Hello! I am James Golden, and I have the privilege of serving as the new Executive Director for Water Ecuador. I have been involved with Water Ecuador since January 2014, and I have been working closely with Alex Harding, Water Ecuador’s founder, over the last few months to make the transition process as smooth as possible. I have spent several months in Ecuador working on research projects over the last two years, and I have grown very fond of both Alex and the organization. Alex will remain actively involved with Water Ecuador moving forward.
I am continually impressed by how much the organization has accomplished since its outset in 2007, and this happens to be a particularly exciting time during Water Ecuador’s history. Over the past eight months, our amazing team has spent many hours reflecting on the organization’s long-term goals, reviewing the impact we hope to have on the communities we serve, and ultimately making the tough decision to shift the focus of the organization.
In this blog post, I want to share with you the exciting new challenges Water Ecuador is taking on.
Between 2007 and 2014, Water Ecuador constructed water treatment centers to provide coastal communities with an affordable source of drinking water, while also empowering local business owners. This model worked well, and there are many other organizations, such as Saha Global, Sarvajal, and 1001Fontaines that employ similar market-based solutions very successfully.
Over the last five years however, there has been a huge increase in the number of private water companies throughout Latin America that provide purified drinking water at affordable prices to the low- and middle-income segments of the market. Bottled water has become a ubiquitous means of distributing drinking water in communities that do not have access to potable piped water – this means that it is no longer considered as much of a luxury product as it once was. A recent Water Ecuador study in Muisne, Ecuador, for example, found that 96% of its population frequently consumes bottled water, even though 98% of the community is still characterized as living in poverty.
This trend has forced us to reevaluate whether the water center model is actually providing local communities with a service they could not otherwise provide for themselves. We certainly did not want to compete directly with other local businesses, but because of the rapid market growth, this was the position in which we found ourselves. This prompted us to begin researching and reevaluating our own role in supporting these communities.
Drinking water is most often distributed in large, blue jugs to communities that lack adequate piped water systems. These are the same kind of 5 gallon reusable water bottles that are commonplace in many office spaces in the US. Our research uncovered that in Ecuador and other Latin American countries, the vast majority of these bottles are contaminated with coliform bacteria, and in some cases, E. coli bacteria. Almost all major international drinking water guidelines stipulate that the concentrations of these bacteria should be zero, as they are closely linked to waterborne illnesses.
The people in these communities are spending a large portion of their income on bottled water because they want to protect their families. Instead, their families are still at risk. Further investigation alongside several local bottled water producers showed that, while these companies are producing highly purified water that is safe to drink, it appears that contamination is introduced due to ineffective methods for cleaning the reusable water jugs in between uses.
We have considered our research carefully and believe that our greatest opportunity to make an impact lies in (1) researching this bottled water contamination issue further and (2) working with private water companies and local governments to ensure that bottled water remains safe all the way up until the point it is consumed. We believe that access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, and failing to ensure that the water remains safe to drink, even after the treatment process, compromises this right.
Even though this is a less direct approach than our water center model, it has the potential to positively impact many more people than our treatment centers ever could. Additionally, this is a more sustainable approach. It will integrate better with the existing infrastructure and allow communities to improve their own access to safe drinking water.
Based on the decision to change our organizational focus, we have also decided to change our mission statement. We have worked hard over the last three months to precisely define the scope of our mission, and I am now delighted to share Water Ecuador’s new mission statement with you:
Water Ecuador’s mission is to expand safe drinking water access in low- and middle-income countries through research, collaboration, and sustainable solutions aimed at improving the existing water landscape.
You will notice that one of the largest changes is that our focus is no longer confined to Ecuador, as this is an issue that affects people all over the world. We are continuing to work on updating other facets of the organization to reflect our new focus and mission statement. We will share those with you as they become ready.
This new direction is going to require a lot of work and continual reevaluation to ensure that our research and efforts are making progress towards the large-scale impact we hope to have. In the meantime, here are a few things we have started work on already:
- Where appropriate, we placed our water treatment centers in the hands of locals interested in providing their communities with a source of purified drinking water.
- We have initiated a series of research projects looking at bottled water contamination and community perceptions of drinking water sources in Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico. Once we have a better idea of the scope of the problem, we will be better equipped to enter into conversations with private water companies, governments, and larger organizations better suited to providing support.
- We have begun researching the efficacy and practicality of a wide range of sanitation methods to improve the quality of bottled water.
This is a vastly understudied issue that potentially impacts millions of people worldwide. I am excited by the potential impact we can have, but ultimately it is your support which makes all of this work possible. If you have any questions, I invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I hope that you will join us in addressing this important problem and improving the lives of those still living without access to safe drinking water.