Water is a chronic issue in Chiapas State, particularly among the indigenous Maya communities. Periodic drought impedes agriculture, threatening the livelihood of millions. The consequent need to fetch water from long distances prevents women from attending to other priorities and children from attending school. Water-borne diseases also damage the health of communities, particularly those far from health centres.
Working with the Community
Founded in 1972, Concern America (CA) focusses on long-term community development in Mexico and other developing countries throughout the world. In the early 1990s, CA launched The Chiapas Water Project “to provide clean water to indigenous Mayan communities in Chiapas, Mexico.” The goals were to ensure access to food, generate income, promote hygiene, prevent disease, and distribute time fairly among household members.
CA’s action plan is based on “working with the most abundant resource in the communities: the people themselves.” Meetings are held with community members to explain the scope of the work and foster community involvement. A community water committee is established to receive technical assistance and commit to maintaining the system. The committee includes an active village leader with connections to governing structures, and younger members who are bilingual (Spanish and Maya) and able to travel. A few community members are trained carefully to assess the water system and maintain the water project without outside intervention.
Training and technical assistance are critical to sustainability. They focus on connecting, repairing, replacing, and expanding capacity. All materials and tools are familiar, locally accessible, and readily available to the water committee.
Although Chiapas suffers from conflict, material poverty, and extreme weather, these obstacles have never prevented a water system project from moving forward once a community is committed and ready. Patience and good communication with the community have always overcome occasional delays within a month or two. To date, Concern America has built 40 water systems in the region, benefitting more than 12,000 people.
Time lost on fetching water is now devoted to other useful tasks. Water-borne illnesses are largely eliminated and skin-related illnesses greatly reduced.
Underlying all of this is community building resulting from a collective success. And communities demonstrate their pride! Religious and cultural celebrations always accompany inauguration of a village’s system. Many take great care to paint their water tanks, often involving the school children, who depict their village’s history.
Next steps of The Chiapas Water Project include installation of five additional water systems and construction of additional water filters in three communities. This is combined with additional training diffusion among community members, and improvement of monitoring and evaluation practices.
These will directly benefit 300 members in some 60 families of the Mayan coffee-growing community in Chiapas, Mexico.
A Replicable Solution
CA’s community-centered approach can be replicated in any number of situations, be they water systems or other community projects. The organization’s work throughout Latin America and in Africa on health, education, and income generation (in addition to water and sanitation) follows the same model of building community empowerment and ownership. CA is always open to sharing and collaborating with other groups.