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Why it takes six months to turn on a tap


How do you get clean, fresh water to a place with no roads and no electricity?

Climb a hill. Then another hill. Hack your way through tangled grass. Then up one last slope, feet slipping in oozing mud, and you've reached the spring. Fill your containers with water - as many as your back can bear - and start the long trek home.

The mothers of Hohorai district in Timor-Leste made that journey every day. With no access to toilets, generations of open defecation had left all nearby water sources contaminated, forcing women into an ever-longer trek to find drinkable water for their families. Fresh running water and sanitary toilets seemed like an impossible luxury.

So when Red Cross asked the villagers how it could help, the answer was obvious. "The communities here identified both safe water and toilets as key to improving their quality of life," says Stuart Bryan, an Australian Red Cross water and sanitation specialist working in Timor-Leste.

Yet bringing clean water to a place like Hohorai is never as simple as showing up and installing the plumbing. There are vast logistical challenges to overcome.

The first challenge is to provide running water to a village with no electricity. Timor-Leste Red Cross specialises in gravity-fed water systems, which move water downhill from a natural spring to a village. Much simpler to operate than pump systems, gravity-fed systems can last 20 years and more if well maintained by the community.

The next challenge is to ensure sustainability; here local ownership and commitment becomes critical. Red Cross provides resources and expertise while villagers offer local knowledge and volunteer their labour. Together we identified the best places to install the water tanks taps, and trained the local volunteers in construction.

Then there's the need to transport building materials to sites far off the beaten track. Again, the local volunteer network came to the rescue, digging new access roads to get materials to the site and maintaining them with sand and gravel.

It took six months before water first flowed from a tap. Heavy rains frequently washed away access roads, shutting down access to the villages for weeks at a time. Village volunteers struggled to balance their construction work commitments with the need to support their families.

Today it takes closer to two minutes than two hours to get water. The spring is protected from contamination by a concrete structure at its source. The water is filtered and diverted to each village, where water tanks are located at convenient points for families to access. The next step will be to build pour-flush toilets, initially in public toilet blocks and eventually one for each household.

Behaviour change is just as important as a tap that flows or a toilet that works. Before people's health can improve, they need to understand the connection between water and the germs that cause diarrhoea, and how the safe disposal of human waste can keep their water systems from becoming contaminated again. These can be challenging concepts to explain in communities that might have never had access to formal education, or health education in general.

That's why training people to build taps and training them to wash their hands always go together. Red Cross volunteers become advocates for their peers, demonstrating simple but life-changing behaviours like washing hands, boiling drinking water and using toilets.

The final step is to equip villagers with the knowledge to maintain their facilities. Red Cross trains villagers in maintenance and each household contributes a small amount of money, creating a 'user pays' water system managed by the community.

As Januario Ximenes, Secretary-General of Timor-Leste Red Cross, explains: "Our projects are successful because we work in close collaboration with the communities and develop strong relationships." These relationships open doors for other initiatives: from improving maternal and child health to flood-proofing homes and crops.

In the last two years Red Cross has provided 12,000 people in 14 villages with clean water. Yet there are many more communities where the search for clean water still keeps people trapped in poverty. We rely on our donors' help to provide life-changing water and sanitation facilities.

And while it can take six months to turn on a tap, once the water flows it changes lives forever.

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Photo: Australian Red Cross/Conor Ashleigh