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The value of a well

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Rotary project supplying clean water to Zimbabwean villages brings wide-ranging benefits


Nobody takes water for granted in Zimbabwe, least of all the residents of Musekiwa and Mushaki. Located about 160 kilometers (99 miles) from the capital of Harare, the two villages have been drastically affected by the country’s water shortage. Until recently, many residents walked five kilometers (three miles) or more to find water every day.

“They were getting some water from open wells, some from rivers,” says Trymore Tafadzwa Kabanda, a councilor for Mushaki.

By the numbers: Rotary’s water, sanitation and hygiene projects

Global grants awarded since 2019 for these projects: 1,247 grants totaling more than US$93 million

  • Number of countries where clubs have used global grant funding for these projects: 95
  • Largest grant: US$800,000
  • Smallest grant: US$30,000

That changed when two Rotary clubs thousands of miles apart decided to collaborate on a grant-funded project. Members of the Rotary Club of Saint Helena, California, USA, learned about the villages’ situation in 2020 from a guest speaker whose wife had grown up in the area. They found out about the devastating effects climate change has had on rainfall in rural Zimbabwe, where more than 90% of households depend on agriculture for their main livelihood. Zimbabwe’s rainfall patterns have become highly variable in the last two decades. The rainy season used to last from October to March; now it sometimes starts as late as December.

“They had a horrendous water problem,” says John Muhlner, a past president of the Saint Helena club. “Women, for the most part, were walking miles every day to bring water back to their homes. Often they would go and wouldn’t find water, or maybe the water they found would be contaminated.”

The Saint Helena Rotarians contacted the Rotary Club of Harare CBD, Harare, Zimbabwe, which conducted a community assessment. After that, the clubs raised funds and applied for a Rotary Foundation global grant. The US$82,000 project plan was to dig two wells, install solar-powered pumps and a water piping system, train residents to maintain the equipment, and conduct an educational campaign about the importance of hygiene.

Although the project seemed straightforward, it took more than a year to complete. The first barrier was a predictable one: bureaucracy.

“It is quite important that you approach the various government offices to get the necessary approvals before you start a project,” says Antony Matsika, a past president of the Harare club. “We had to go through four levels of approvals: the provincial development coordinator, the district development coordinator, the rural district council, and – lastly, maybe, but still important – the chief of the area. If we didn’t go through those different stakeholders, we were not going to succeed in doing the project.”

Once work was underway, the clubs encountered a problem they didn’t anticipate: One of the wells they dug didn’t strike water.

Workers dig a well in the village of Mushaki, Murehwa District, Zimbabwe]

Courtesy of Constancia Bosha

“In Zimbabwe, you can contract for drilling one of two ways. One is to tell the contractor where to drill, and if nothing comes out of the hole, you’re responsible for the cost of drilling somewhere else,” says Dan Balfe, a member of the Rotary Club of Santa Rosa, California, USA, who also worked on the project. “We should have contracted for a wet hole, which is to say, they would guarantee to drill a hole that had water. We learned a lesson there. As a result, we had to do another phase of fundraising.”

Ultimately, the villages did get their water. Now the Saint Helena and Harare clubs are planning a second grant-funded project to help two more villages in the region. But there’s still a need for many more such initiatives. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.4 million people die each year because of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. Access to clean water affects everyone – often in surprising ways.

“Water touches on all of Rotary’s areas of focus,” says Mary Beth Growney Selene, chair of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Rotary Action Group. “Children are not being pulled away from school to go fetch water in a local river. Parents don’t have to spend time fetching water, so they can be more productive economically. People aren’t as susceptible to waterborne diseases. ‘It all starts with water,’ is what we say.”

That was certainly the case in Mushaki and Musekiwa. “Now, most of the villagers don’t have to go more than a few meters to fetch water,” Kabanda says. “Also, diseases like cholera are prevented.”

Kabanda and the Rotary members believe the new wells shielded people in Mushaki and Musekiwa from a recent outbreak of cholera, which can be caused by a bacterium in brackish river water. A hospital in the area said there hadn’t been any cases of cholera from the two villages, Matsika says.

“Our conclusion is that it is probably because of our project – because of the supply of clean water.”

Learn more about Rotary’s efforts in water, sanitation, and hygiene.

- March 2024

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