Saturday | April 18, 2015
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Local nonprofit helps bring clean water to communities

For those living in Kosovo, an Eastern European country about the size of Hawaii Island, access to clean, safe drinking water can be challenging. There’s only one wastewater treatment in the nation. Elsewhere, raw sewage goes directly into the rivers, said Derek Chignell, Water for Life executive director and Rotary Club of Kona Sunrise member.

Chignell estimates there are approximately 88 villages with no water at all and another 300 villages that have poor water, sanitation and hygiene education facilities, with highly contaminated water.

Worldwide, water-borne diseases kill three children every minute — about 4,000 children daily, a grim fact that rarely gets the attention it deserves, he added.

Water for Life, a Kailua-Kona-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to provide safe drinking water in Kosovo and elsewhere. Since 2002, it has been training individuals and communities to create and maintain their own local water resources. Its staff is involved in various projects in the field for significant periods of time, usually about 10 years, working alongside those responsible for their community’s needs and helping foster hope, Chignell said.

Water for Life has started projects all over the world — Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kiribati, Brazil and Indonesia — and even here on the Big Island — in Ocean View.

The nonprofit does not arrive in a village with a set cookie-cutter plan or foreign technology. Instead, it finds and develops practical, sustainable and affordable solutions that work with the materials available there, Chignell said.

“More than 60 percent of all water projects built by community service organizations and other groups with good intentions have failed within a few years of being built because of the use of inappropriate technologies, lack of spare parts, lack of finance for operations and maintenance or poor operation and training,” said Aaron Shadow, a Water for Life staff member.

A major source of inspiration for Water for Life is Rus Alit and his Bali Appropriate Technology Institute, which is known for its simple water technologies now used in numerous countries, said Chignell, who met Alit more than a decade ago.

Water for Life also provides guidance and education by hosting seminars teaching people how to build and maintain rainwater catchment systems, biosand filters and pumps, as well as how to prevent and treat water-borne diseases. The focus is at the household and small community level because large-scale centralized water systems are more difficult to fund and maintain. Besides the sweat equity, each village must commit to paying a portion of the costs and to sharing what they have learned with neighboring communities, Chignell said.

For five years, Water for Life has helped the village of Tushile in Kosovo, where existing wells have been upgraded to provide good water family by family. The water situation has been solved for all but a few families. Because of the success of the project, the nonprofit was asked to partner with a local Rotary Club in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, as well as local businessman Syle Alaj and high school principal John Chestnut to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene education facilities in villages one at a time. More than 60 villages are currently in need of assistance, and the improvement costs are between $6,000 and $8,100 per village. Each village must provide about 25 percent of the cost, Chignell said.

With other projects, Water for Life has found if a school in a village becomes a partner and upgrades its facilities, those improvements have a lasting effect on the entire community, Chignell said. He thinks the biggest challenge is changing attitudes and helping people realize they can make a difference. He and Shadow spoke about how children are key to this effort because if they understand how important water, good hygiene and sanitation are, they take this information back to their family and the adults start trying to solve their own problems relating to these aspects.

Chignell recently learned about The Rotary Foundation’s Global Grants, which support large international humanitarian and service activities that have a long-term impact. For every dollar raised by Pristina Rotarians, there would be matching funds from the foundation, the region and other participating Rotary clubs. Chignell is looking for a local partnering club and spoke last Wednesday to the Rotary Club of Kona Sunrise, which is interested in the effort, but has yet to make a decision, said President-elect Vicki Kalman.

Donations are also being sought for the Kosovo effort and other Water for Life projects. To contribute or for more information, call 989-3735 or visit waterforlife.org.