To bring water to the village, teach villagers about water

Looking out the window of a 12-passenger plane over northern Nicaragua, it occurred to me that the view would have looked essentially the same decades, even centuries, ago: dramatic volcanoes, sparkling lakes, and mile after mile of lush, dense forest.

While traveling in this remote region in late 2015 as a volunteer with WaterAid, I found that the drinking water and sanitation conditions are also essentially unchanged. Most people still carry their own water from lakes and wells by hand; more than half still lack access to a toilet.

Girls carrying water in village

But this is slowly changing, thanks largely to WaterAid’s commitment to helping locals help themselves. Jhondra, a woman I met in the village of Auhya Pihni, first became involved when the organization created a program to train residents to make hand-dug wells more stable and durable. Having never worked outside the home in the past, she now relishes the opportunity to use her skills and impart her knowledge to local youth. She travels to surrounding villages to help other women feel empowered to take on leadership roles.


Victoria and Jhondra

Pipes, pumps, and people

As is true in much of the world, northern Nicaragua’s water challenges are largely economic and political in nature. The nation has plentiful freshwater resources, but poverty and a lack of coordination within the region’s predominantly self-governing indigenous communities prevent people from meeting their basic needs.

toilet along river in rural Nicaragua

Outhouse in rural Nicaragua

Simply installing pipes and pumps won’t solve the problem; people are an equally important part of the equation. An abandoned system I saw in Auhya Pihni offered a sad testament to this idea. Built just two years ago by the Nicaraguan government, the water tower and pipes were ultimately left to rust because community members hadn’t been trained how to use or maintain them, much less been involved in their design or construction.

Abandoned water tower in Auhya Pihni

Abandoned water tower in Auhya Pihni

Three steps to sustainable water

WaterAid has made community engagement a cornerstone of its operations. Focused on improving water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions in underprivileged communities, the nonprofit works in 38 countries around the world.

Arup’s New York office, where I work as a structural engineer, has worked with WaterAid’s Nicaragua chapter for the past four years.

School toilet installed by WaterAid

School toilet installed by WaterAid

The organization’s three-step approach — design, implementation, and establishment of a local management structure — closely mirrors the process that engineers follow on construction projects. In both processes, stakeholder engagement is vital. Only by communicating with those most affected by the project can engineers be sure that a given technical solution is appropriate — and viable in the long term.

Auhya Pihni residents at WaterAid meeting

WaterAid meeting soliciting ideas and feedback from Auhya Pihni residents

The changes WaterAid has brought to the small village of Truhlaya demonstrate the value of this approach. When representatives first visited, they found that accessing potable water required a two-hour uphill hike through a forest. From a purely technical standpoint, the design solution was straightforward: a conventional gravity-based pipe system could carry the water from the fountain source to a tank in the village center.

freshwater fountain in Nicaragua

Inspection of freshwater fountain near Truhlaya

But implementation and management proved far more complex. The pipes would need to pass through private property, requiring multiple landowners to grant permission. Moreover, the village’s remote location and the project’s small budget meant that locals would have to do much of the construction themselves — scheduling labor shifts on top of their other jobs — as well as monitor and maintain the system throughout its 20-year lifetime. WaterAid’s representatives had to convince community members to buy into a system they had never seen in practice, change their daily routines, and form new internal structures.

Fortunately, they did. A local resident named Sabino — who had been elected president of the water, sanitation, and hygiene service committee, which WaterAid helped establish — proudly described how he helped bring his neighbors together and bring the project to fruition.

Residents of Truhlaya installing pipe network for residences to receive water from the storage tank once finished

In addition to donating land and labor to create the system, they agreed to pay tariffs to fund ongoing maintenance and repairs.

Victoria and Sabino sampling water from test pipe as part of a project designed to eliminate the need for a two-hour hike to the source

In the months since my visit, the system has been completed and is functioning well. Providing potable water 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it has made life easier and healthier for 65 households.

water storage tank in Nicaragua

Truhlaya residents visiting completed water storage tank earlier this year

Next steps

Much remains to be done to improve water access in Nicaragua and other poorly served regions of the world. Technical innovation can help: in recent years, my colleagues at Arup, along with others in the field, have studied new applications for solar-powered pumping systems, hydraulic pumping systems, and pour-flush sanitary systems. But no matter how sophisticated our equipment becomes, people like Jhondra and Sabino will remain the most important piece of the puzzle.


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