When Ursuline Sr. Larraine Lauter first visited Honduras in 2001, she heard wailing coming from a nearby house while walking by with a priest. He remarked that they were supposed to join the family for dinner at that house that night, but their 2-year-old daughter had recently died from drinking dirty water.
"I could not compute that," Lauter said. "I could not integrate that into my world experience."
She returned to Honduras several times in the years following, once as part of a medical mission in Tegucigalpa. Stomach parasites were a common recurrence among patients. Around 2006, Arnie LeMay, a hospital engineer who worked alongside Lauter, told her they could eliminate half the patient visits just by cleaning up the water.
"That was a door opening, a light coming on," she said.
Since then, Lauter has honed the spirit of collaboration with women religious around the world to bring filters to those who otherwise wouldn't have clean water. When women religious collaborate and network — whether it's between religious congregations, shareholders or African villages — they prove how instrumental they are in bringing drinkable water to the marginalized.
According to the United Nations, 663 million people don't have access to drinkable water. Water scarcity affects nearly half of the world's population, and almost 1,000 children die of preventable water-related diseases every day.
Lauter is one of many women religious working on cleaning up water where people otherwise wouldn't have clean water: in war-torn Syria; in remote villages throughout Cameroon; and in regions recovering from natural disasters, such as a hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico, floods in Peru, and earthquakes in Nepal and Mexico.
"North Americans want to come in as heroes, but we tend to come in as very few people in a bad situation," Lauter said. But, she said, "God put smart women everywhere, so forget the hero thing; find the smart women. They will understand these principles, and they will step up."
In Lauter's program, the smart local women they find become known as "water women," trained to handle and share a portable water filter in their communities.
In Vietnam, Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres bottle 500 liters daily for disabled children who attend their order's school. In Uganda, the Bannabikira (Daughters of Mary) sisters shepherd a bottling project — known as Bannafont — for those living around the greater Masaka region. The sisters make it a priority to employ local youth to ensure a social safety net and keep them off the streets and to provide clean water at the same time.
Out of Buffalo, New York, in the United States, Sisters of Mercy — moved by the United States' recent withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement — hosted a "Walk for Water" over the summer. Advocating for the right to clean water and the protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem, Mercy sisters walked in prayer, joined by community leaders and representatives from the nearby Seneca and Cayuga Native American Nations.
Global Sisters Report took a closer look at a couple of collaborative projects among women religious, both of which empower local leaders to clean up the water in their region, giving them the proper tools to be self-reliant.
Partnerships eliminate waterborne diseases in Cameroon
One organization born in Cameroon has relied on partnerships, nurturing local leaders who run the project long after the sisters leave.
Congregation of Notre Dame Sr. Cathy Molloy went to Cameroon from New York City in the early 2000s, initially to establish a new Notre Dame community. While there, she also wrote stories for her community's publication, Dialogue.
"I was seeing all kinds of things I had never seen before and hearing all kinds of stories I had never heard before," particularly as they related to water, she said.
Throughout the region of Kumbo, located in the highlands, children sometimes have to miss school to take buckets to the local, often polluted stream to fetch water, Molloy said.
"We've lost children who went down with their buckets at the end of a rainy season and got pulled into the streams and drowned."
Around the same time Molloy was sending articles back to the congregation in Ottawa, Ontario, Sr. Norma McCoy, also of the Congregation of Notre Dame, was working on water issues in Ottawa,* and working to expand her ministry to include more outreach.
Molloy's articles helped raise money for 17 women who were members of a local support group for widows and single mothers in Kumbo. The money was used to provide those women with access to clean spring water by installing public faucets, but the sisters were just getting started.
News that help had come "spread like wildfire," Molloy said, with other villages approaching her about bringing water systems to them. Eventually, Molloy and McCoy founded OK (Ottawa-Kumbo) Clean Water Project in 2003.
