By Jessica Gamez (Lund University)
We all know how fundamental water is for our health and for every single activity we carry on everyday. However, in spite of the fact that access to clean water was declared by the United Nations (UN) in 2011 as a human right, approximately 24 million people living in rural areas in Latin America and the Caribbean region still lack access to safe and permanent water services. Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide 1.8 million people die every year due to diarrheal diseases even though approximately 94% of these deaths could have been prevented through access to safe water, sanitation services and proper hygiene practices within every household.
Considering the importance of health as an essential pillar for human sustainable development, in order to work towards the development of our Latin American region is fundamental to develop initiatives towards the improvement of access to clean water in rural communities. Given that Nexos Comunitarios is aware of the importance of health within a responsible and sustainable development, as part of my Masters Thesis, in January 2015 I had the opportunity to start my work with them within the scope of access to safe water in a rural community; in this case my work was carried on in Cuncani, which is a community located in the Lares District but officially within the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Urubamba.
My work as member of Nexos Comunitarios consisted in evaluating the current status in terms of water services provision in Cuncani; this in order to determine the main barriers constraining its inhabitants to have access to safe and sustainable water services. To achieve this, participation of stakeholders and relevant actors within water services provision was fundamental; In this regard, aiming to obtaining a deeper understanding of the current situation and the responsibilities allocation when it comes to water services provision in Cuncani, interviews and a focus group activity were carried on with representatives from the Municipality of Urubamba, the Lares Health Center, different NGOs, private businesses and community members.
On the other hand, I had the opportunity to live the wonderful and enriching experience to stay in Cuncani while I was carrying on a survey to community members to gather their perspectives on the current problematic in terms of water access, the importance given to this resource within their daily activities and most important, their health affectations due to poor water quality. During this time, I was able to actually perceive the different problems affecting rural communities living under the conditions they live; fighting against tough weather conditions, poverty and different health affectations, these people do their best to survive and sustain themselves. Climbing mountains under rain or under the typical scalding sun from the High-Andean areas, watching adults, older people and children walking long distances to perform their daily activities such as going to school, work in their land or just to buy food in Lares town; to closely witness this was definitely a life experience that made me appreciate and admire even more people having the strength to resist such living conditions.
After gathering all the required information and data, I concluded that even though Cuncani has the required infrastructure to have access to water services, there are important cultural and political barriers constraining this. In this regard, the current water treatment method used (chlorination) is not culturally accepted by Cuncani’s members due to the possible health affectations of chlorine as a chemical. As a consequence, there is lack of willingness from community members to properly operate and maintaining their water systems. Furthermore, local authorities are not proper monitoring and guaranteeing the provision of safe water services for this community.
On the other hand, lack of education is a fundamental element within our High-Andean communities; in spite of the many health affectations coming from poor water quality, most of community members are not actually aware of the relationship between water quality and health. This fact promotes a decrease in people’s willingness to encourage initiatives towards the improvement of their water services and thus their health.
Finally, it is highly essential for public authorities and the different organizations working towards sustainable development to understand and be aware of the importance of promoting proper hygiene practices within every household from rural communities. Efforts in this sense are vital given the strong linkage between safe water, sanitation and hygiene; in this sense, if living conditions are to be improved and benefits from any water-related initiative are to be completely perceived, it is necessary to encourage initiatives towards hygiene and sanitation as well. Non-governmental organizations such as Nexos Comunitarios have the great challenge of participating on the improvement of health conditions in vulnerable communities like Cuncani. It is important to highlight that given the high trust communities have on NGOs, these have a great potential as facilitators and mediators between communities, local authorities, private businesses and organizations; thus improving effectiveness and efficiency of different institutions and people’s living conditions as well.