Observing the Powerful Impacts of Water For People in Guatemala

May 15, 2017

By Peter Nicol, Co-Chair of CH2M’s Water For People Employee Giving Campaign

In March I got to visit Guatemala to experience the impact of Water for People’s (WFP) activities in that country. Guatemala is one of the nine countries that WFP has as part of its strategic focus. My personal involvement with WFP goes back to 1995 when Water For People–Canada was established. Over the last 20+ years, WFP has become the charity of choice for most of the American Water Works Association and Water Environment Federation member associations in Canada.

In the early 2000s, when Water For People–Canada needed a new home, we offered the opportunity to relocate in our Toronto office…and the organization has been headquartered here ever since. I sit about 50 feet from Joan Conyers, Water for People–Canada’s administrative assistant. When the opportunity to travel to Guatemala on the impact tour surfaced, I jumped at the chance as I am a strong supporter and contributor. I was excited by the opportunity to visit WFP’s work in Central America.

The name “Guatemala” comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān (nahwiki), or “place of many trees,” a derivative of the K’iche’ Mayan word for “many trees.” Guatemala was engaged in civil war for many years, which finally ended in 1996 following a United Nations peace accord between the guerrillas and the government. In the past 20 years, the country has seen both economic growth and successive democratic elections, most recently in 2015. Guatemala is a beautiful mountainous country with two mountain chains dividing it into three major regions: the highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains. All major cities are located in the highlands and Pacific coast regions.

Guatemala’s sole official language is Spanish, spoken by 93 percent of the population as either their first or second language, and 21 different Mayan languages spoken mostly in the rural areas.

I was joined on the impact tour by Sunshine Smith from our Sacramento, California office and representatives from some of our competitors and clients that lead active WFP giving campaigns. The WFP Denver-based staff and the local WFP team hosted our trip, led by Country Director Edgar Fajardo.

My first impression was the private buses for moving people are very colorful.

My first impression was the private buses for moving people are very colorful.

I arrived in Guatemala City on Saturday evening March 18, so I didn’t have much of an opportunity to meet the rest of the participants until breakfast the following morning. Then we were off to Lake Atitlan for the day, which gave us an opportunity to get to know each other while also learning some background on WFP’s history and activities in Guatemala.

The next day we visited the WFP office in Santa Cruz del Quiche, base of operations in the country. The local team provided a great briefing of their work, followed by a visit to a community that will be the focus of upcoming projects. WFP is focused on four key geographies in Guatemala where the poverty rate ranges from 60 to 90 percent, so the impact of WFP’s efforts and our contributions in these communities is huge.

The initial briefing and introduction to the majority of our local team

The initial briefing and introduction to the majority of our local team

In addition to the WFP-led infrastructure improvements such as toilets, water collection and treatment systems, water tanks and aqueducts, the local team is working in partnership with ONE DROPTM to educate through the use of social art. ONE DROP, an international nonprofit created by Cirque Du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte in 2007, is a key financial contributor to WFP in Latin America. To achieve true long-term sustainability, providing access to water is not enough; ONE DROP Guat3believes in the combined power of providing access to safe water while inspiring behavioral change towards water and proper hygiene practices by creating a lasting understanding through social art. WFP and ONE DROP are combining forces to make social art an integrated part of WFP’s local projects in Latin America.

Guata4The local mayor and community representatives provided background on their community and highlighted the importance of access to a clean, dependable source of water, as community members were hauling water to and from the nearest source of water, a one-hour round trip away.

SWASH project

SWASH project

On Tuesday we visited a local school to view a Sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (SWASH) project. We had a great time talking with the principal, teachers and members of the parents’ council, but the biggest impact for me was having the opportunity to visit the individual classrooms, meet the children and teachers and see the program in action. The classroom hygiene corner is a central part of the children’s daily program. We also got to meet the monthly hygiene champion in each classroom.

Teachers add their own style and flair to their hygiene corners

Teachers add their own style and flair to their hygiene corners

WFP has figured out how to navigate the bureaucratic environment of Guatemala, and the reception and respect offered their team from the local mayors and key community leaders was impressive. Edgar Fajardo has developed a multi-talented, diverse mix for his team, and the efforts are paying off. They are effecting development of local water policy and are well regarded in the communities where they are working.

Most impressive is what they can do with so little. The projects we visited were developed and built for the equivalent of US$300,000 to $1.5 million, positively affecting the lives of 3,000 people, depending on the size of the community. The partnership with ONE DROP, integrating different forms of social art into the projects, also provides an educational element that starts in the schools but is embraced by the communities.

This was a tremendous learning experience for me, reinforcing the value of WFP’s efforts. It also emphasized the power of their partnership approach with local communities. WFP helps to guide them as they address their local water challenges, and the community takes pride in what they accomplish.

A little bit of help and financial support goes a long way.


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May 2017

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