month, my sister Kristen and I set out for Haiti with members of the Water.org team.

Every $25 donated to Water.org is enough money to bring clean water to one person for life. And it's easy to stop thinking about your donation's impact after you've filled in your credit card information and hit "submit". But, as I learned in Haiti, that is only the very beginning of the journey toward bringing sustainable access to water to those in need.

Water.org works with local partners in the countries in which they operate; unlike other organizations, they do not do perform the physical act of digging the wells. Water.org provides grant money to local partners who organize communities that wish to maintain a well. Communities must come together to apply to have a well built, and if they do not meet the criteria they will be denied. There is no outside organization coming in, plopping in a well, and leaving without regard for what the community wants or needs.

Think about your own town or neighborhood. Think about community meetings (a la Parks and Rec) where no one can agree on even the most simple things like cutting down trees or repainting crosswalks. Then consider communities in Haiti which must come together to form committees to manage their own water supplies. Often, these water committees will meet more than 30 times over the course of just a few months.

The wells which Water.org funds operate much differently than wells built by other aid organizations. Just before I left, I read a NPR article describing some of the challenges communities face regarding wells outside organizations have built. As David Kestenbaum reports:

For a while, aid workers largely treated clean water as an engineering problem: If there's no clean water in a village, dig a well. But when researchers actually tested the water in the homes of people who got water from clean wells, they often found contamination.

Though the water that comes of the wells is clean, it can become contaminated by the time people drink it if not handled properly. Dirty buckets used to transport the water, dried fecal material carried by the wind (latrines play a key role in water sanitation), or kids sticking their hands in the buckets can all contribute to contamination. As Kestenbaum reports - and as I witnessed firsthand - a small drop of chlorine kills any germs that may cause diseases like cholera, which has proven devastating to the people of Haiti. Kestenbaum notes that only about 40% of the water aid workers tested showed use of the chlorine drops. People either didn't like the taste or didn't believe it would actually work.

Wells built through grants from Water.org also provide dispensers of chlorine -- and people actually use them. The key difference is that partner organizations, like the inimitable members of Haiti Outreach who we met, work to educate communities about the critical importance of sanitation in keeping their water clean and safe. Each water committee has a member who is responsible for overseeing the dispersal of water. In addition to paying a monthly or per-use fee, community members must remove their shoes before entering the well house, must put a drop of chlorine in the water, and must use clean buckets with lids to transport the water. Members of the water committee are responsible for ensuring that these rules are followed.

These rules are critical as they ensure the long-term sustainability of access to clean water. In countries or regions where aid is part of the culture, it's commonplace for communities to lack connection to the projects which benefit them. If an organization builds a well and puts a plaque on it with the names of foreign donors, community members are less likely to feel that well is theirs -- it benefits them, but is ultimately someone else's responsibility. Communities who benefit from Water.org-funded wells must uphold strict rules about when water can be drawn from the well to prevent overuse or breakage. Community members must pay a fee - equivalent to about $1USD per month - to ensure that if the well breaks, the community will have money to fix it. It's good to build wells for those in need, but it is better to give them the tools and education to ensure that wells will benefit communities for years to come.

I want to extend my warmest and most sincere thanks to everyone at Water.org, including Mike, Annie, Nick, and Natasha as well as everyone from Haiti Outreach and DINEPA - this was an experience I will never forget!