SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families

by Self-Help International
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SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
SHI: Safe Drinking Water for 20,000 Rural Families
Porfirio holding bags of tested water.
Porfirio holding bags of tested water.

Las Palomas is a small, rural community located 35 miles from the Self-Help International office and training center in San Carlos, Nicaragua.  It is one of the most important communities in the area due to its role as an agricultural center.  Approximately 1,115 people live in Las Palomas, and 230 homes receive their water supply through the service provided by the Potable Water and Sanitation Committee (CAPS) administered by a board of five volunteers from the community.

Porfirio Sequeira is president of the CAPS in Las Palomas.  He has been in this position for more than 3 years, and his priority has been to improve the quality of the water that is distributed.  He and his family are also users of the water, and he is motivated to protect their health.

The community of Las Palomas had been treating their water with granulated chlorine directly, without taking precautions, but the chlorination was not permanent, and they had to go to the Ministry of Health to obtain the chlorine.

Porfirio had seen water chlorinators when he was working in Costa Rica for a season. When he returned to Nicaragua, he heard that Self-Help worked with local water committees to put chlorinators in their cisterns to purify the water.  In September 2020 he contacted Orlando Montiel, Self-Help Clean Water Program Officer, and they set up a meeting for the whole community to explain the program.  

Porfirio asked Orlando to help test the quality of the water they were drinking to have evidence to guide their decisions.  Based on the test results, he proposed to the other directors of the committee that they acquire a chlorinator.  Orlando brought the materials to Las Palomas and helped the community leaders install the system. He trained them on how to maintain the chlorinator, and how to determine their costs for the entire water distribution system and set rates for each household.

The CAPS of Las Palomas repaid Self-Help for the cost of the system over a six-month period, from the monthly utility bills paid by each family.  Self-Help also made it convenient for communities to maintain their systems by stocking a regional chlorine tablet bank in a town nearby.

“Currently we have better chlorination than before because the chlorinator is working 24 hours a day,” said Porfirio, “Now we have the expense for the purchase of chlorine tablets and maintenance of the chlorinator, but it is a positive thing, because we are avoiding diseases.  The expense would be much more to treat people who are ill, compared to the expense of chlorine that we buy every month, which are 10 tablets that are used to disinfect the water and turn it into safe drinking water.”

The Las Palomas CAPS always maintains a constant supply of chlorine tablets, and coordinates with Orlando for follow-up visits to monitor the operation and use of the water chlorinator system.  They are one of the communities that has assimilated very well the objectives and strategies of the Clean Water Program, which is to improve the quality of community water intended for human consumption.

The water system in Las Palomas
The water system in Las Palomas
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Rafael checking the chlorine levels.
Rafael checking the chlorine levels.

Walter Acevedo is a semi-urban community in the Morrito municipality of Río San Juan. 2,500 people across 338 households live in the community. All the households are connected to the water service provided by the Water and Sanitation Committee (CAPS). Since 2014, the community’s water has been potable thanks to a CTI-8 water chlorinator promoted by Self-Help International’s Clean Water Program. In addition to installing the chlorinator, the Clean Water Program has also trained the CAPS directors and the maintenance person for the water system, Rafael.

49-year-old Rafael has lived in the community for 19 years. Both his wife and daughter work elsewhere, so he is alone most of the time. He has been working as a plumber for nine years, from 2 AM to 9 PM every other day, depending on the season. He performs diverse tasks in his role, including pipe repairs, meter repairs, water service cuts, operator well pumping, etc. 

In addition to working as a plumber, Rafael is also a farmer. In between his working days as a plumber, he dedicates himself to agriculture, sowing crops that provide his family with food. If a water supply problem arises, Rafael must solve and repair the problem - even if it’s his day off.

As a child, Rafael’s parents prioritized him working the fields, so his education was limited. Despite this, Rafael has learned how to effectively use the chlorine checker to monitor chlorine levels; and he has learned how to interpret the readings to ensure that there is enough chlorine to kill off harmful waterborne diseases but not too much for human consumption. Rafael monitors chlorine levels at the household level weekly so he knows when to replace the tablets.