The committee eventually got involved in 53 villages, and its success is rooted in its various partnerships:
- Village water management committees that oversee the processes and include Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit that partners with developing communities worldwide to help meet basic human needs;
- Sisters from congregations in Cameroon who introduce the project to their villages;
- The congregation's schools in Canada, the United States and Japan that hold fundraisers that contribute a third of the project's annual income;
- Connections between local Muslim and Christian communities, which Molloy noted are especially harmonious, with the country's northern region being predominantly Muslim and the southern part, Christian.
Where OK Clean Water has worked — whether introducing, expanding or renovating existing water systems — cases of waterborne diseases have been eliminated, Molloy said. Since its founding, the project has directly served more than 80,000 people.
To receive help, locals must file an application to OK Clean Water and meet a few criteria. The village must locate an accessible source of spring water within a certain distance. Once the source has been located, the engineer runs tests to ensure there would be enough water in both rainy and dry seasons. The village must also agree to a partnership, providing the unskilled labor and materials for construction while OK Clean Water provides skilled labor and helps with the piping.
Once an application is approved, villagers build a catchment, typically carrying materials uphill on their heads and backs. They then dig a trench and build a storage tank, and later go farther down the hill to build taps.
That Kumbo is located in the highlands, Molloy said, is a reason the project could be so successful with a gravity-fed system: The catchment at the top of the hill "catches" the stream water and feeds it into the storage tank below, which can hold around 15,000 liters. Having access to stream water also keeps them from needing filters.
While the first 10 years of the program were mainly spent raising money to install the systems, now the focus is on education for sustainability so the work can be handed over to locals. This includes training leaders, working with committees and caretakers, and getting young people involved.
Edwin Visi, a local water engineer, is the country director of the program and is poised to step in to lead the project.
"It's about instilling leadership so that when one team leaves, it doesn't just fall apart, which can and has happened," Molloy said. "It's now a local project in local hands."
"The resources are too limited and the need is too great to see projects not work. The people need to have ownership. It has to belong to them, and they have to be empowered. Otherwise, it's part of the whole African story about people coming in and doing," she said.
"This was not a handout; it was a hand-up."
Water With Blessings: a worldwide network of sisters
After Lauter first learned of the life-threatening lack of clean water during her time in Honduras, she and her team started brainstorming ways to help.
Along with LeMay, the engineer, and Jim Burris, the leader of the medical team Lauter was part of, they considered ideas as grand as "breaking in large-scale systems" so plenty of water could be accessible to everyone in the area.
But they quickly recognized they "were thinking like North Americans," Lauter said, and that it didn't jibe with community dynamics and costs.
The three realized that if they wanted to save children, the best group to empower would be mothers, primarily those with children younger than 5.
They arrived to Tegucigalpa in 2007 with 10 Sawyer PointONE water filters in hand, each with a lifetime warranty. Lauter said they chose these filters after extensive research, learning that Sawyer PointONEs eliminate 99.99 percent of biocontaminants and require no replacement parts or additional chemical treatment. Because shipping to some countries is more expensive than to others, they work with a solidarity model that puts all locations at the same cost: $60 to cover the whole filter system, regardless of where they go.
What began with 10 women with filters in Honduras in 2007 has since grown to more than 46,000 water women in 41 countries and continues to flourish. And as of May 2017, there have been zero reported cases of waterborne illnesses in Honduras where the filters have been introduced.
Lauter first met with parish groups, conscious that the distribution process for the filters, if not executed carefully, could destroy the fabric of the community, possibly provoking anger, jealousy or resentment among neighbors.
Lauter spoke with lay leaders of Divine Mercy Parish in Tegucigalpa, who came up with two key ideas that proved to work everywhere this method was established: Those receiving a filter commit to sharing it. And after a group of women has applied to receive training and share the filter, a child draws the name of the woman chosen to oversee the filter.
Known as "water women," those selected sign a covenant promising not to sell the water and to share the filter widely, as they are installed onto buckets for portability. Responsibilities rotate about every six months, with neighbors either coming to their houses to use the filters or them going to their neighbors.
