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Water Options Tailored to Improve Lives

By Sara A. Fajardo

Ernestine, a Monobloc User

Ernestine Bothra washes laundry

Ernestine Bothra washes laundry in the cool shade of the local monobloc's overhang. Unlike the muddy river water, the clean water provided in this facility doesn't stain her clothing. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

Ernestine Bothra is up and working long before the church bells ring at 6 a.m. In her front yard, she boils water in a large cooking pot over an open flame and slowly adds rice flour. She's making a spongy cake for her family of five's modest breakfast. Her daughters watch from above in the family's elevated home—raised on stilts and constructed with large, fibrous palm fronds.

A few feet away, her son washes his face using water from the plastic yellow jerry can Ernestine filled the previous day. The Bothra family has only recently arrived in Anivorano Est, and they rely on one of the town's two monoblocs for all of their water needs.

Each day, Ernestine's two young daughters, Sara and Stephanie, skip beside her as she carries the family's laundry and a jerry can to the turquoise octagonal structure strategically placed next to the town's market. Although it costs nothing to wash clothes at the river, Ernestine prefers paying for use of chlorinated water at the monobloc. The structure's overhang provides cool shade, and the water never stains her clothes rusty brown like the river does.

The monobloc offers five washing stations. Each has a meter, faucet and cement pedestal for scrubbing clothes. Ernestine chats with the other women doing laundry before she finishes up and fills her jerry can with water for her family.

"Everyone I speak with gets their water from the monobloc or a home connection," says Ernestine. "It's better for my family than the river water because it's chlorinated."

On average, Ernestine spends about 50 cents a week on water—less than half what she paid in her previous village. The water she buys meets all her family needs: bathing, washing dishes and cooking.

Simon's Shared Social Connection

Simon Rakotonimanana can scan the book of monthly water meter readings and explain each major event. The big spike in July: a neighbor mixing cement for a construction project. That jump in October: the curry harvest when Simon washed 65 pounds of leaves. The numbers he has carefully logged into his college-ruled payment booklet reveal the varying needs of the five families sharing his water connection.

Hens and chicks run freely around the courtyard as neighbors and family members fill their yellow jerry cans at the nearby spigot. Rather than constantly calculating how much each member is consuming and tallying up monthly bills, Simon and the others who use this shared connection have decided on another approach. Each family pays a nickel at the time they take a turn at the faucet. The group sharing the connection figures everything will even out in the end.

When the meter reader comes each month, Simon collects the money and pays the bill. He records the reading with a signature and official stamp in the group's booklet.

"We have no problems sharing," he says. "We don't even keep a notebook to monitor when someone uses the water, because we all pay immediately after use."

Access to water is so important to families that they establish their own social contracts with one another to ensure that the system works fairly and equitably. Trust is a key component of that contract—trust that each member will pay the nickel for collecting water, even if Simon's not around; trust that Simon will pay the water bill on time; and trust that the families will work together to keep the connection in tiptop shape.

The benefits of having a shared water tap are incalculable. No longer must a family make the twice-daily, 30-minute walk to fetch water. No one has come down with a case of diarrhea—once a recurrent problem—since the connection's installation. But for Simon, best of all is the cool drink he can now gulp after a long day's work.

"I can drink clean water," he says, "and it's cool and refreshing." As an added bonus, Simon no longer has to boil the water, which saves him the cost of buying wood for the fire.

Jean's Private Connection

Jean Richard Razakamanantsoa runs his own shop and restaurant and relies on a private water connection.

Jean Richard Razakamanantsoa runs his own shop and restaurant, called Epiciere Leba. Entrepreneurs like Jean rely on private water connections to run their businesses. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

The scent of sautéing green onions and ginger perfumes the outdoor kitchen of Jean Richard Razakamanantsoa's Epicerie Leba, a Chinese soup restaurant plus small shop with sundry items in Anivorano Est. It's early. A sliver of sun is just peeking over the horizon as knives slice into vegetables and noodles boil in a large cooking pot on an open flame.

In between chores, the soup chef walks to a spigot only a few feet away to wash vegetables, clean the bowls and add water to the fragrant soup. The consistent water supply that spigot provides is critical to Jean's business. On a typical day, he uses 53 gallons.

Before the new system was put into place, the pipes would run dry on very hot days. It would take 30 minutes to collect water from the local river. "We were spending up to 2½ hours of our workday on water collection," says Jean.

During the rainy season, the water was brown and muddy. Jean's family members often fell ill from using the poor-quality water.

The monthly cost of having a private water connection is now more than double what Jean used to pay: about $1.35 a month for the unpredictable government-run system. He now pays $3.60. He says having a reliable and clean water supply at the private tap makes it worth the price.

By 8 a.m., Jean and his family are ladling steaming soup into bowls and serving customers seated at long tables draped in red vinyl tablecloths. The consistent water supply means that the soup is always ready when a customer enters the shop.

Patrons twirl the long egg noodles onto spoons and slurp, relishing the taste. Posters of smiling women and cute kittens hang on the walls above. Each bowl costs roughly a quarter. On average, Jean sells 50-some bowls a day, earning more than his monthly water payment in just a few hours.

"I'm optimistic that this system will be sustainable," he says. "We use this water for everything." Jean says he's satisfied with the company that handles the water system "because there is no break in the service, and it's better quality. It's been over a year, and we've never had a problem with the service."

Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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