Challenges and consequences of fresh water

Simon Monk, Founder of World Nomads, joined other corporate supporters of WaterAid on a recent supporter trip to Timor-Leste. Here he shares the experience.

Blog

31 Aug 2015 | AU
Pregnant Timorese woman standing near tap

As I stand in a steaming hot shower in my hotel in Dili, washing off the dust and the heat from 12 hours on the road, I’m reminded of all the places I’ve been today that barely have running water.

How easily we take water for granted in our every day.

We'd driven the rough coastal road between Dili and Liquica in Timor, past broad rivers full of rocks and stones washed down from the mountains and then turned inland up a rough, steep dirt track, through poor villages scrabbling to eek a subsistence living from the lowland hills and up into a cooler climate of tall forests and coffee plantations.

I was here at the invitation of WaterAid to see the issues these communities face and the outcomes and consequences of their work.

While Timor is mountainous, with central mountains almost 3km high and significant annual rainfall, water remains a problem in many communities. We were visiting the village of Aldeia Kaicasa, a village that WaterAid were just beginning to work in, where the children walk one and a half hours to the nearest water source at the beginning and end of each day and another hour each way to school and back. Five hours a day not spent learning or growing food or improving their village or their life.

It’s easy to support digging wells or piping fresh water into a village because it makes us feel good, but these often aren’t really the problems that need solving. The most impressive thing I learn’t was that WaterAid don’t actually start with water; they take time to listen to communities, work with local teams and government agencies to understand local needs. They employ and build skills in local people who will be able to continue their work long after the Australian team have left.

None of which is particularly easy to raise funds for as it isn’t very tangible and obvious. But its also what’s needed. A local community has to demonstrate they’re committed to change, they have to establish a local committee to ‘own' the results.

"Once the local partner has left, the community needs a mechanism for keeping the facility going. The committee plays a really key role in the planning & ongoing management of the water systems. Without this it just doesn’t work."
Rosie Wheen, WaterAid Australia

Death, particularly infants and children under 5, is so commonplace here. People have large families of 5 or 6 children because they naturally expect to lose one or two. Infant mortality under 5 years has dropped significantly in the last decade but still remains 5% or 1:20 children and there are a lot of children in these villages.

But people aren’t statistics. Sebastien, a 30 year old community leaders, invited us into his home and offered us Timorese coffee, banana flower salad, picked cabbage, yams and bananas; all delicious. They were delighted when we ate, as most foreign visitors don’t, and we were humbled by his hospitality. He was a sophisticated leader who understood the issues only too well, but as discussion turned to infant mortality he said: “My baby was just 10 weeks old. Crying for 2 days - just died.” Can you imagine?

Sebastien was saving from selling more vegetables for better sanitation, which would cost perhaps $200.

But this money he’d saved from his garden he now had to spend on the funeral of his child. Funerals are a very big deal, going on for 3 or 4 days and involving the whole village. These affairs regularly cost in the region of $1,000 for food, and if they don’t have a lavish funeral then they get ostracised from the village. And of course, money spent on funerals means money not spent on water and sanitation, which means more deaths - but breaking this tragic cycle isn’t easy.

The funeral set him back a long way.

WaterAid doesn’t work alone, but water is such a pre-requisite for so many things. For example they work closely with CARE, who often follow water supply with kitchen gardens, and they find teachers or health workers are more easily persuaded to work in communities with water & sanitation.

"The maintenance fund per household for the water points is $0.50c per month, which is a lot of money in a community this poor. You can tell which community is poor because there is no coffee, and coffee is the key to cash."
Mark Thomas, WaterAid Australia

When you put in simple water and sanitation, people get more time to do other things. With water and kitchen gardens, health improves. And with less death in the community, they don’t have to pay for expensive funerals.

Water saves time. Time is reinvested. People get healthier and wealthier. Its an astonishingly simple virtuous cycle.

In the village of Aldia Taltabi we met the village chief who last year was recalcitrant and antagonistic to change. Nine months later with 13 water points serving 30 households installed, Mark from WaterAid asked him what else they needed:

“We've got water, our lives are improving, and we're starting kitchen gardens. All we need now is to get the electricity connected, then life is sweet."