Doña Ángela, the water lady
It's three in the morning, when most people are asleep and haven’t even started thinking about the chores of the day, let alone water, a resource many of us take for granted. But not doña Ángela*. She is already up and making her way to Matagalpa, the biggest nearby town, to buy much-needed chlorine for her community’s water system.
Even at 71, she still recalls her mother's dream of having drinking water access at home. Although she did not live to see it become a reality, Ángela is proud of the key role she played in achieving her mom’s dream some years later. "Water was so scarce in Seares, my community, that people did not even believe it was possible to have a potable water system”.
In her community Seares, located close to Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua, it was normal to live in a male-dominated culture. Nevertheless, in 1987 Ángela was appointed coordinator of the drinking water project that today allows her community to have good quality water for consumption. “Before me, two men were appointed coordinators, but they rejected the positions because they said it would take a lot of time”. However, life had already taught this single mother of five that with willpower and hard work, anything can be achieved.
Before this project, as part of their domestic chores, many women in Seares had to use water cisterns or walk long distances to the river or well to get drinking water. There were many cases of diarrhea, especially among children. Today, with permanent access to safe drinking water at home, diseases are prevented and the quality of life has improved for many families in this community.
Walking around with a machete
Doña Ángela describes herself as a woman of action, “…of the kind that likes to walk around with a machete”. She speaks of her past with pride and recognizes it hasn´t been easy, but she still feels with the energy of a 30-year-old and confesses to be surprised at everything she has achieved.
She relates that the most difficult part was to obtain access to additional water sources in order to cope with the population growth in the area. For this, they had to negotiate permits with landowners of private estates in order to access the freshwater springs on their farms and install storage tanks and piping systems. “The streets of Matagalpa were worn out after all the walking and negotiations I had to do,” she recalls.
As doña Ángela's work demonstrates, willpower is essential, but it is only the first step. The process she endured was long and arduous. Local committees work hard on behalf of their communities to raise funds, manage processes with municipalities, negotiate with landowners, create the necessary infrastructure to access water, and maintain an appropriate collection scheme to ensure long-term, constant supply without leakage. That’s how Blue Harvest entered the picture and gave Ángela and other activists like her the final boost that they needed to help their community.
With the support of the Blue Harvest project, the community was able to finance further expansions in the system and install chlorinators to improve water quality over the past year. The project is coordinated and implemented by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and is also a part of the SAFE Platform, a public-private alliance managed by Hivos and co-financed by the IDB and 14 other organizations.
Blue Harvest has worked in advocacy processes promoting the approval of municipal ordinances to protect water refill zones; the organization has also articulated relationships between different actors including water councils. The initiative has supported these councils through funding, training and status legalization, which gives them greater access to support and funding.
Since its start in July 2015, the project has:
- Supported the adoption of water and soil conservation practices by more than 2,000 coffee farmers in regions of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, which has resulted in an average productivity increase of 120%.
- It has also collaborated with more than 1,500 local stakeholders, improving the sustainable management of 3,900 hectares of coffee lands and the water management of more than 40,000 hectares.
- Water-use efficiency improvements have been implemented in 685 coffee mills, with estimated savings of 3.6 million liters of water.
- The improvement of 50 water systems at the local level, together with the implementation of more efficient practices and all the advocacy actions, have resulted in an improved quality of life for more than 40,000 people in the project’s intervention areas, such as Seares.
Power to the water, power to the women
Ángela can read and write. She didn’t study past elementary school, but believes that her parents taught her the best lessons: develop good relationships with people and do community service. She speaks of other women’s futures with the same enthusiasm as her own. In her community, it is now normal for a woman to study, even to go to the University. Projects like Blue Harvest include women in their training, even in technical fields. For Ángela, this is huge progress, “although there is still chauvinism, women and children are much more empowered,” she says.
Through field schools, the project provides training on Water Smart Agriculture practices, which aim to increase the infiltration of water into the soil and reduce pollution, not only improving the farm’s productivity and reducing costs, but also ensuring the availability of drinking water for domestic consumption. Some of these practices include optimizing soil cover, shade management, contour or terraced planting, live fences and hedgerows, and reusing wastewater from the coffee processing. Instead of throwing polluted water into the river, it can be treated and reused for irrigation, organic fertilizer, and biogas production, which is an alternative fuel that can be used for cooking and is cleaner and safer than traditional firewood stoves.
Most Blue Harvest partners are women producers using their farms as a means to raise their children. In Ángela’s case, she has diversified the 12 acres of land that her father left her. She managed to save enough money to buy a house by sewing and selling farm products. Now, also supported by CRS, she is part of a savings group in the community.
As it gets dark after a long day's work, doña Ángela returns home with the help of a walking stick to manage some very steep slopes - a daily reminder that her path has never been and probably never will be easy. Just as she followed her mother’s footsteps, she hopes to have instilled the same values of work and community service in her children and grandchildren and dreams of still being able to raise awareness in her community for others to continue her work.
* doña is a Spanish title of respect for a married or widowed woman comparable to Mrs., but used with her first name