Sunday, September 7, 2008

Shaking up the sector...sustainably

I started the week visiting communities in the municipality of Villa Rivero and ended it by shaking things up at the National Water Forum. Villa Rivero is one of the four regions where Water For People-Bolivia works. It is one of the drier places where we work, evidenced by one of the first communities we visited. They had a protected source, and a rudimentary household distribution, but like many of the water sources in the area, it dried up a few years ago. So the community re-connected their household systems to their irrigation system. Not a bad solution, in theory, but neither the source nor the storage tank are covered or protected. An elderly woman with whom we spoke said that the general bad smell of the water was okay, but recently, it got really bad, and somebody pulled two decomposed rats out of the unprotected source.

Not surprisingly, there is demand for an improved system here and Water For People and its municipal government partners are planning to intervene next year to make sure no more rats end up in the drinking water system....

Following our community visits, we met with the local government to evaluate progress thus far with our 5 year agreement. Bolivia has a very active civil society, as many of you may have gathered from the frequent reports of protests and roadblocks, that is also involved in local government. Thus, our meeting included the mayor, representatives from the city council, a representative from the "Vigilance Committee", which is like a citizen's advocacy/watch group, and representatives from the education sector.

I have found myself wishing I had a tape recorder over the past few weeks. When I first started coming to Bolivia with Water For People, three years ago, all the authorities ever talked about was "obras"-public works and/or construction. As in the rest of the world, votes are won oftentimes by the extent and efficiency of how much development happens during a leader's term. I have seen a 360 degree change: Freddy Lara, the mayor of Villa Rivero sprinkles his speech with sustainability challenges, the positive impacts he has seen from the DESCOM (community development) training, and how he went from a skeptic of ecological sanitation to one of its strongest advocates. Juan Orellano, from the Vigilance Committee, put summed up his opinion of Water For People as follows: "Water For People is an institution of few words and lots of action-you keep your promises." It is so powerful to see our principles-local solutions, the power of partners, and keeping our promises, translated into improved water systems, sanitation solutions, and kids practicing hygiene behaviors at school.

Part of our meeting with the authorities was to introduce them to a national level school handwashing campaign that GTZ is leading. GTZ was interetsed in working with us, so in our role as facilitator, we opened up the door for our very capable local partners to run with this program. Interest in working with schools is growing all of the world, and Bolivia is no exception. What I like about the GTZ approach is that they are not adding to under-resourced and over-burdened education and health sectors, rather, they are providing training and tools so that these sectors can do their jobs. The final amount of support from GTZ will be determined this week, but this is yet another example of Water For People-Bolivia operationalizing their role as a facilitator for many of the key institutions that need to work together.

After a few days of field visits, Abraham (our Country Coordinator), Julia (our Social Coordinator), and myself attended the Second National Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Forum. Last year's forum resulted in two interesting outputs-the creation of state and national level water networks, and a national-level handwashing campaign, led by GTZ. I must say, the first day was full of power point presentations and lots of the same old information. Abraham and Julia spent the afternoon getting ready for their presentation the next day, which (kudos to Nina Miller) was the best presentation of the forum! Full of photos, neither one of them ever turned their back to the audience and read the power point, and they spoke with conviction and from experience.

Abrahm and Julia shook everybody up by doing something so simple-talking about challenges, failures, and the need, as a sector, to look back, monitor their work, and make changes. I was so proud of them-and proud to be affiliated with an institution that takes sustainability so seriously and isn't afraid to talk about the elephant in the room-failure. The format of the Forum was such that people would give presentations, and then participants would do an activity where they reflected upon the methodologies and the strategies they heard.

We were presenting the "camino a cambio" -path to change-how Water For People, through its mapping, monitoring, and evaluation, evolved to focus its efforts, take capacity-building seriously, and make a name for itself in the sector by providing sustainable services; and the very early results from the sanitation study we've recently completed. The sanitation study merits its own blog, so keep posted for an update on it. A colleague told me until a few years ago, he'd never heard of Water For People-Bolivia, and now he hears about them all the time.

The photo is of me, Nelvy Medrano (our Director of Basic Sanitation in the Municipality of Villa Rivero) as we are happy that participants recognized Water For People as the only institution with the courage to talk about challenges and change and an institution with utmost respect for its community partners as the sanitation study really tried to understand what the current situation is and what we can do differently in sanitation! To me, this is a huge win and carves out a niche within the sector that Water For People-Bolivia takes sustainability seriously and is not afraid to look back to move forward.

Other institutions are taking note. Following our presentation, I spent the afternoon with Ruben from UN-HABITAT. UN-HABITAT is getting ready to launch a Latin American component to their work in urban/peri-urban Africa and Asia, and we are going to work together to develop a strategy for peri-urban Cochabamba.

I could go on and on about the exciting things going on, but invite all of our readers and supporters to come here and see with their own eyes! That, and today is a rare day where there are no cars allowed on the streets, so we've got to go enjoy the clean air....

1 comment:

Elisa said...

So we finally made it back from our Bolivian/Peruvian adventure, hanging out on the couch watching TV. The Red Sox were killing the Rays 13-1 so we switched to "Bizarre Foods". Featured story in Chile? HOT DONKEY MILK! Apparently it cures all kinds of ills, and is also believed to work like "liquid Viagra". So there you go.