Promoting environmental stewardship in Guatemala

Talk to Water For People -- Guatemala country coordinator Edgar Fajardo about water and sanitation development in his country and you quickly realize he is focused on the big picture. Beyond the gravity-fed water systems and household latrines that support the health and growth of rural communities, Fajardo has trained his sights on the sustainability that flows from watershed management...

By Nina Miller, Ph.D., Manager of Program Education, Water For People

Talk to Water For People -- Guatemala country coordinator Edgar Fajardo about water and sanitation development in his country and you quickly realize he is focused on the big picture. Beyond the gravity-fed water systems and household latrines that support the health and growth of rural communities, Fajardo has trained his sights on the sustainability that flows from watershed management.

This environmentally based approach broadens Water For People's work model, extends the timeline for impact, and links together a range of issues that communities face. Best of all, by its very nature, watershed management expands the knowledge and capacity of local governments, local NGOs, and communities, particularly in their ability to cooperate on common goals.

So, what is watershed management? Indeed, what exactly is a watershed?

A watershed is a geographic area from which water drains toward a common watercourse (such as a lake, stream, or ocean) in a natural basin. It is defined by water but includes topography, geology, and land use. Watershed management entails balancing all of the needs that must be met within its terrain: personal and household use, sanitation, irrigation and animal husbandry, and even manufacturing and transportation. Balancing these needs depends on bringing all stakeholders into the discussion and empowering them to plan for their mutual benefit and the stewardship of shared resources.

The goals of watershed management are conservation of water and soil, appropriate development of natural resources, and poverty reduction. Nothing could be more logical or, in truth, more ambitious. In the Water For People -- Guatemala program, as in the world of international development more generally, the paradigm of watershed management is guiding exciting efforts that will take time to come to fruition. Still, the promise is there to move the world toward ultimate sustainability.

Of Guatemala's 38 watersheds, the second largest is the Salinas, encompassing 4,639 square miles in the middle-western highlands. Contained within the Salinas Watershed is Quiché, the department where Water For People -- Guatemala has made a multiyear commitment to four regions. Like nine other Guatemalan watersheds, the Salinas flows north into the Gulf of Mexico.

Fajardo sees watershed management as an enhancement of the community empowerment model that Water For People has long used. "In addition to questions of need, affordability, and maintenance," he says, "communities must consider their water use within a larger network of communities connected by water. When our staff began exploring where we would focus our efforts in Guatemala, the entire team was struck by how interconnected the communities are."

Improper treatment of wastewater affects those "downstream," as does the failure to protect a source from domestic animal use. Soil erosion contributes to the diminishment of the water table, and exposure makes springs more vulnerable to storms and floods. A watershed-aware community will strive to keep trees around water points. Such practices protect future generations as well as one's own family and neighbors.

Watershed awareness includes the knowledge of each area's place in the watershed, in terms of factors like rainfall and soil quality. One village might be well positioned to grow vegetables, while a village 6 miles away would make the wisest use of their land in grazing cattle. Education in sustainable agriculture may lead to the introduction of new plant species that produce more food for families and for market. Over time, knowing such optimal uses can spur planning for sustainable economic development and consequent poverty alleviation.

Fajardo points out that people can make better choices about technology in the context of watershed management. For example, where a community might have opted for VIP (ventilated improved pit) latrines because of their low cost and ease of installation, consideration of the high water table in their area might lead them to choose pour-flush technology, which does not threaten drinking water supplies. Additional expense in the initial phase would thus be offset by savings in avoidable water treatment down the line.

A sound idea in a "stable" natural environment, watershed management, Fajardo notes, will become essential under the increasing stresses of global warming. "We are already seeing more extreme weather events like Hurricane Stan, which hit Guatemala just weeks after Katrina," he says. "Deforestation contributed to the devastation and damage from mudslides, while the poverty of subsistence farming made rebuilding painfully slow."

Additionally, Fajardo points to the need to find new sources of water in the face of increasing scarcity. Last year, Water For People -- Guatemala developed its first rainwater catchment project in a mountain village in the region of Nebaj. With an average 100 inches of rain a year, Visivan was perfectly situated within the watershed to take advantage of this simple technology that frees its women and girls from hours of daily hauling from unsafe sources.

Watershed management certainly has its challenges. Fajardo notes that "because water can be used for many things and there are competing demands for the same resource, watershed management is inherently political." For that reason "it is essential to involve government in any watershed management activities."

Fortunately, Water For People -- Guatemala is well positioned to do just that. As an organization, Water For People puts strong emphasis on working with local government to increase their capacity for the regulation and infrastructure support that rightly belong to government. Within the expanded purview of watershed management, such capacity building can include helping government with long-range planning around the arbitration of competing water interests. Even in this early stage, Water For People -- Guatemala regularly partners with the ministries of environment, forestry, and health, all of which will be central players in a future of integrated environmental stewardship.

Water For People's director of International Programs, Ned Breslin, sees Fajardo's groundwork in Guatemala being played out in other Water For People country programs and the international water development sector as a whole. Says Breslin, "Important practices and awareness can be generated at the community level, and Water For People has always believed strongly in education and self-determination of communities. But a watershed exceeds the boundaries of any one community. Real management of the resource begins when communities cooperate through the larger supporting structures of government ministries." More broadly, "Watershed management is in its earliest stages. It will be a challenging process to work it out for the whole sector, but Water For People is very well positioned to do it because of its focus on government participation and capacity."

Founded in 1991, Water For People is a nonprofit international development organization that supports safe drinking water and sanitation projects in developing countries. Water For People partners with communities and other nongovernmental organizations to help people improve their quality of life by supporting sustainable drinking water, sanitation and health and hygiene projects. Water For People supports projects with professional development advice, financial support and volunteer technical services. Typical projects include protected spring-fed community water systems, gravity-fed systems, wells with hand pumps, latrine construction, operator training, and hygiene education. Water For People is currently working in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 2007, Water For People supported the provision of safe and sustainable drinking water resources and/or sanitation facilities benefiting more than 108,000 people in the developing world.

About the photographer:
Tim Ryan ( is a freelance photographer/producer/director with a unique vision inspired by the world around him and people he meets. His photography and video assignments take him to North America, Latin America, Europe, and Africa for corporate, nonprofit, education, travel, outdoor, and editorial clients.


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