Rafael is currently using a digital electronic chlorine tester that makes it easier for him to interpret the results because it shows on a screen the amount of chlorine that the water in the pipe contains. 

“I feel good about using this device because it is easy to understand and handle thanks to Self-Help’s explanation. I can't read well, but I know the numbers from one to ten,” Rafael explained. “The change in color that I see in the water when I use the device serves as a guide for reading and understanding the results.”

“I do this measurement every week in both the water in the basin and in the water that reaches people's homes to verify that everyone is receiving water disinfected with chlorine and that it is of good quality,” he added.

Rafael keeps track of the chlorine checks by recording in a notebook the results of the chlorine measurements. He asks members of the households he visits to write down the checker's results in the notebook since he doesn’t know how to write.

Thanks to his dedication and hard work, Rafael has earned the respect and trust of the residents in Walter Acevedo. Community members beg him not to leave the water committee since he has done such a good job maintaining the chlorinator. 

He says he has learned a lot about plumbing, water chlorination, and chlorine tablets by working with Self-Help in his role as the CAPS plumber. He says that prior to attending the training sessions held by Self-Help, he used to only know how to operate field machinery, but now he also knows how to make water safe to drink. 

Rafael exemplifies learning in SHI’s Clean Water Program. He manages to learn even without knowing how to read or write. He knows how to use the chlorine checker and interpret the results, and he is in constant communication with SHI staff by way of WhatsApp audio/voice notes and images of chlorine measurements of the community’s water.

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Water and Sanitation Committee member.
Water and Sanitation Committee member.

Clean and safe drinking water is more important than ever, especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic as articulated by this IFPRI article. Self-Help International has been working to provide safer drinking water to rural Nicaraguan communities by way of CTI-8 chlorinators, which add chlorination to existing water sources with chlorine tablets. The chlorine kills a lot of the waterborne bacteria that can cause acute diarrhea, significantly reducing the incidence of acute diarrheal disease so families can lead healthier, more productive lives.

Until 2019, Self-Help supplied sodium-based chlorine tablets to communities; however, in 2019 the Nicaraguan government required a switch from sodium hypochlorite tablets to calcium hypochlorite tablets. Unfortunately, sodium hypochlorite tablets are three times the cost of calcium hypochlorite tablets, and as Self-Help began making the switch in chlorine, communities served by Self-Help expressed that the cost was a barrier to chlorination. 

Communities’ cries for more inexpensive chlorine were exacerbated by the global pandemic, especially for those communities that wanted to acquire more chlorine tablets in advance to stock up in case of emergencies. Program Officer Orlando Montiel reported that approximately 50% of the consistently chlorinating communities reported having trouble affording the new tablets. Whereas sodium-based tablets cost 300 cordobas ($8.61 USD) per month per community, the new calcium-based tablets would cost a community 1000 cordobas ($28.71 USD) per month - more than triple the former cost.

Recognizing that social safety nets are critical more than ever during the ever-present global pandemic, Self-Help agreed to implement a 20% subsidy for chlorine tablets for all communities requesting chlorine.

The decision was made for two key reasons: first, because as Orlando explains, the local Water and Sanitation Committees (CAPS) that manage the chlorinators are “passers-by in their management positions and this happens a lot in rural communities. The finances of the [water committees] depend on the users - that is, on the payment made by people living in the community for the water service received. This payment can vary greatly and become delinquent. If the service level indicators of the water are deficient, the user population complains and refuses to pay for the received water service.” 

He adds, “If the rate (cost) for water service is high in relation to the economic conditions of the community's population, the CAPS will probably have trouble raising enough money to manage and maintain the aqueduct. The default gradually increases until it becomes unable to maintain the aqueduct and therefore its collapse.” 

