Bringing Drinking Water Where Others Fear To Tread: 4 Questions With ClearWater Initiative Executive Director Jess Arnett

by Mike Yanke on November 25, 2013


Walking In Uganda With A Full Jerrycan Full of WaterIn Africa, 345 million lack access to clean drinking water.  The true cause is less one of resources, though that certainly is an issue, but one of distribution.  Quite simply, the drinking water that is available throughout the continent is not being properly distributed to those that need it most.

Issues with drinking water distribution are the reason you read about the drilling of wells throughout Africa, including on this very blog.  But drilling wells is just one small step towards turning around a tragedy.

This is where ClearWater Initiative comes in.  Founded in 2007, ClearWater Initiative works with impoverished communities in parts of the world that are nearly impossible to reach.  Once there, the organization focuses on helping residents dig the wells they need, but goes one critical step further by teaching the residents how to maintain these wells.

I was lucky enough to speak to Jess Arnett, Executive Director at ClearWater Initiative, about what drives their mission, why maintaining wells is just as important – if not as attention grabbing – as building wells, and how all of us can contribute to the clean water cause in early December:

(A thank you also goes out to Jess for sharing the photos and captions that appear throughout this post.)

For our readers that may not be familiar with your organization, could you please provide a brief history and overview of your mission?

Community Led Clean Water Training In Uganda by ClearWater Initiative

This is Felix, one of our community trainers, leading a training session in a village in October. We had close to 100 adults and many kids attend over two days. We just completed their well this month.

Sure! ClearWater Initiative is a non-profit organization that runs clean water programs in northern Uganda.  We specialize in working with communities that no other organization is reaching – remote, rural communities of 200-500 people.

Some of these villages don’t even have a road that reaches them – I visited two villages on my last visit that had to spend weeks hand-digging at least two miles of dirt road for us to get the big drilling machines in to dig the well.

When our staff visited at first, you could only access them by motorcycle on a dirt path. The area that we work in is relatively calm today, but it was in armed conflict less than 10 years ago. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, terrorized the region by attacking villages and killing many people.

An estimated 30,000 children were abducted to become child soldiers or sex slaves. By the end of the conflict, over 1.7 million people were displaced from their homes and living in camps for safety. Many had been there for close to 10 years.

The LRA left Uganda in 2006 and moved to several neighboring countries. People began returning home soon after only to find that basic infrastructure – including their water sources – had been destroyed.

US Army Captain Benjamin Sklaver was stationed in Northern Uganda to help with resettlement and rebuilding efforts. Based on the conditions he saw during his tenure, he founded ClearWater in 2007.  Tragically, Capt. Sklaver was killed in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan. We strive to honor his original vision of providing clean water to people in need.

We spoke together recently and you shared that while there is an awareness of the need to drill water wells in impoverished parts of the world, there is a lack of awareness of the need to maintain these wells. Why do you feel this is?

Fetching Drinking Water In A Jerrycan In Uganda

This is a woman named Kevin who was fetching water for her 2 young children – just off camera – at her village pond. She says she often has stomach illnesses, likely water-related. We installed a well in a neighboring village last year and they say they can see a big difference in health between the two villages, but the well is just too far over uneven terrain for her to visit several times a day. This photo was taken a week before we began construction on a protected spring, one of the kinds of water points we can build based on a village’s needs.

The kind of wells you generally see in rural Africa are hand-pump wells, which means there is a metal lever at the top that you can use to pump water. It’s not a complicated piece of machinery, but it has moving parts that need maintenance and repairs.

It’s a bit like a bicycle – if you have a new bike, its going to run pretty well for a while.  Eventually, though, the chain is going to have problems or the tire will need to be replaced. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge to do the preventative maintenance or if you haven’t saved enough money to buy a new tire, you’ll end up with an unusable bike sitting around your garage.

Building or rehabilitating an existing well is the most expensive but actually the easiest part of our program – it can be done in a week.  Building the well is only one part of our work in the community, however.  We start working in the community before we build, actively work with them for at least 10 months once the water point has been installed, and then continue to make periodic check-ins. We train the community on basic maintenance and caring for the water point; help them elect a water committee; and then help the committee set up a fund that everyone in the village contributes to for future repairs.

The community training work we do is difficult and time-consuming. We have a group of dedicated and incredibly hard-working Ugandan staff who get to know the entire community by the end of the project. We believe that investing our time and resources into these communities will empower them and give them ownership of the well, leading to long-term sustainability for the well and the community.

What type of long-term risk is posed to a community where a well is built but not maintained?

Pumping Drinking Water From A New Well in Uganda

This is a photo of Margaret, Water Committee Chairperson in Lwala Village pumping water on a well built in 2012.

There is a phrase you hear all over Africa – “Water is Life.” Access to clean water helps people lead healthier, more productive lives. Water from streams or ponds often carry water-bourne diseases, fertilizer run-off, animal waste and other pollutants. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.4 million people die each year due to water-bourne illnesses, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Young children are particularly vulnerable to water-bourne diseases; the United Nations Development Programme estimates that 442 million days of school are lost each year due to kids being sick with water-related illnesses.

Beyond the immediate health effects, access to clean drinking water has many impacts. Women and girls are usually responsible for water fetching for the family. In order to get enough water, they may need to walk for more than a mile on uneven ground with a 20 liter plastic jerry can weighing more than 40 pounds, multiple times a day.  This can add up to several hours of their day of difficult labor, loss of school hours, and often leaves them walking alone and vulnerable to assault. If there is a clean drinking water source nearby, this enables girls to attend school and women to spend more time taking care of their families or engage in an income-generating activity, like farming.

How can our readers get involved or help with the mission of the Clean Water Initiative?

Tuesday 12/3 is #GivingTuesday, and our goal is to raise $10,000 to rehabilitate 5 wells in 5 villages, which would give the gift of clean water to close to 2,000 people.

If you break it down, the cost is only about $5 per person for this project – as much as I spent at Starbucks for a pumpkin latte this morning. Your readers can help us both by donating and also by helping us get the word out to their social media networks – we are posting a lot of very cool behind-the-scenes information in the next couple of weeks to Facebook (facebook.com/ClearwaterIntiative), Twitter (@ClearWaterInt) and Instagram (Instagram.com/ClearWaterInitiative).

We are always looking for volunteers – if you have any questions or want to get involved, please feel free to email me at jess [at] clearwaterinitiative.org.

I encourage all readers that are able to donate to ClearWater Initiative, to help support their mission of bringing clean drinking water to the most impoverished parts of the world.  WaterFilters.NET is happy to contribute a portion of its profits to water-based causes and charities.

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Mike Yanke

Mike Yanke

Mike Yanke is the Content Manager at WaterFilters.NET, and leads development of the content found on this blog, in addition to much of the marketing strategy for the organization. Mike's posts focus on how clean drinking water touches our live holistically, whether in the news we read, our interests and hobbies or how we care for everyone that lives in our home. As such, much of the content Mike develops features round-ups of water focused news, home brewing tips and profiles of those living under his roof, including his well-hydrated pet, Clark the Clean Water Dog. Mike has been a Certified Water Specialist, recognized by the Water Quality Association, since 2014.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Todd - Water Well Service December 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I really like the work you guys are covering. One of the problems I hear about most often when it comes to wells in Africa is the theft that occurs of the well equipment. Either that or the well deteriorates due to poor maintenance. Hopefully this hasn’t happened to any of the wells you’ve covered! Thanks for sharing.

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