“Water Project Provides More than Just Water,” Liahona, Dec. 2008, N3–N4
A drilling rig bored deep into the African wilderness as a few villagers from the Makueni region in Kenya waited anxiously nearby. Like many of them, Alice Musili hoped life-sustaining water would spring from the hole. If so, she would no longer need to walk 30 kilometers to fetch water or resort to drinking from contaminated riverbeds.
When the drilling stopped, a pipe was dropped into the 75-meter-deep hole. Air was pumped in to clear out loose dirt, and water bubbled out of the hole like a fountain. Some villagers shouted for joy. Some danced. Some were overwhelmed and cried.
“They were so excited and grateful,” said Elder Tom Pocock, a humanitarian services missionary from Virginia, USA, serving in Kenya with his wife, Ellie. “Water means everything to them.”
The Church’s clean water initiative is providing remote communities like Makueni with hand-pump wells to reduce waterborne diseases. But by allowing villagers to spend less time fetching water, the wells also enable families to spend more time together and children to attend school more frequently.
In July 2008 in the neighboring district of Mwingi, the Church, with help from the local residents, built 30 wells that serve 56,000 people. Around the same time, 20 wells in Masinga, Kenya, were also completed, serving 32,000 people. Seven other projects in the country are in process.
As with other major humanitarian initiatives, the clean water projects incorporate principles of self-reliance and sustainability. Matthew Heaps, the Church’s clean water initiative manager, said that because the communities are involved in every aspect of the project, the people gain a greater sense of ownership for the well.
“Our whole goal is to keep the water system working long after we are gone,” Brother Heaps said. “So we make it clear that it is theirs, and it becomes their responsibility to maintain it. Months of preparation work by missionaries and partner organizations go into making sure there is a local infrastructure in place before we hand it over.”
In the first stages, a local expert determines where to best drill for a well. Once a spot is located, the person who owns that portion of land is asked to donate it. Because of the generosity of landowners and their commitment to helping their community, not once has the Church paid for land use.
From there, the Church humanitarian missionaries and partner organizations help the community form a water committee. This committee is responsible for a number of issues. For instance, they determine a maintenance schedule and decide how to charge people for the water they use and how to collect money to maintain the system.
“If it is the [members of] the community making the decisions, the well will last,” said Patrick Reese, manager of planning and administration for humanitarian services. “If it is some engineer making the decisions for the community, it will not take hold.”
The Church also supplies the water committee with the tools necessary to repair and maintain the well and trains the community on hygiene so they can use the water safely and properly.
As these details fall into place, the digging begins. While local contractors take care of major construction elements like drilling, community members are expected to use their tools to dig trenches, move pipe, and mix cement, among other things.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 400 people are digging a 30-kilometer trench and laying pipe to create a gravity-fed water system. The four-year project will benefit an estimated 160,000 people, making it the largest clean water project the Church has funded.
In a recent trip to Kenya, Brother Heaps said he constantly saw volunteers with their shovels and pick axes digging through hard dirt or mixing cement and rock that the community provided as a display of their commitment to the project.
“People here have a great desire to be successful,” said Sister Marilyn Barlow, a humanitarian services missionary in the DR Congo, “and given the right information and tools, they will be successful.”
With so few members of the Church on the continent, the clean water projects become the first introduction to the Church for many African communities, and Elder Farrell Barlow, humanitarian services missionary, said the projects are leaving a favorable impression on the people.
“Sometimes we are asked what’s in it for us,” Elder Barlow said. “While we [don’t] proselyte, we do tell them that we believe we are all sons and daughters of Heavenly Father and we are to serve and help each other.”
With an estimated 23 projects in progress for 2008, the clean water initiative continues to touch hundreds of thousands of lives. Since 2002 the projects have provided more than four million people in 50 countries with access to clean water.
“To see the joy in the faces of the people as water flows from the well is the greatest experience,” Elder Barlow said.