Behind each successful water project are efforts to build partnerships and community ties that must be put together with as much care as pipes and pumps.
When 46-year-old Zamzam Ahmad fled from Syria to the Lebanese town of Yater, she stepped into a dilemma years in the making.
After the town’s water system was damaged during the Lebanon-Israeli war of 2006, water lines were rebuilt suspended from electric poles, a makeshift solution to try to get water into the community from a local well.
The system was dangerous. See the blue water lines hanging just inches from electric wires?
It was fragile, with lines sustaining damage after any strong wind or storm.
Families had run some 80 pumps to get water from a single well to all the water lines, but there still wasn’t enough water. Water use was rationed, rotating among neighborhoods. One person controlled when water was turned on and off.
Now, through a project of MCC and a Lebanese MCC partner organization Development for People and Nature Association (DPNA), a new system of underground pipes has been constructed, providing a more consistent source of water.
“Now everything’s going to be better,” Ahmad says. “Our life is more comfortable and clean.”
Behind each success story though, is a longer tale – of the careful building of partnerships, of community ties and negotiations.
Getting pipes underground
As Yater grew more and more crowded, people had to wait longer and longer for their area to receive water. And sometimes people tired of waiting would cut the lines of others from the town. The suspended pipes were also at risk of breaking during strong storm winds.
In order to reduce damage from storms, or conflict between neighbors, DPNA worked together with an engineer to figure out how to bring pipes underground and ensure that water ran to homes in the area in a safe, new system.
Yousra Kaaick is grateful that pipes could be built underground. She says her pipes needed to be repaired a half dozen times or more in the last year, costing her family $400 to $500.
With the new system Kaaick can use the money she spent on repairs to buy other necessities. “Now that they are underground, this whole maintenance fee, this money, can be used for the family,” she says.
“You can’t imagine the level of happiness we had when we saw that the pipes were being set up underground.”
Tensions between Syrian refugees and their hosts
As the town of Yater became larger, especially with the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing war, tensions over water were magnified as well.
“The city is growing and there are scarce resources that everybody is sharing that are not increasing. But the number of people and the number of houses are growing.” says Rami Shamma of DPNA.
A DPNA staff member since 2006, Shamma works with communities using the tools he gained when MCC sponsored his attendance at Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., in 2009.
“I look at it as a conflict prevention project,” he says of the project in Yater. “It’s always better to prevent the conflict from happening than to try to solve it.”
That’s why when building this new system DPNA, along with community and town leadership, developed a timed system and a way to divide out water that would be most fair to all instead of having one person determine how areas would share the limited water.
Bureaucracy and debt
Does it sound like Yater’s water problem was solved?
Even though DPNA had worked hard to figure out how to get the pipes underground and how to distribute the water fairly, the project entered a new phase of conflict resolution.
In Lebanon government water entities provide towns with working water systems and residents pay to use the water. But because Yater’s pipes were never fixed after the 2006 destruction and residents ran their own pumps off a local well, they quit paying fees for water service.
And that proved to be the most difficult part of the project.
Over the next two years – two years! – DPNA worked with municipal leaders and government water officials, trying to work through the impasse.
It’s the kind of stumbling block that might have caused a nonprofit to step back and redirect their energy to another project where they could find success more quickly.
But not DPNA.
“For me, it’s something that is challenging but there’s nothing that’s impossible,” says Fadlallah Hassouna, president of DPNA. “The things that don’t get any result in one or three years, we need to wait.”
Eventually, DPNA worked out an agreement where the government would provide water while Yater works out how to repay the debt.
The difference water makes
Water began to flow through the new underground system, bringing change to the daily lives of people like Ahmad.
Her family no longer has to buy water for household needs, and she no longer breaks out in rashes after washing, a common effect of using unclean water. “Now I trust the water,” she says. “I start to feel clean all the time.”
For Ghaleb Nassar, the new system saves time as well as money.
He and his wife share their home with their two daughters and two sons, plus two grandchildren, ages 1 and 2.
With small children to bathe daily and a house to keep clean, his family needed water delivered about every four days, paying more for water truck deliveries than for water use under the new system. Often, there were delays, cutting into his work and reducing his income.
“Whenever we have a problem with the water, I stop my work,” he says. He would make calls and try to get water delivered quickly, sometimes going out to buy enough in bottles to tide the family over until the next water delivery.
“I really thank you for the project,” he says.