Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Clean water in Timor-Leste: a collective effort

Claudio Soares, 65, stands outside his traditional home in Timor-Leste with his wife, children and grandchildren. “We all live in here, all seven of us,” says the chief of Saramata village, showing us the one room they all share. “We don’t have much but we are happy. And we now have water close to home.”

Claudio Soares, 65, stands outside his traditional home in Timor-Leste with his wife, children and grandchildren. Photo: UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/Simon Nazer

 His big smile opens up – he is proud of what his village is achieving. “I am also chief of the water management group in the village. I maybe not that smart but the people here trust me on how to lead them and help everyone work together.”

Saramata village now has a year-round water supply, with safe water running through five taps as well as to the nearby school. Many similar villages in Timor-Leste still lack access to safe drinking water, as well as poor access to sanitation facilities.

“With UNICEF’s help, the water came after were declared open defecation free,” says Claudio, now sitting with the other members of the water management group. “We knew it was important to have water to keep clean. All the families contributed local materials and labour, depending on their situations. We all contributed in some way.”

The water management group consists of a chief, a treasurer who deals with the finances and two technicians who maintain the water system. The entire process, supported by UNICEF with local NGOs, empowers communities to set-up water system and ensure they are maintained for many years to come.
Teresa Pereira, treasurer of the Water Management Group. Photo credit: UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/Simon Nazer

The group sits down and Teresa Pereira, now sitting in the middle, introduces herself. “I’m the treasurer for this group,” she says, holding a notepad full of the names of the villagers. “I didn’t have the skills to do this before but I was given training. I was taught about the role of treasurer and how to work with families. After that, we all met with the community members and discussed how to look after the water supply.”

The water management group brings the community together, explains what is needed to build and maintain a water supply, and secures funding from everyone in the community. There’s a quiet determination within every member of the water management group, and they clearly feel their collective efforts are making a real difference.

“It’s important every family contributes, rich or poor,” says Teresa as she opens her book that list the 50 cent contributions from each family. “We have a log book that records this – we let everyone see this to build trust.”

“We have a system to collect a little each month,” she says as her finger runs down the list. “So if the pipe breaks we can quickly repair it. We have 34 families contributing 50 cents each month. Without this support, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the water system.”

Teresa also manages the lending of money to those who need cash urgently, with a small interest so that the fund grows. Some families also burrow money to upgrade their toilets.
“As a mother I feel very happy because in the past many children get sick, especially with diarrheoa,” says Teresa. “Now we have safe water to drink and wash with. It’s very close and easy to use.” Photo credit: UNICEF Timor-Leste/2015/Simon.
Training and community investment are important ways to ensure there is sustainable access to water in villages like this. Without that, the skills needed to maintain the systems do not exist within the community and before long the water systems will likely fall into disrepair.

“Before we had to bring the water down an open bamboo pipe,” says Teresa, now holding her young son. “It was difficult because during the rainy season it would be destroyed and it would be contaminated by dust and insects. We wouldn’t want to drink it then. Now the water is always clean.”

The new taps also mean there’s no longer a need to carry heavy loads several times a day. “The water pipes are close to home, which is much better than before,” says Teresa. “It takes less than five minutes to get water now.”

Thanks to support from UNICEF and the Government, water management groups like this show how communities are able work together to maintain and sustain their water supply for years to come. And the villagers of Saramata couldn’t be more proud. “I’m happy!” laughs Claudio. “We all work together. We all contribute. That’s what’s important.”

By Simon Nazer

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