It is important to Self-Help that the communities continue chlorinating their water especially during a crisis, so the subsidy was offered as a way to show communities the importance of continued chlorination. 

The second reason for offering the subsidy was simply to help communities offset the cost of chlorination. Of the 99 chlorinators installed by Self-Help and serving communities (as opposed to businesses or other entities), the number of households per community ranges from 17 to 1491. In total, those 99 chlorinators serve 14,488 households, averaging 146 households, with a median of 92 households. Using the median number of 92 families, the former tablets’ cost of 300 cordobas per month is 3.26 cordobas per family per month, or about US $0.10, which does only increase to about US 0.32$ per month (1000 cordobas per month is 10.9 cordobas per family per month). While this is a large percentage increase, a 22-cents-per-month cost may seem insignificant.

However, it’s important to note that, as Orlando explained, “We must consider that families will not only pay for the chlorinator and the payment of chlorine tablets every month, but they must also pay for the operation, maintenance and administration of the community water system.”

“This includes the following: stationery, receipt book, office supplies, etc.; payment for electric energy, if the pipeline is a MABE (well with electric pumping); the plumber's salary; cleaning materials and supplies; tools; the purchase of pipes and pipe repairs; gasoline if they use a power plant to pump the water to the battery; payment of cleaning of catchments; purchase of chlorine; purchase or repair of a submersible pump; payment of transportation; and above all, create an available fund for the replacement of the hydraulic infrastructure when its operational life is over. In many rural Nicaraguan pipelines, its operational useful life has ended,” Orlando said.

Ultimately, both Self-Help and communities are happy for the 20% chlorine tablet subsidy being offered during the pandemic. Not only is it saving the average community nearly $6 USD per month, it is, more importantly, a clear message to communities that clean water is critical and that Self-Help will support communities in whatever way possible to ensure they continue chlorinating their water.

Water and Sanitation Committee members.
Water and Sanitation Committee members.
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Guillermito and Alejandra are water heroes!
Guillermito and Alejandra are water heroes!

64-year-old Guillermo serves as the Water and Sanitation Committee (CAPS) maintenance technician for his community, Cruz Verde, which is 25 km (approx. 15 mi) from the Self-Help International Nicaragua office.

Guillermito (“Little Guillermo,” as he’s known throughout the community) has eight children with his wife, Alejandra. They also have three grandchildren. Guillermito and Alejandra have lived in Cruz Verde for more than 20 years, and their entire family drinks and uses the water that comes from a gravity aqueduct that the non-profit Water, Sanitation, and Community Organization Programme (PASOC) built in 1999. 

Guillermito served seven years directing and organizing Cruz Verde’s CAPS. The committee mainly consisted of women, including his wife Alejandra, who elected him to serve as the committee coordinator responsible for representing the CAPS and community to the project engineers who were installing the aqueduct.

On a recent visit to Cruz Verde, Guillermito and Alejandra wanted to tell Self-Help's Clean Water Program staff the story of their commitment to the work of their community’s CAPS:

“I always accompanied the engineers and technicians who were carrying out the aqueduct project. I worked with a group of mostly women from the community because the women worried the most about having water access in their homes,” Guillermito said. “Women bear most of the burden of limited water access because they are the ones who have to travel long distances to bring water to the house or to wash clothes in a creek or river.

“When the truck arrived carrying the PVC pipe to build the aqueduct, I remember that the women and their older children unloaded the truck first. The men in the Cruz Verde were reluctant to collaborate in unloading the truck with the materials, so the women had to do it,” Guillermito added.

“Us women formed three groups to go house by house at night to try to convince the men to help lower the pipes out of the truck,” Alejandra said. “But the men hid quietly from us, and they left for their farms very early the next morning because they did not want to help. 

“The women were in the meetings with the engineers for the project because the men were absent,” Alejandra said. “We agreed that we would be in charge of collaborating on the project, which irritated the men. In the end, that motivated the men to get involved with us and the project.”

