charity: water stories

Field Notes: Volume 1

An Interview with Water Programs Manager, Megan Renfro

by Mercy Weaver

Megan Renfro oversees nine partnerships throughout Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. She’ll celebrate seven years at charity: water in June. The conversation below is just the smallest sampling of her extensive expertise. (Which I can’t wait to continue sharing with you in 2023!)

But first, here are the basics:

Who: GOAL is one of our five partners working in Sierra Leone, and the focus of this Spring-only content experience.

What: Since the beginning of our partnership with GOAL in 2017, charity: water has funded 474 projects serving 150,173 people.

Where: Sierra Leone is located on the southwest coast of West Africa, right between Guinea and Liberia.

How: charity: water currently partners with 55 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 22 countries in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. We believe no one understands the weight of the global water crisis better than the people on the front lines: local leaders, hydraulic engineers, and development workers. So, we support the efforts of local experts through funding and ongoing planning.

What is Sierra Leone like?

— Emily, Spring member

Sierra Leone is a dynamic place to work because we partner with five different organizations throughout the country. Supply chain shortages and just being able to access certain materials are an issue for everyone. (For example, chlorine for water purification can occasionally be difficult to obtain.) At the same time, because they’re all working in different areas of the country, each local partner experiences unique challenges, with different cultural norms to navigate and topography to work with. So, there are universal hurdles to overcome — scarcity of resources and inflation — alongside unique needs, solutions, and perspectives. It’s been interesting working with our partners on both separate and shared challenges.

Sierra Leone is also a high-need country. On the 2022 Human Development Index, Sierra Leone is currently ranked 181 out of 191. Almost 40% of the population is living below the income poverty line. The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene (JMP) indicates that 52% of rural communities have access to basic water and 10% have access to sanitation services.

Obviously, in a context like this, clean water makes a huge difference. It’s incredible to watch our partners tackle an issue that is so intensely needed throughout rural Sierra Leone. They’re truly changing lives and reshaping the trajectory of communities.

What are some of the water solutions utilized in Sierra Leone?

— Michel, Spring member

There are a few different solutions, which all fall under the categories of either “Well With Hand Pumps” or “Piped Systems.” Surface water sources — like ponds, lakes, or rivers — are more abundant in some areas of Sierra Leone, like in Kenema District where GOAL works. They’re just dangerously contaminated. All of the solutions GOAL implements focus on sourcing purified water from deep underground.

One solution that accomplishes this is a borehole drilled down to an underground aquifer fitted with an India Mark II hand pump. GOAL has also just started implementing mechanized boreholes, which are small-scale piped systems. GOAL also encourages sanitation and hygiene training to equip local communities to holistically invest in their health long-term. If a community has reliable access to clean water, but they aren’t educated on the dangers of Open Defecation and the importance of properly washing their hands, the positive impact of a GOAL water solution will inevitably be stunted.

How does the water help to grow food?

— Ed, Spring member

GOAL works in the Kenema District of southeastern Sierra Leone. There, the impact of access to clean water is not primarily reflected in saved time or even improved agriculture. There is a decent amount of surface water available to use for agriculture or completing basic household chores. The biggest benefit has been to their health. Now, there are measurably fewer instances of diarrheal diseases. This improves the overall quality of life and lowers, among other things, infant and maternal mortality rates.

What specific diseases are minimized because of clean water?

— Cheryl, Spring member

Often when I ask communities this, they categorize the specific illnesses eliminated pretty generally as “diarrheal diseases”, though some have also specifically mentioned cholera. If there’s an interest, I can get more details and report back!

What is the culture of GOAL like?

— Jeka, Spring member

I love the GOAL team! They are eager to learn, transparent about the inner workings of their programming, and intensely knowledgeable. Driving around with them, they could point out water solutions we’d pass on the road and rattle off if they were funded by charity: water, what year it was built, and how deep they had drilled. They know their stuff and have so many ideas about how to better serve the communities where they work.

I believe they grew their staff when we started working with them in 2017. I came onto the program in 2018 in a different role. Many of those people have continued working with us. That kind of relationship-building over multiple years and grant cycles builds confidence and camaraderie. They’re great at keeping us in the loop on the progress of projects, have a knowledgeable staff, and are very forthcoming with their challenges which allow us to better support them with our funding. They’re always looking for ways to improve their already high-quality work.

What does sustainability look like in Sierra Leone?

— Riley, Spring member

Our partners all use Pre-and-Post Implementation Activity Funding (PPIA). That is a small portion of the grant that can be used to either:

  1. Follow up on WASH programming completed in previous grants
  2. Set themselves up for success for their next grant

Sustainability mostly falls into the category of post-implementation support. This process looks different depending on the partner and project, but it’s always important.

Here’s an example of how this might look: A community where we funded a project and sanitation and hygiene programming three years ago became Open Defecation Free (ODF) and started exclusively utilizing household latrines. This improved sanitation, hygiene, and overall health. But, for a variety of factors, maybe they began slipping back into Open Defecation practices. This funding allows our partners to do follow-up training for this community and get them back to ODF status. Sustainability looks different from project to project and region to region, but we give this funding to equip our partners to determine what sustainability looks like for them.

