Ex-gang members are being trained as plumbers to help solve Nicaragua’s poor water sanitation.
Growing up in the Nicaraguan city of Bilwi is tough. Frequent power cuts, overcrowded schools, gang violence and drug culture, is the extortionate costs of basic supplies – including water.
Ron, 21, is an ex-gang member who has been on one of the technical courses for ‘at risk’ young people. It has changed the direction of his life and helped him to make positive steps for his future.
“Being in a gang in Bilwi means you’re a thief — that no-one likes you”, he explained.
He was once part of a gang called Young S.G. (based in the Saint Gill neighbourhood), fighting with stones, machetes and sometimes firearms made up of boys as young as 12 years old.
However, Ron, now out of this circle, recalled what it was like to be part of a gang: “They used to steal,” he explains. “They used to assault people and fight with gangs in other neighbourhoods.”
In one particular fight between Young S.G. and the neighbouring Bus Stop Gang, a friend of Ron’s was cut with a machete, while he himself escaped with a blow to the head from a stone.
To tackle the water crisis, the city needs trained plumbers, masons and engineers to keep water and sanitation services running.
As well as the technical training, the students take part in sessions with a psychologist to address some of the social problems they and their communities continue to face.
WaterAid and its partner AMEC (Aerobombas de Macate, meaning ‘Windpumps and Ropepumps’) have set up a practical scheme training students to become skilled young entrepreneurs in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
Local residents will be trained to install rainwater catchment systems as well as maintain rope pumps (a simple type of water pump), install eco-toilets (a type of pour-flush latrine), drill manual borehole wells, clean and disinfect existing hand-dug wells.
Elton, 19, is an ex-gang member who talks about how the death of his friend in a gang fight persuaded him to change his life. He speaks about taking part in a WaterAid training course and how his subsequent work has helped to improve his life.
“I was with a gang and sometimes they had fights in the street. One time we were fighting with another gang from a neighbouring area, and one of them killed a good friend of mine, who I grew up with, in front of me. I got really upset, I was thinking of maybe stabbing him or using a machete to attack him.
“This event made me think that this was not the right way to live, and I could eventually be killed if I stayed in the gang. So, eventually I started thinking about changing my life The event kind of triggered me to join the course.
“It will be better for the families here in the community; they will get less sickness if they drink good water and [better] personal hygiene when you have your own toilets.”
Joshua Briemberg, Country Representative in Nicaragua, who’s overseeing this project, explained the country’s water shortage,
“It is primarily due to historical abandonment and a lack of investment in public services. This has been compounded by poverty and increased migration from the rural communities and impoverished areas of the country to urban centers.
“This program teaches young people life, technical and vocational skills. While WaterAid’s global mission is to help provide access to clean water and toilets and promote health hygiene practices, this novel approach actively involves young aid recipients in their own projects. In an impoverished city where few residents will go on to university, the chance to earn a good living is prized.”
Water supplies in Bilwi are poor and even those households connected to a piped supply will only have limited access. Installing good quality pumps and toilets is expensive and many of those who want to do it have to take out a loan.
“Only 20 percent of 45,000 residents have access to running water –– at best every three days, for maybe three hours at most. So a large potential market awaits these young people’s newfound skills. Despite strong demand, there aren’t a lot of plumbers or tradespeople around, or people with a knowledge of these low-cost technologies. WaterAid is working to fill that gap.
“There are a lot of elements to this project, and it’s not easy. We aren’t taking a traditional development approach. This is innovative work, because we’re not limiting our focus to sanitation, and because we’re offering new opportunities to people who have been – or are at risk of going – down some troubled roads.
“By offering vocational training to young people who are interested in learning how to become well and pump mechanics, we are setting them up with skills they can use professionally. As well as securing people’s access to safe water, we’re giving local business initiatives a real boost.”
The program is expected to continue for at least three more years.
Briemberg added: “To date WaterAid has trained 54 at-risk youth, many of whom have been involved in youth gangs. A third training course with 30 new students is expected to get underway in the coming days.
“Even the residents who are connected to the existing municipal piped supply only receive water intermittently as infrequently as every 3 days for 2 to 3 hours. The rest of the population has to rely on very rudimentary hand dug wells, purchasing water from tanker trucks, and collecting water from illegal connections to the existing distribution system. T
“Talking today to the Mayor of Bilwi, he told me that he has to drive his daughter across town to her grandmother’s house, where there is still water in a backyard well, so that she can bathe in order to go to school. The 45-foot well at his home has run dry, and he no longer receives any water from the municipal system.”
Photo Captions (credit WaterAid/ Jordi Ruiz Cirera)
Photo caption 1: Ron, 21, Wesley, 20 and Lucy work on building a rope pump in Bilwi.
Photo caption 2: Elton, 19, who works on making bricks for construction, Bilwi, Nicaragua