The project became Water With Blessings, an international network equipping women with water filters for sharing — a process facilitated by on-the-ground women religious from various congregations. Lauter is the executive director.
Water With Blessings connects with international congregations by attending conferences and networking through UNANIMA, an international advocacy network of Catholic sister congregations. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report, is instrumental in helping Water With Blessings coordinate disaster responses, Lauter said.
After Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast in late August, Water With Blessings shipped filters and training materials to Houston. The filter company, Sawyer, donated 10,000 units. In central Mexico, the program is in partnership with the Ursuline sisters, providing for those affected by the Sept. 19 earthquake that claimed more than 360 lives.
The program is also shipping filters to the San Juan Diocese in Puerto Rico following the devastation Hurricane Maria left in its wake: a damaged dam, crippled hospitals, and no power. Water With Blessings partnered with Caring for Puerto Rico to make contact with religious congregations currently on the island, though Lauter said communication has been difficult.
In Peru, spring flooding increased the need for clean water, with families forced to make homes out of tents. Water With Blessings established a presence near the flood damage. Water women organized dinner groups as an opportunity to share the filtered water.
"Before the filters, it was calamity," said Sr. Noeli Massoni, a Carmelite Sister of Charity of Vedruna in Lima, Peru, who serves as a bridge between Water With Blessings in the United States and Peruvian water women. "They were totally dependent on water that was bottled and gifted to them by organizations or foundations, and the bottled water became more trash to accumulate. Plus, it was expensive for those who had lost everything and didn't have the means to buy bottled water."
Now that the filters can purify the dirty river water they used to drink, they've become "autonomous rather than dependent," Massoni said, adding that the children's health has dramatically improved, and that "there's a spiritual component wrapped in the dynamic of solidarity."
"There are always donations from the government or companies in the first few days, but when days pass — now months have passed — nobody brings water or food. This was an alternative to that. Now there is total joy," she said.
It becomes a ministry for the water women, said Massoni, one of four sisters who coordinate 11 groups of water women in Peru. They've been entrusted to help people and "carry the water forward like it's a fountain of life."
Charity of Nazareth Sr. Sangeeta Ayithamattam is originally from India but lives in Louisville, Kentucky, serving as vice president on her congregation's leadership. Because she regularly visits Nepal, she was able to see the work her congregation did through Water With Blessings following the 2015 earthquake and has used her connections in India and Nepal to expand the outreach.
Ayithamattam put Lauter in touch with Charity of Nazareth Sr. Aisha Kavalakattu, who lives in Katmandu and coordinates social action on the ground.
"Even before the earthquake, water was always drawn from open wells without any filters, with children becoming ill with cholera, dysentery or diarrhea," Ayithamattam said. "The earthquake made it worse because the water sources dried up, too."
One particular family Ayithamattam visited following the earthquake lived in a makeshift shack and would have to walk a mile up- and downhill to obtain water that wasn't safe. Now they have a filter, and "this little simple tool has become life-saving for them."
Training for sisters and water women is specific to their region, as each country calls for different solutions depending on demographics, geography and needs. Some cities or villages may have plenty of sources of water and just need to filter it, while others find themselves traveling long distances just to find water at all.
In Aleppo, Syria, bombs have destroyed existing water facilities that were once on par with developed Western cities. Sisters with Water With Blessings have revived ancient wells inside old church courtyards and have installed large filtration systems. In Haiti, lingering effects from 2016's Hurricane Matthew make reaching people at all a challenge for the Water With Blessings teams. Yet where the organization has made inroads, clinics reported an 80 percent drop in cases of waterborne illnesses.
Cooperation among villages or communities is a positive side effect to Water With Blessing's mission, as is the teamwork among the organization's approximately 50 congregations that carry out the mission.
The potential for impact when religious communities team up goes "beyond what I could've ever imagined," Lauter said.
Massoni added that these women are doing more than just sharing good water: "They are being witnesses to love, selflessness and the spirit of encounter, a beautiful form of spirituality."
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said McCoy was in Cameroon.