Micro-Enterprise Brings New Jobs and Clean Water
By Jessa Parette Eldridge '11
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
By nightfall the machine was up and running. There would be clean water. This was the second of the three-day Guatemala Water Project trip, and already the engineers and translators had taught the local machine operator how to fix, maintain and operate the water purification machine. The spring 2012 trip marked the end of nearly a year and half of working, planning, and preparing to bring clean water to Chajul, Guatemala.
Isolated high in misty Quiché Mountains, Chajul is the most remote of the three points of the Ixil Triangle, three towns of predominant Ixil decent in the Western highlands of Guatemala. During the 36-year Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), the area served as principal stages for the insurgent and counter-insurgent operations. As a result, the Ixil communities suffered the brunt of the conflict and more than 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans were massacred.
Clean water is not the only struggle the people of Chajul face. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion due to deep cultural and emotional wounds. Exploitation and poverty contribute to the hardship. Clear water runs through mountains springs near the town. Most towns have a catchment system but no water treatment. Although crystal clear, each drop of water is contaminated at the source, teeming with fecal coliform, a bacteria born from waste. Common illnesses in the village include malnutrition, diarrhea, and respiratory, skin and dental problems. The water structures in Chajul are connected to the municipal water system, which gives people a few hours of water each day. During this time, rooftop tanks, buckets, barrels or other containers are used to gather water. These open containers host a great number of bacterium, which are ingested and play havoc on people’s immune systems.
When a group of JBU graduate students became aware of the issues facing the people of Chajul, they decided to create and implement a plan that targeted both the city’s health and economy. Compassion International played a critical role in the project’s partnership with Chajul. Since outsiders were viewed with suspicion, contact had to come through a trusted third party. JBU Walton alumna Nadia Soberanis was working at Compassion Guatemala and acted as the graduate team’s first contact.
“Without Compassion International accepting us and opening doors for us in the community, this would never have worked,” said Joe Walenciak, associate dean of the College of Business. “In the original attempt to start this project, it was critical to work through a JBU alum. That was Nadia Soberanis, who was working with Compassion Guatemala and arranged the original meetings for JBU with Compassion that started this whole thing.”
JBU graduate students developed marketing and promotion plans to purchase water purification technology from Healing Waters International and trained Chajul leaders how to run the purification system as a microenterprise. Once funds were raised, Healing Waters International delivered the purification system to the leadership in Compassion International Student Center, which is run by the local church.
“The technology will last for ten years, and every part can be replaced with materials in the Chajul community,” graduate student Stacie Burley said. “We wanted a plan that was both sustainable and teachable.” Establishing a water purification system as a micro-enterprise provided a solution to both the health and economic plight. Selling the water through a health club membership fee would provide revenue, jobs and, most importantly, purified water.
“This is not a handout,” Pablo Herrera, a member of the Guatemala Water Project explained. “Water is sold at a reasonable price, and people have to take health classes. The community is empowered by taking responsibility and ownership.”
Since that trip in May 2012, over 4,100 gallons of safe water have been distributed to the people. No longer wracked with cramps from unclean water, adults have gained back workdays and children regularly attend school.
Clean water means more than a rise in health; it means jobs and a stimulated economy.
It means changing lives one drop at a time.
Jessa Parette Eldridge '11 is the staff editor and writer at John Brown University.