By Darlene Donloe
Water is essential to living. As a general rule of thumb, without it, a person can survive for about three days.
For the most part, access to clean water isn’t an issue for people living in developed countries. They simply turn on a tap.
It’s not so easy for those persons living in underdeveloped nations like Niger, a landlocked western African country considered the poorest nation in the world.
For people in Niger, water is scarce, and therefore, comes at a premium.
Barbara Goldberg, the president and founder of Wells Bring Hope, an organization that started in 2008, and became a nonprofit in 2010, recognized a need and acted on it. Her goal was to have Wells Bring Hope transform lives by financially supporting the drilling of deep-water wells to provide safe, clean water to rural villages in Niger.
Before founding Wells Bring Hope, Goldberg had started a group called Salon Forum where she would do events in her home, and invite “some great women” to hear a guest speaker who would talk on a variety of topics.
“In 2008, Gil Garcetti, who is a former Los Angeles district attorney and quite an accomplished photographer, came and spoke about the water crisis in Niger,” said Goldberg, a former marketing consultant for several high-profile Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, BMW, Porsche and General Mills. “He went there and took photos and shared them with us. From that talk, everyone was moved. We were educated, articulate, worldly women who knew nothing about it.
“I sent out an email the next day asking if we should take up the cause and raise money. Everyone said, ‘yes.’ We raised money for five wells. At the end of the year, we had raised money for 10. That was the beginning.”
To date, Wells Bring Hope has funded 710 wells, and three solar water systems, resulting in helping upwards of 718,774 persons.
Committed to saving lives with safe water, Wells Bring Hope drills wells to not only bring safe water but also sanitation to Niger.
They chose the country of Niger, Goldberg said, because they “wanted to have a great impact.”
“We wanted to concentrate our energy and resources,” she said.
In Niger, considered one of the hottest countries in the world, 61% of rural villagers lack safe water, 96% have no access to sanitation (not even a simple latrine) and one in seven children dies before the age of 5.
In the country, women and girls are responsible for walking four to six miles a day to find water. Unfortunately, the water they find is often contaminated. And, because they have to walk miles for water every day, girls don’t go to school.
The average girl in the country receives just four years of education. About 85% of Nigerien women cannot read or write. The lack of water and sanitation keeps women in a cycle of poverty.
“We connected with the plight of the women and girls,” said Goldberg, a divorced, mother of two. “We knew, obviously, that safe water is critical. We empathized with the mothers who lost children. That’s what moved us.
“The girls had no time to go to school, so they weren’t educated. It all changes when you just drill a well.”
Goldberg said lots of other things change when people have access to clean water.
“We focus on the women,” she said. “We have gone to Niger into the villages to interview women. We heard all these stories.
“By drilling wells, we are saving lives and transforming lives. Now the girls don’t have to walk miles for water. They can go to school. The family dynamic changes.
“The men were thrilled that the women are working. With the water, they are able to farm and have food to sustain themselves.”
Wells Bring Hope works with World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world, to drill wells, which cost about $6,300 each and take three or four days to drill. When it comes to deciding where to put the wells and the water systems in the country, Goldberg said they leave that to the experts.
“We don’t make that decision,” she said. “We partner with World Vision. World Vision has dedicated water engineers and people on the water team. They are West Africans. They know which areas/villages need water. They do it on that basis.
“The village has to say, ‘Yes, we will take care of the well and have a well maintenance committee.’ They have to agree to practice good hygiene and sanitation. We teach them to build latrines and tell them why good hygiene and sanitation are important.”
Ultimately, it’s about more than just providing clean water.
“You must also educate people on things that will ensure sustainability, sanitation, hygiene, drip farming, and well maintenance,” Goldberg said. “We also have a program called WASH — Water Sanitation and Hygiene.
“What happens is, they do open grazing, which means they do what they need to do wherever they want to do it,” Goldberg said. “So, all that bad stuff gets in the groundwater. That’s why we educate them on why it’s important to use latrines.”
To ensure the maintenance of the well, Wells Bring Hope follows up each month and goes into the villages to make sure wells are running.
“Every village has a maintenance fund so they can have resources in case something happens with their well,” said Goldberg, who added Wells Bring Hope expects to be in Niger for a minimum of 10-15 years. “Sustainability is critical. There are some organizations that drill a well and leave. About 80% of wells fail after five years because they weren’t properly maintained.”
To make things easier, Wells Bring Hope switched from hand-pumped wells to solar-powered mechanized wells.
“That way they just have to turn on a tap,” Goldberg said. “They only cost $200 more, which makes it $6,300 for each well. It alleviates the burden of the women to go get water.”
The organization does more than drill wells, it also provides microfinance training to women in every village where they drill.
“We do savings groups,” Goldberg said. “We show them how to handle money and start their own small business. The women are transformed. They form small businesses and become successful.”
Thus far, Wells Bring Hope, a volunteer organization with no paid employees, has raised $5 million through annual fundraisers.
“One hundred percent of our donations go to funding a well,” said Goldberg, who added that Panda Restaurants Group funds their operating expenses. “We have campaigns throughout the year. We started funding water campaigns at health clinics. Women are reluctant to come to a clinic because there is no water.
The women actually carry their own water to clean themselves and their babies. We fund water projects — one a year at the cost of $50,000, which helps between 5,000 and 10,000 people a year.”
In Niger, doctors and nurses can’t wash their hands or instruments between patients. A woman in Niger dies from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth every two hours. The World Health Organization estimates that the lives of 400,000 babies could be saved each year if health facilities had access to safe water and sanitation.
Goldberg thought it was important to share what they had learned about clean water with young people, and decided to educate students in Los Angeles through a program called the Seven-Gallon Challenge.
“We want to educate the younger generation,” said Goldberg. “We challenge people to live on seven gallons of water for a day. We go into the schools with the program. It’s much harder to do than one would think.”
Goldberg encourages everyone to start their own fundraising campaign through a program called Water Circle.
“Set a goal and raise money for wells,” said Goldberg. “That’s it. It doesn’t take much to make a huge impact.”
Goldberg said, what the general public doesn’t know regarding wells and clean water, in general, is “how easy it is to solve this problem.”
“You simply drill a well,” she said.
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.