“When a community decides to come together to support positive action and growth, anything is possible” -Sophia Sunwoo of The Water Collective, Conscious Magazine, Issue 02


Packed in a small NGO office, I am seated with multiple Chiefs from rural villages of southwest Cameroon to learn about their communities and the water they drink. The stories from their villages are alarming – the rates of waterborne diseases are too high; the distances to travel for water are too long, and the number of broken water projects is disturbing.

“An NGO came in and dug us a well, but it’s not really used because there’s no money to really keep it. Half of the village goes into the forest for water, while the rest of the people remain on taps, waiting for water that isn’t flowing,” explained one Chief. The Chief added that electric pumps were installed to the water system with the expectation that his village would have the money to pay for fuel. With the Chief’s community living below the poverty line, this expectation is cruel. Without fuel, the system eventually breaks down and needs repair. The NGO who installed the system trained an individual in the village to fix system disruptions. However, to the village’s misfortune, this individual happened to have just passed away. The Chief continues his story in anger, explaining that the NGO was unresponsive to all calls for help. How could they have given such a life-saving gift and abandoned the village in their greatest time of need? As swiftly as that, less than 2 years after this water system was installed, clean water is gone.

Unfortunately here in Cameroon and developing communities worldwide, stories of broken water projects are very common. Non-functioning hand pumps, tap stands, and boreholes litter many communities and stand as reminders of wasted money and embarrassment for those who fought to bring that water there.

It is estimated that almost 800 million people[1] on our planet live without safe drinking water. However, many speculate that if you went to every corner of the world and conducted a proper survey, that the true number of those without safe drinking water can be as high as four billion.[2] The water crisis is even larger when you account for the number of failed water systems in the developing world. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, it is estimated that in the past 20 years, more than 30% of hand pumps have failed, representing up to $1.5 billion in wasted investments.[3] These failures not only represent waste, but also millions of people (estimated to be 70 million[4]) who have lost clean water and the lives they have built around it. The mother who set aside her savings to send her children to secondary school must now be allocated to medicine for waterborne diseases. Farmers who used to grow their crops in clean water are now earning less due to decreased crop quality. These losses create a significant and memorable mark on people, and it is difficult to recover. 

Before my organization, Water Collective, makes the commitment to partner with a community on their water project, we evaluate them under rigorous guidelines. This selection process helps us determine if a community is collectively ready to undertake the responsibilities of clean water – financially, operationally, and socially. My organization partners with communities seeking clean water for the first time, as well as communities who have sought clean water numerous times. Communities that have gone through the loss of clean water carry a different weight to their words from those that have never had access to clean water before. For these communities, every statement is toned with a lack of expectation and promise. Their lack of confidence is rooted from unfortunate failures of the past, but it breeds gossip and negativity that clouds the future. Community leaders and Chiefs are looked at with doubt when they announce plans of bringing clean water once again.

The solution for the water crisis is not simple, and it cannot be answered solely through one deliverable. Water Collective’s solutions are twofold: (1) We deliver a technical solution that is appropriate for the community in regards to affordability, resources, and access. (2) We follow this hardware with the training needed to educate the community on their operational and financial responsibilities to keep the system running. The partnered community is involved in the planning, construction, and post-installation of the project to instill ownership and confidence to care for future maintenance and repairs.

A well-rounded solution to a community’s water crisis includes a mix of hardware and software components,     and it is my personal experience that the human component ultimately determines if water will flow or dry up. In Cameroon, our most successful projects are a product of ambition, teamwork, and compassion. In Lokando, Ignatius’ incredible management skills organized a hundred people to carry over two hundred pipes by foot when they were stranded at a nearby factory due to horrendous road conditions. In Ekanjoh Bajoh, Mwene traveled through hills and trenches for four hours by foot every day, in search of people who would help him bring clean water to the 6,500 villagers he cares for dearly. When a community decides to come together to support positive action and growth, anything is possible, including clean water that will flow for generations to come.

Water Collective has been fortunate to have worked with 25,000 people so far in securing clean water for their communities. Our ability to empower our partnered communities has only been possible because of the people who have gotten behind us. When we show that people from California, New York, and all around the world can get behind a village’s water project, we confirm the dreams of the individuals who fight to bring clean water to their communities for the first time or for the umpteenth time, even when all hope seems lost.

We are ready to impact more communities and to actualize more dreams, but need your voice, ideas, and support to do so.

[1]  unwater.org  [2]  bbc.com  [3]  rural-water-supply.net  [4] slideshare.net