SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado — Water contamination has been a long-standing health threat in Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa. “There are women who’ve lost two or three or four babies. When they get a well in their village, they just breathe easier because they know that they won’t have to give their kids contaminated water,” said Kate Cusimano, director of operations for Wells Bring Hope.
Wells Bring Hope is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that installs solar-powered wells in rural Niger while promoting community ownership, female entrepreneurship and education. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Cusimano shed light on the organization’s unique approach to improving water access in Niger and how it is instilling lasting change.
The State of Water Access in Niger
According to UNICEF, only 56% of Nigeriens have access to a potable water source and just over 13% have access to basic sanitation services. Nearly three-quarters of the population practices open defecation, causing pervasive groundwater contamination that hinders health, education and economic growth.
Underscoring the problem, Wells Bring Hope estimates that one in seven Nigerien children dies before age 5, with water scarcity being a leading cause. Furthermore, only 22.7% of Nigerien schools have access to drinking water, requiring children to walk long distances to access water and discouraging them from attending school.
While it has detrimental consequences for the country as a whole, the lack of water access in Niger, as in other developing nations, disproportionately affects females. Globally, women and girls spend 200 million hours a day collecting water, with 80% of households that require water collection placing the burden on mothers and daughters. Accordingly, water collection is stifling the education and economic potential of Nigerien women and girls.
For example, according to Wells Bring Hope, Nigerien girls on average receive just four years of formal education and walk four to six miles daily to collect water from the nearest well or pump. Alongside perpetuating high female illiteracy and child marriage rates, this convention undermines future earning potential and leaves girls vulnerable to physical and sexual violence.
Wells Bring Hope: An Organization on a Mission
Wells Bring Hope is improving water access in Niger by installing solar-powered, sustainable wells in underserved communities. Once its development experts and water engineers select a site for a well, the organization gets to work to ensure long-term success. Before construction begins, villagers learn to build and use latrines to prevent groundwater contamination and appoint a well maintenance committee that will handle routine repairs. Every family in the village also contributes to a maintenance fund that will cover repairs and upkeep. The process helps evoke a sense of community ownership and pride. “We work really hard to make it clear to them that this is something that belongs to them and that they have worked for it,” Cusimano said.
Engineers then drill holes 250-300 feet deep and install an underwater pump and solar panels to power the motor. Finally, they install a tap stand, each tap affording some 500 people quick, reliable access to clean water.
Hope Beyond the Well
“One of the things that I think makes us really unique is that we don’t just drill a well and walk away,” Cusimano said. “The process actually starts long before the well is drilled.”
Similarly, Wells Bring Hope’s education program continues long after a well is installed. Once clean water is accessible, the organization instructs villagers in safe hygiene practices, including how to clean cooking utensils, wash children’s faces to prevent trachoma and practice hand-washing. In addition to hands-on well maintenance training, it also teaches drip farming practices so that villagers can grow vegetables and starches that will help sustainably nourish their families.
Notably, in partnership with World Vision, Wells Bring Hope hires locally to ensure that villagers have agency within the well-implementation and upkeep processes. “All of the water engineers, all of the people who are going into the ADP—which is the area development program: the education and the monthly maintenance and all that—they’re local. They’re West Africans,” Cusimano explained.
Creating Generational Change
As this suggests, Wells Bring Hope emphasizes building long-term relationships with villages to create lasting change. “We stay in each village where we drill for, you know, 10, 15, 20 years to make sure that that generational shift happens—so people that were children when the well came in will reach adulthood and have left behind the previous practices and a new way of life will have been implemented and can be sustainable going forward,” Cusimano said.
Integral to creating sustainable change, Wells Bring Hope and World Vision work to promote female entrepreneurship and financial empowerment through the Building Secure Lives program. The program helps women create savings groups, access communal capital, start small businesses and learn to manage loans.
To date, Wells Bring Hope has funded 776 water projects and five solar water systems for health clinics throughout Niger. In the process, it has provided clean water to nearly 800,000 people and helped countless girls stay in school.
“Long term, more girls get educated,” Cusimano said. “There’ve been stories of girls who can remember how they used to have to walk with their moms for miles every day to get water, and now they don’t. They get to go to school every day, all day. They want to be teachers and they want to be doctors; they want to give back to their community.”
– Elena Unger
Photo: Courtesy of Kate Cusimano