Peru trip was eye-opening in so many ways

Peru trip was eye-opening in so many ways

November 10, 2014

Authored by Steve Meininger, senior vice president and managing director for CH2M HILL’s operations management group. Steve also serves as CH2M HILL’s co-executive sponsor for its Water For People workplace giving campaign. In August 2014, Steve participated in a Water For People Impact Tour to see the impact of their projects in Peru.

NOTE: This blog is also posted on Water For People’s site.

The connection between CH2M HILL and Water For People runs deep. We’ve supported the organization since its inception in 1991 and began our annual Workplace Giving Campaign in 2003. That first year we raised US$10,000. This year, I am quite proud to say, employees from 21 countries opened their hearts and their wallets to raise a record $250,276. This brings our total contribution to this wonderful, life-changing organization to more than $1.75 million.

As a CH2M HILL “lifer,” I’ve long been aware and supportive of the company’s efforts on behalf of Water For People. But it wasn’t until recently, after taking the helm of our Operations Management Services group and co-chair of the workplace campaign, that I began to truly understand the difference Water For People makes in laying the foundation for better lives by driving holistic programs to provide drinking water and sanitation to targeted, under-served regions.

That understanding was further deepened recently when I and some CH2M HILL colleagues had the privilege of traveling (using our personal vacation time) to Peru for a first-hand look at how Water For People lives its motto, “Everyone, Forever.” For me, the trip was both inspirational and humbling.

I suppose my first clue about what lay in store for us came upon our arrival in Trujillo (Peru’s third- largest city), only to find that the power was out across the city for nearly 18 hours. The power outage did not seem to impact the locals who went about their normal activities. This was the “big city” and most of Water for People’s focus was in two Peru regions, one of which is Cascas, a couple hour drive from Trujillo. The Cascas region included both an urban city and many rural communities. The city was in the process of installing water and sewer lines in order to provide treated drinking water and sanitation to their urban community. The Cascas rural communities were Water for People’s primary focus.

LaCienega Community Water Committee members in front of their water treatment plant

LaCienega Community Water Committee members in front of their water treatment plant

We began with a briefing from Water For People staff, learning that Peru has approximately 7.5 million people living in rural areas, but only 25 percent have access to drinking water. And here, sanitation is defined merely as access to a safe, clean place where there is separation between humans and waste. If you don’t consider latrines – partly because latrines are associated with poverty, and people don’t want to be viewed as poor so they don’t get used much – only 7.7 percent of people have access to sanitation. It is remarkable in this day and age to understand just how many people don’t have access to clean water and sanitation.

We traveled to several rural communities in the Cascas region. In LaCienega, we visited a recently built water treatment plant supported by WFP that served 95 families. We also visited a 28-family community in La Palen that recently obtained access to treated drinking water. They are piloting a micro water meter program, where families pay 5 soles – about US$1.75 per month – for 10 cubic meters of water, plus 10 soles for amounts above that. The money goes into a reserve fund to pay for operations and maintenance costs. Both of these projects and communities received major support and training from WFP.

Residents of La Constancia, who hope to receive additional support from Water For People in the future, came out to make their case.

Residents of La Constancia, who hope to receive additional support from Water For People in the future, came out to make their case.

In most rural areas, however, the only drinking water comes from irrigation ditches, tainted with animal and human waste, and even that is only available once every eight days. That’s where the 35 families in another of our stops, La Constancia, have to get their water. They came out en mass to make their case to have Water For People intervene in their community. They were obviously eager for safe, clean water, and their passion and commitment were clear.

I greatly appreciate the fact that Water For People requires everyone involved in their projects to have “skin in the game.” They provide 40 percent of the funding and require local government to match that, while community members must contribute 20 percent, primarily in labor. They train locals to operate and maintain the system and monitor it for 10 years after it’s installed. And each system serves as a model for replication in other communities. Overseeing it all is another key component in the Water For People model – the local water committee, which provides “local ownership” managing construction, operations, maintenance, expansion, billing, and other activities to ensure the project’s long-term sustainability.

W4P_PeruAnother thing that stood out to me is the significant leadership role women play in addressing their community water issues. It should not really be surprising, because women traditionally have been responsible for obtaining water for their families. Their daily pursuit, which can often require covering long distances carrying a heavy load, is a barrier to them getting an education and jobs. At least two members of the local water committee must be women, and all the community women take a very active role in constructing the systems – one woman showed us the measuring stick they used to gauge trench depth (see photo at right); if they weren’t deep enough, they told the men to go back and dig deeper!

Education is another key for success. One of the many significant challenges is finding water professionals with the necessary training who are willing to work in rural areas. So at the national university, Water For People is supporting a program to train post-graduate students in water-related areas. At the elementary level, Water For People debuted its WASH program, focusing on educating the children about sanitation and personal hygiene, in six schools to evaluate the model; this year it has spread to 84 schools. The goal is to change behavior, and in turn the children take their lessons home to their parents. Again, women play an integral role in work done in schools.

We visited the San Gabriel de Cascas and Palmira schools – Palmira was one of the six WASH pilot schools – where we met administrators and teachers, and were treated to some wonderful student performances and presentations about what they learn about water and sanitation. At these and other schools where the program is active, authorities have seen significant drops in illness and disease.

Throughout the trip, we received a warm reception wherever we stopped, as families invited us into their homes and freely shared stories of their lives. It was clear how proud the people are of their systems and the contributions they make to them, and how much they appreciate what Water For People does for them. They are amazed that people from around the world actually care about them and their little communities.

At the same time though, it was abundantly clear how much work remains. But I am more convinced than ever that the Water For People model is going about it the right way. During our travels, we saw abandoned outhouses in the region, remnants of other efforts to bring sanitation to the area – but those driving the effort appeared to just throw money at the problem. Commendable in their intent, but lacking in execution. The Water For People model is thoughtful and sustainable. They provide the necessary training and resources so that communities can continue their efforts long after the staff – deeply committed and caring people I might add – have left.

Water For People also does an outstanding job of leveraging the money provided to them, returning four times the investment through the multiplier effect of their efforts. That is very gratifying and validates CH2M HILL’s commitment to them. And our passion is shared by other organizations who had representatives joining us on this trip. So if you or your company is looking for a philanthropic opportunity, I urge you to take a closer look at Water For People and consider joining us in transforming people’s lives.



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November 2014

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