“For seven years, there was no need to formally charge community members for the water fees. If a problem arose or the water system needed maintenance, the CAPS visited house by house to ask community members for help and voluntary financial contribution,” Guillermito said.

“After seven years, we needed to find another natural source of water to attach to the catchment and conduction pipe to the water distribution tank,” Guillermito said. “This was when we had to start charging a fee for the water service that reached the homes of people in the community. 

“Currently, the rate for water service is C $ 30 cordobas ($1 USD) per month for each house. There are 150 houses that have water service in the community. The service is divided into 4 sectors so that we all have water at different times of the day,” Guillermito said. 

“I am not a CAPS manager - I just do the plumbing and maintenance,” Guillermito said. “The people and the members of the CAPS leadership look for me when any problems arise in the water system. I never refuse, because I am committed to helping to keep the water available in this community.

“Every time a pipeline failure happens, I repair it. If water isn’t reaching people’s houses, I check the chlorinator, the chlorine tablets, the catchment, and the water source. I almost always participate in all CAPS activities and the trainings provided by Orlando, Self-Help’s Water Program Officer,” Guillermito said.

“I am always at the service of the community so that we all have water,” Guillermito said.

Guillermito and Alejandra are natural leaders and committed to the Cruz Verde community. This community has been using the CTI-8 chlorinator and chlorine tablets since 2011, which were supplied by Self-Help International’s Clean Water Program.

Guillermito is always open to Self-Help’s advice and technical monitoring, he is the contact with the people of this community, and he and his wife are water heroes. 

Guillermito inspecting the water system.
Guillermito inspecting the water system.
Cruz Verde community members.
Cruz Verde community members.
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Yugel and her son.
Yugel and her son.

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Yugel is a 29-year-old single mother of three children. Her oldest daughter is 13, her middle daughter is seven, and her baby son is one years old. She lives with her children and her parents in the Rio Plata community in Nueva Guinea. Yugel and her family use Rio Plata’s community aqueduct, which is chlorinated by a Self-Help International CTI-8 chlorinator.

Orlando Salas, Self-Help's Clean Water Program Officer, met with Yugel during a Feb. 2020 visit to Río Plata to provide advice and follow-up to Rio Plata’s Water and Sanitation Committee (CAPS) in the chlorination of water. She shared this with Orlando:

“Our CAPS is doing a good job. We don't lack water, we have water 24 hours a day, and the committee cares about taking care of our water.

“I am so happy that the CAPS is chlorinating our water because we’ve been able to avoid some of the diseases we used to get. My children are healthy, they haven’t gotten sick from the water, and they are going to school. My little boy needs more care than the other children, and he hasn’t gotten sick.

“Previously, there was a CAPS in our community that was not providing good water services. I was sick, and the doctor told me that I had bacteria in my stomach because of the water. I received treatment and got better.

“Now, the new committee works well to maintain and give us good water. The safe drinking water we receive every day makes up for the community cost of maintaining the chlorinated water.

“I am a single mother with three children. I do not have a partner to help me, and I do not have a permanent job. Right now, I have temporary work harvesting coffee. I also farm yam crops at a farm near Rio Plata. I pay C$120 cordobas ($3.21 USD) for the drinking water service every month because I know that we are receiving good quality water.

“I am also glad that my community’s CAPS members and the head of the health center are working together. A woman named Flor is the nurse who is in charge of keeping records and controlling the amount of chlorine that is added to the water we drink. She visits the houses to check if there is chlorine in the water, and if there isn’t, she notifies the CAPS so that they will treat the water. 

“Thank God we are in good health. Thank you to Self-Help International that helps the CAPS so that they continue to chlorinate our water.”

Orlando inspecting the chlorinator.
Orlando inspecting the chlorinator.
Safe drinking water.
Safe drinking water.
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Self-Help International

Location: Waverly, IA - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @SelfHelpIntl
Project Leader:
Nora Tobin
Wavelry, IA Nicaragua
$15,950 raised of $34,620 goal
203 donations
$18,670 to go
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