Voss Foundation Provides Clean Water to Africa “One Well at a Time”

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Recently we ran a story about a very high-tech response to the water scarcity issue that plagues so many people around the world, especially in developing countries. It seems to be a topic that attracts a lot of both serious attention and good intention. Considering the fact that close to a billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water, that’s not a surprise.

Yet for all the attention it has received, the problem has not gone away, despite the dozens of inventions, campaigns and organizations devoted to its elimination. It’s not that all these programs have failed, though certainly many have. It’s more a matter of the problem not lending itself to a one-size fits all solution. It’s complicated, and it’s difficult. Just read Nina Munk’s book about Jeffrey Sachs to see the many things that can go wrong, trying to “save the world” in places like Africa.

Having a great filtration technology, or desalination device, or even money will not help, even if it’s a good fit, unless it is understood, accepted, and ultimately embraced by the people who need it. That’s the only way to ensure that whatever system is put in place will be used properly, monitored and maintained.

That’s in essence, what Kara Gerson, Executive Director of the Voss Foundation said to me about their work in Africa when I spoke with her by phone this week. I was calling in response to the announcement of the winner to their “One Well at a Time” writing competition. The winner received an expense-free opportunity to participate in the dedication of a Voss Foundation water, sanitation, and hygiene project funded by Voss Water in Swaziland, followed by travel to South Africa. (More on that later.)

With all the work that the Voss Foundation has done, in seven countries, where they implemented 124 clean water access points and 452 sanitation facilities, each solution was custom tailored to meet the needs of that community. “The goal,” said Gerson, “was to have each community take ownership.”

Their efforts, thus far, have impacted over 100,000 people. For the most part, they have simply dug wells, many of them by hand. “We’d rather do what works, than what is sexy.” They have installed a few solar pumps, which is about as “sexy” as they’ve gotten. But it doesn’t end with the well. The water must be tested on an ongoing basis, and, of course, the well and the pump and the pipes all must be maintained. In such a challenging environment, there is plenty that can go wrong, and does.

The key to their success has been their work with the local communities, local organizations and with partners who are often there for other reasons (e.g. schools, orphanages, clinics, and even artisan groups) but need water in order to succeed.

“We don’t send people in from America (at considerable expense) to dig wells so that they can feel good about themselves. There are plenty of people over there who can do that and because they do, they feel a sense of ownership in the project.”

One exception might be Matthew Kistler of Downingtown, PA, who gets to go over there and feel good about the poem he wrote, “When Water Came From The Ground,” that captured the prize. Kistler, had previously spent three years in Africa, where he came to see the cruelty of poverty and water scarcity first hand. As the poem says, “during ‘olameyu’ the drought, a heaviness covers our life like a blanket.” He also captures the sense of joy and relief, when water arrives from a pipe in the ground. “My sisters will dance in the water, little girls once again.” Kistler is now the US Program Director for Water is Life Kenya.

Among the judges for the contest was the singer Jewel, whose own Project Clean Water has been helping the people of Africa with water since 1997. Of Kistler’s winning entry, she said, ““There was an amazing outpouring of passionate entries about the struggles to get water to people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Frankly, it was challenging to choose the best, but Matthew’s touched my heart.”

Image courtesy of Voss Foundation