RALEIGH, North Carolina — In 2015, all U.N. member states agreed to Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) to “ensure availability and sustainable management for water and sanitation for all” by 2030. Five years prior, in 2010, the U.N. General Assembly officially recognized access to clean drinking water and sanitation as human rights. For several decades prior to these U.N. declarations, a Guatemalan nonprofit called Agua del Pueblo (AdP), which translates to The People’s Water, committed to advancing access to clean water and sanitation in Guatemala.
The Origin of Agua del Pueblo
Today, Agua del Pueblo is “reportedly the oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to water supply, sanitation and community development in the world.” The organization has helped more than 700 rural communities build water and sanitation systems. It also helps implement sustainable management practices for those systems. Agua del Pueblo refined its successful methodology over the decades. Now, it serves as a model for other organizations that want to work toward SDG 6.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Bruce Clemens, a founder of Agua del Pueblo, says the story began in 1972. This is when he and the rest of a “band of starry-eyed, pollyannaish volunteers” gathered at the San Lucas Mission in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. The group included several Americans, a Canadian and an Irishman. “The fundamental goal of each of the volunteers was to address the poverty and maldistribution of wealth in rural Guatemala,” says Clemens.
The group’s host and founder of San Lucas Mission, Monsignor Greg Schaffer, suggested that the group seek to accomplish its goal by improving rural access to water and sanitation in Guatemala. The group consisted of several engineers, an architect, a social scientist and a master plumber. Therefore, this suggestion seemed like a logical strategy — one that the group took to heart.
The Early Days of the Project
The original project did not lack ambition. The group decided to pump water from Lake Atitlan to a couple of communities several miles away. After drafting the engineering plan, the group traveled four hours to Guatemala City to procure the necessary materials, including $100,000 worth of PVC pipes (the equivalent of $661,000 today).
Not having the cash on hand, the PVC pipe company graciously provided the pipe on credit. The group then secured some donations from U.S. companies and struck a deal with “a coffee plantation owner” who agreed to invest in the project in return for access to the water supply for his plantation.
Inspired by the project’s positive impact on the communities, the group formalized a project methodology and worked to obtain legal status as an NGO. According to the American Journal of Social Issues and Humanities, the group legally established “The People’s Consultants” nonprofit in 1974 in the United States, and then, “Asociación Pro Agua del Pueblo” in 1981 in Guatemala.
Even before the formal establishment of Agua del Pueblo, the group intentionally transferred control of the organization to Guatemalans of mostly Mayan ethnicity because “many other Guatemalan organizations” commonly “exclude indigenous people from leadership positions.” In the United States, The People’s Consultants acts as a strategic partner to AdP by lending technical expertise/consultancy and by fundraising for projects.
The Fight for Equality for Indigenous People
In a population of more than 15 million people, close to 50% of Guatemalans “self-identify as Indigenous,” with the largest ethnic bloc belonging to the Mayan people. Indigenous people in Guatemala face gross political underrepresentation. For this reason, they suffer from widespread discrimination that extends into areas of health care, education, food, water and sanitation. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, the poverty rate for Indigenous people is about 75%, more than double the poverty rate for non-Indigenous people.
For centuries, non-Indigenous, Spanish-speaking people sought to oppress the native-speaking people of the region. Between 1960 and 1996, the factions fought a bloody civil war that led to 200,000 fatalities, with Indigenous Maya people accounting for a staggering 83% of these casualties. This conflict posed significant risks for AdP and the communities it assisted. Because the AdP’s mission centers around organizing Maya communities, Clemens says that “government-backed forces assassinated a number of AdP employees and collaborators.” Government-backed forces were seemingly unwilling, or unable, to make the distinction between organizing communities for infrastructure development versus organizing them for combat efforts.
In 1995, the two sides agreed to an accord defining the Guatemalan population as “multi-ethnic, pluricultural and multilingual.” However, the fight for constitutional equality for Indigenous people has never fully materialized.
The AdP Methodology Puts Community Involvement Front and Center
In the process of providing water and sanitation for Guatemala’s most impoverished, AdPs method ensures strong community engagement on projects. This not only helps ensure that the project will be sustainable but also ensures that the community will grow in confidence to take on other projects with their newfound sense of organization. Once community members see what they are capable of, they often look to other ways to improve their communities, such as building roads or schools.
For this reason, AdP requires that communities ask the organization for assistance, ensuring that the community itself recognizes a pressing need and that the community shows a willingness to engage. Furthermore, 80% of community residents must sign a petition for the project. This ensures that the community will have enough people to build and pay for it.
Community members contribute a third of the project’s cost in unskilled labor and a third through a low-interest loan paid off through monthly taxes. The remaining third comes from outside donations and grants, often from The People’s Consultants.
While AdP uses its technical expertise to conduct feasibility studies, the community puts together a water committee of local leaders. AdP also trains locals to become rural water technicians. These so-called “barefoot engineers” are the technical link between the engineer and the community. After the project is complete, these technicians and the water committee are responsible for maintaining the infrastructure for long-term sustainability.
The Work Continues
The need for water and sanitation in Guatemala is significant. While the nation has made plenty of progress over the past 20 years, the rural coverage for basic drinking water and sanitation service stood at 90.1% and 55.5% respectively in 2020.
The lack of sanitation is especially concerning because inadequate sanitation puts drinking water sources at risk of contamination. This is evident in the “algal blooms” that have periodically plagued Lake Atitlan since 2009. Approximately 400,000 people live in the lake’s watershed, which has no outflows such as rivers. This means that watershed pollutants cannot escape the lake.
Because water and sanitation are complimentary for sustainability, AdP always requires the installation of sanitation within water access projects. As for Lake Atitlan, the organization has plans to systematically install adequate sanitation. The plan is to install sanitation at the highest elevations and work down toward the lake over time. The organization estimates that providing water and sanitation access to all the people in the watershed will cost about $40 million.
For its part, ADP is working tirelessly to help Guatemala reach SDG 6. The AdP plays an integral part in accomplishing this because its community engagement model ensures that the community is invested in the project design, build and maintenance. This not only ensures successful projects for water and sanitation in Guatemala but also empowers communities to seek out further community improvements, thus setting them solidly on the path toward escaping poverty.
– Jeramiah Jordan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons