By Jane Brinton
The Waterbearers co-founder and executive director
When I moved to Cuenca in 2013, I wanted to experience something different, but not to retire. As a second-time expat and world traveler, I’m no stranger to adapting to new lifestyles and cultures.
For the first year I explored opportunities, but what I was really looking for was more meaning in my life. Eventually, it found me. I was introduced to a fellow expat Spryte Loriano, who had recently moved to Cuenca. We realized we had a lot in common, both having spent time in Africa, and knew about the need for clean water. Simultaneously we said “water bearers”, and that was the beginning of a magical journey following the path of water.
The Waterbearers began as a 30-day fundraising campaign for World Water Day, 2016. We partnered with Waves For Water, a 501(c)(3) organization which received all donations directly and could implement distribution of Sawyer PointONE filters, a low-cost, uncomplicated yet effective system that can filter up to 540 gallons of water a day, in remote locations. We had no idea it would go beyond this initial campaign, but it did! $175,000 was raised in four weeks with the potential to reach 320,000 people with clean water.
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Three weeks later, the 7.8 earthquake shook not only the coast of Ecuador but the entire country. Within 72 hours I flew to Quito with 50 Sawyer filters and trained Pacari employees and volunteers on the clean water system. These were the first filters to arrive near the epicenter. A week later I was joined by Erin Toppenberg our other co-founder who couriered hundreds of filters from California to Ecuador.
Here in Cuenca, we’re fortunate enough to have access to one of the best water sources in all of Latin America – the Cajas. But not everyone in this country is so fortunate.
I have visited several communities in the Amazon together with Erin and Spryte, distributing filter systems and training workshops along the Napo and Pastaza rivers with the Achuar, the Shuar and Kichwa tribes. We have also delivered systems with Waves For Water on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, and Spryte has worked with the entire Cañar province of Zhud. These are all people in disadvantaged communities living in extreme poverty.
Last month we partnered with Timmy Global Health, a U.S. medical brigade who has worked in Ecuador since 1997. This was part of a pilot water project to see if our systems and training could be used in some of the small, rural communities around Tena, about five hours from Quito in the Napo Province.
Together with Erin and her 13-year old daughter Jacksyn, and our jungle guide and translator Andres Morales, we traveled to one such community on an island in the Napo river called Centro Palmeras. It was another three hours from Tena along rough roads and a canoe ride before reaching the small village populated by 35 families.
We disembarked the canoe and waded to shore carrying buckets, trash cans and filters. Also joining us was Felipe Vasquez from Engineers Into Action, who tested the water source for bacterial growth and the presence of coliforms. After filtration, the results were extremely positive for the removal of bacteria and cysts such as E. coli, which was present in water taken from the Napo River.
The elders gathered in the community house and Timmy Global’s medical coordinator Katherine Buckingham spoke to the group about bacteria, cleanliness and the need for clean water, and then we assembled the filter and shared our techniques and valuable tips on caring for the system that we’ve learned over the past 2 years. The workshops include the WASH program (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), as a sustainable solution to clean water and health.
At first, our audience looked somewhat skeptical, as we put the components together. But when we used water from their rain catchment tank we could clearly see mosquito larvae swimming around in the glass. After we filtered the water, we each drank from the glass and passed it around the room. A little girl came up for more. Moments later we returned with large trash cans and they realized that each family would have one in their home. It was the Aha Moment! It was as if we just gave them indoor plumbing. The men and women eagerly wanted to put one together.
As a final gesture, we gave them a Waterbearers sticker, which says For The Love of Water. Placed on the water container it is our way of showing gratitude for water – gracias agua. It connects with their indigenous roots by thanking Pachamama. It almost brought me to tears when the leader of the community wrote “gracias agua” on his bucket. My take away from doing this service is seeing those aha moments. The faces of the women and children come to life when they are empowered to take responsibility for their water and the health of their families.
We delivered 35 filters to Timmy Global Health, which means each family now has reliable access to clean water. They can drink from both their rain catchments and the Napo River, knowing that their children have a chance to grow up healthy and productive. They have more time to attend school, and less time on chores like fetching water. Each filter can produce a million gallons and last a decade, so collectively that’s 35 million gallons.
The technology behind the filter system
The Sawyer PointONE is the most advanced hollow fiber membrane filter certified for ABSOLUTE microns with a removal rate of 99.99999%. That means there is no pore size larger than 0.1 microns in the biological filter, making it impossible for harmful bacteria, protozoa or cysts like E. coli, Giardia, Vibrio cholerae, and Salmonella typhi (which cases Cholera and Typhoid) to pass through.
Sawyer filters are designed for on-demand use. Their fast flow makes storage of clean water unnecessary. The intended use of these filters is rainwater catchment and surface water such as rivers, lakes, and streams. It is not intended for water systems where chlorine has been added, as chemicals will break down the life of the filter. These filters do not remove VOC’s, heavy metals, or chemicals in solution such as fluoride and arsenic.
The Waterbearers use this system because it’s small, portable, easy to use and reliable without cartridges or replacement parts. Each filter can provide enough clean water for 100 people a day and can produce up to one million gallons. That’s water for up to 10 years if the filter is properly cared for. We provide the filter and bucket adaptor kit, distribution and our Water Workshops, where we not only demonstrate assembly and simple routine maintenance of the filter, we teach the women and children about bacteria that makes them sick, and how to respect water, nature and the environment. This empowers women and enables them to care for the filter, their surroundings and for the health of their families.
We align ourselves with strategic partners and in-country organizations that have existing relationships with community leaders. Supporting these programs means more filters to more women, which equates to more clean water, more time for education and productivity in their communities. Through our strategic partners, we’ve been able to provide funds to impact more than 700,000 people with access to clean water in 18 countries since 2016.
To learn more please visit www.thewaterbearers.org
If you’d like to help our direct efforts in Ecuador https://www.classy.org/team/150334
The Waterbearers is a 501(c)(3) foundation registered in the state of California. EIN# 81-3227222
Saving & Changing Lives Every Day
- 100 women leaders stepped up to join our movement and fundraising campaign. Helping others empowers individuals by making a difference.
- Responding to urgent need for clean water to survivors of the Ecuador earthquake. Within 72 hours, we trained volunteers to distribute 50 filters, providing enough clean water for 5000 people –saving lives!
- We empower women in each community to take responsibility for themselves and their family’s wellbeing. Saving and changing lives!
- We demonstrate how to respect water and all things in nature and to protect the environment.
- The landslide in Sierra Leone took the lives of 1100 people, and 3000 homeless waited to be moved to temporary camps. We diverted 100 filters from neighboring Liberia, and using WhatsApp we worked with partners to train students in Freetown who set up clean water stations in the camps. Saving hundreds of lives by halting the spread of cholera.
- At the same time that Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, 1200 people were killed in heavy monsoon rains and flooding across southern Nepal, India and Bangladesh. I reached out to our Waterbearer network of women leaders, to see if anyone had contacts in Nepal. We aligned with The World Is My Country foundation in Kathmandu and distributed 180 water filters to the stricken area. Today, the recipients are praising our relief efforts and the use of the filters. We will visit these communities and 6 schools this October.