From the Horn of Africa to Mexico to the Euphrates River, historically drought-prone regions have their share of political instability. The last thing people need is a prolonged drought that prepares the ground for conflict, as happened a few years ago in Syria when dying livestock and failing crops forced unemployed men into cities.
Once a conflict starts, anywhere, every local problem becomes harder to solve. This emphatically includes access to clean water for communities in need. People in war zones are three times as likely to lack safe water to drink, making them vulnerable to water-borne diseases that are as deadly as bullets and bombs.
“I never really thought about conflict zones as being something that I was interested in. It’s not what I studied in school,” said Erin Boettcher ’11, a global studies graduate with a master’s degree in international development from the University of Denver. “But as I’ve been working, I’ve become more and more passionate about it, and firmly believe in the importance of working in those places, because there’s such a high level of need.”
Ever since her semester abroad in South Africa four years ago, Boettcher has known that she wanted to work in international development. She completed her capstone project at an after-school program for HIV-positive youth in Cape Town, graduated a little ahead of fellow Class of 2012 students, and nurtured her “passion” for public health in her master’s program.
Late last year, Boettcher went to work for a California-based nonprofit, Arc Solutions, that has an unusual dual focus on war zones and water. From Littleton, Colorado, her hometown, she receives regular status reports on six water purification and health training projects that Arc manages at schools in Mogadishu, Somalia.
As much as she would like to live abroad again, Boettcher said, the arrangement makes sense, and not just because Mogadishu is still a dangerous place. She’s observed that projects go more smoothly when locals are entirely responsible for maintaining their own water systems and hand-washing stations. Community ownership is crucial in a country that’s seen so many foreigners come with aid and then go.
The schools nominate students, who might be 8 or 10 years old, to receive certification in hygiene and pass on what they know to their peers. Again, Somalis provide all of the training.
Boettcher’s main job, as director of program excellence and strategic partnerships, is to make sure that the projects provide their expected benefits over time. So, when the readings from a water meter at one site dropped dramatically, she deduced that a set of taps had not been connected to the purification system. Without realizing it, a school that had clean water available was choosing a contaminated source instead.
Now, Boettcher is working on a new training program to help women in Somali refugee camps protect themselves and their families from water-borne diseases. Most people in the camps fled from the south, where the militant group Al-Shabab is strongest.
In the future, she hopes to see more communities take steps to cooperate around the issue of water, for example through water committees with representatives from the various groups that rely on a well or a natural spring.
“There’s also a lot of potential and hope that water can be used for peace-building,” she said.
To read blog posts by Erin Boettcher and learn about the work of Arc Solutions in the Central African Republic, Gaza and Somalia, visit www.ilovearc.org.