Faith-based Charity Brings Water Purification Systems to Remote Areas
Clean, reliable drinking water for all populations remains a top international goal. As of 2020, about three-quarters of the world—5.8 billion people—had access to safe water, according to the World Health Organization. But around 500 million people are estimated to still use unpurified water taken from wells, springs, lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams.
Many organizations today are working to address the global water crisis, but one—Christian non-profit Healing Waters International (HWI)—is focused on some of the neediest populations—those who live in poor, remote areas.
“We know that access to clean water is a critical need and human right; it affects nutrition, cognitive ability, productivity, educational and livelihood opportunities, and social well-being,” says Hana Lokey, HWI’s senior program manager.
HWI is built on the belief that everyone deserves safe water, and that includes people living in remote coastal villages in Haiti or rural mountain towns in Central America, she said. “HWI is grateful to be a part of addressing this inequity.”
Founded by Two Churches
HWI was born in 2002, when two churches—one in Colorado in the United States and the other in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean—formed a non-profit partnership.
The founders’ goal was to provide sustainable water treatment technologies to serve marginalized communities at a low cost. This meant pursuing the best water purification systems for challenging locations—as well as finding ways for the program to be both financially self-sustaining and viable for the long haul.
HWI is also true to its missions of encouraging faith in God and educational programs wherever it goes.
In its two decades, HWI has brought clean water to hundreds of thousands of people in communities in the Caribbean and Central America—and soon it will stretch to East Africa.
Developing Water Purification Technology
HWI started its first clean water initiatives by partnering with Dominican Republic churches serving people in urban areas and their surrounding neighborhoods. Before long, their work expanded into Mexico, Guatemala, and, most recently, Haiti, using the same collaborative, church-centered approach.
Then, a decade ago, HWI switched its focus to remote, rural communities that are outside traditional water infrastructures and in severe need of help with safe water.
All HWI purification systems are custom-configured to specific water source and consumption demands, but this switch to rural communities meant HWI had to build systems good enough to purify water that is brackish, tainted with arsenic or fluoride, or filled with toxins.
One of HWI’s strengths is its use of a “separation membrane” in its water systems. Separation membrane technologies, such as ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis, are core parts of systems that remove contaminants from water.
HWI configures a full “treatment train” around this core, installing control boxes for its reverse osmosis systems that can adjust, control, and optimize system performance for a community.
For larger communities, HWI has expanded its engineering offerings to provide more robust, customizable, and larger-scale purification and pumping systems. Today, HWI has projects that are ten times larger than those the organization was working on just two years ago.
One of HWI’s most notable global challenges is acceptance and buy-in from management at the local project level.
“In the past, we have had projects with great leaders who have championed a water project, but after a few years, they move away or are unable to continue as the project lead. It can be a challenge then to pass the project off to another leader in the community,” Lokey explains.
Changing the behavior of recipients is “always harder than the hardware element,” says Lokey. If people have always received their water directly from a natural spring or an untreated tap, it takes effort to convince them that they should drink purified water, especially if their usual water source is free, she adds.
In other words, providing access to safe water (at a low cost) does not guarantee that people will take advantage of it.
Another obstacle is introducing equipment that will produce safe water efficiently in communities with scant resources and few, if any, people with business or technical backgrounds to help operate it.
“HWI has continued to grow into more complex and larger-scale systems but has had to continue to find ways to make this equipment understandable for local project teams to operate and maintain,” Lokey says.
On the bright side, HWI finds that inviting community engagement, offering a proper business and distribution model for the local context, and providing hygiene and sanitation education that is tailored for the local recipients, can increase access, understanding and use of safe water in a community.
Adaptation Has Been Key to Success
HWI has learned to adapt in achieving its mission of ensuring safe water no matter where people live.
For instance, several years after the non-profit began to work in the Dominican Republic, HWI realized that small water stores, which provide safe water at affordable prices, had proliferated, and most of the island’s communities now had access to clean water.
HWI decided to shift its focus over the border, to the Dominican Republic’s island neighbor Haiti, and west into Central America, where Honduras had a severe need for safe water.
HWI’s partnership model required adaptation, as well. HWI now partners with local leaders who are trusted by the community and have the desire and capacity to resolve their community’s water needs, Lokey says.
HWI now partners with local leaders who are trusted by the community and have the desire and capacity to resolve their community’s water needs.
Adaptation has further involved creating unique business plans to ensure that projects can earn enough revenue to cover operating costs.
HWI’s charitable work is funded by several revenue streams, including individual donors, churches, family foundations, and partner organizations that subcontract HWI to implement WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) interventions.
Its projects include some community contributions for its clean, pure water, which can be given via donations of materials or sweat equity, a form of unpaid work given by entrepreneurs or employees. In addition, the projects set aside monthly savings to cover replacement costs for equipment and materials.
“Ongoing support is critical to long-term success,” Lokey says. HWI commits to ongoing support visits at no cost to the local project, so recipients are incentivized to communicate openly about issues or needs.
Setting up Clean Water Systems for Future Generations
Looking ahead, HWI plans for its work to take two forms.
First, the organization will focus more on working at the regional level on larger-scale projects. “Larger scale in terms of implementation strategy and people served creates natural efficiencies for our team to maximize reach,” says Lokey.
Second, HWI will expand its work into Nicaragua and Kenya. In addition to Honduras, these two countries have been in the organization’s sights for a while, and projects have been inaugurated there in 2022.
HWI also designs and supplies systems for strategic partners, most notably its cross-Africa partner, Jibu.
To support both these goals, HWI is looking into designing solar-powered purification projects. These systems often include a solar pumping component that can draw water to the purification site from more than two miles away.
“With particular needs in water scarcity and exotic contaminants like arsenic or fluoride, we see a need that HWI is uniquely positioned to tackle, so we are working toward building the partnerships and local capacities in these countries,” Lokey says.
*Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed as an insight provider for research institutes and conferences.
Interview with Hana Lokey, Senior Program Manager, Healing Waters International.