For GOAL, sustainability includes, among other things, follow-up water safety testing to make sure the water remains free from human contamination. Something we’re also excited to see GOAL begin to roll out in 2023 is peer-to-peer visits. If GOAL knows that one community has strong operations and maintenance protocol, is continuing to raise funds for ongoing repairs, and everyone is invested in personal sanitation and hygiene, they’ll pair them up with a community that may be struggling to build ownership and engagement. GOAL will match the leaders of these communities up for ongoing conversation and accountability. In some cases, the message of WASH can have more of an impact when it comes from someone who you know and respect — someone who shares your unique perspective and history — as opposed to an NGO like charity: water or GOAL.

What, if any, are the lingering effects of the Sierra Leone Civil War? How does the war continue to influence our work?

This is a great question, and one I’m glad you asked.

Sierra Leone isn’t a country we hear about often in the United States. It doesn’t get featured in our news cycle or in our feeds, so we haven’t had the opportunity to celebrate its victories or acknowledge its progress. The civil war from 1991-2002 is still the thing that sticks in people’s minds. In my experience, Sierra Leone is a socially stable country. Its developmental challenges need to be addressed, but it’s not a country where I’ve ever felt unsafe. Our partners are certainly making contingency plans for the upcoming election in June and its potential impact on their work, including their ease of movement throughout the country. But Sierra Leone, at its core, is a vibrant country full of some of the most welcoming people I’ve met.

One of the biggest struggles facing Sierra Leone is the economy. Inflation specifically has intensely affected many of our partners, but within my portfolio of partners, the impact has been especially severe in Sierra Leone. It’s really challenging to keep up with the ever-changing cost of materials and fuel. The effect of inflation on rural communities is cause for concern: basic necessities like food are, more and more, becoming impossibly expensive for many.

What are some of the biggest challenges for us in completing projects in Sierra Leone?

— Matthias, Spring member

The two biggest challenges are supply chain and procurement. All of our 54 partners are having issues with these in some way or another. This reality doesn’t make projects impossible to complete, but it can slow things down.

I think my primary concern with ongoing supply chain issues is the impact on long-term sustainability. Our local partners share our commitment to sustainability and have thorough plans in place for monitoring and maintenance. But if a repairman can’t get the part they need for your handpump, the handpump is just not getting fixed. Period. Kenema, where GOAL works, is also 6-7 hours away from the capital of Freetown, which already negatively impacts the availability of supplies.

What is the impact of dirty/clean water on children?

— Laura, Spring member

One of the questions I always ask on visits is, “What is the biggest before-and-after you’ve noticed?” Last year, a GOAL community was talking about how waterborne diseases have all but disappeared. In other programs we fund in Sierra Leone, we’ve heard about how children used to walk to a river miles away for water and miss school, but now they’re on time every day. Young girls have menstrual hygiene resources so they don’t have to stay home from class every time they’re menstruating. These are benefits you’ve probably heard before, but that doesn’t mean they should lose their impact. They’re hugely transformational for these communities. Clean water is about the value of completing education. The gravity of health.

Sierra Leone has staggering maternal mortality and infant mortality statistics. Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world: 1,360 mothers die out of every 100,000 live births. (For context, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate out of any high-income country, but we still only experience 24 deaths out of every 100,000 live births.) Our partners have told me about health clinics not having clean water, so women need to bring their own Jerry Cans of water to give birth. If women are in labor and need to urinate, they’d have to go outside into the bush mid-contractions.

The conversation isn’t about whether or not clean water makes a massive difference, it’s about how we keep clean water flowing for the next ten years and beyond.

Is the drinking water filtered?

— Elizabeth, Spring member

charity: water does not fund any household filtration for our Sierra Leone programs, though some of our partners have begun looking into this with other funding. But no, the water is not purified through a household filtration system like we’re accustomed to in the states. (Or like our partners at CLEAR Cambodia utilize for their ecological context.) The water is drawn from deep beneath the ground so contamination risks at the water point should be minimal. They do provide additional chlorination as needed, though as noted getting that chlorine can sometimes be a challenge.

But even if the water is clean and safe at the handpump, that doesn’t mean it’s that way by the time it gets home. A common example is a child being sent to get water, but on the way home they’re distracted by a game of football. They put their bucket of Jerry Can down to go play, and by the time they pick it up again, it has been contaminated. Our partners are working to address this through education and training.

What is the importance of my ongoing donations?

— Heather, Spring member

I am not overstating when I say that the Spring is essential to our work. The Spring gives us critical annual, repeating revenue. This allows my team on Water Programs the security to invest in longer-term planning with our partners, which always leads to more strategic programming.

When our partners finish their first grants, we complete extensive Multi-Year Planning. We look at the next five years of the partnership and talk through their long-term goals. We find out what technologies a partner like GOAL may be hoping to implement, what adjustments they may be looking to make to sanitation and hygiene programming, what PPIA is needed, or what new challenges they foresee. The Spring helps to make this process possible. It empowers a high-level, overarching conversation around how they can use their funding the most effectively, how we can support them the most effectively, and how we can collectively bring clean water to more people.

You’re the reason why we can plan to still be working alongside our partners in 5, 10, or even 15 years!

If you could describe Sierra Leone in one word, what would it be?

Multifaceted. I work with 5 different partners in Sierra Leone, and they’re each completely different.

If you could describe GOAL in one word, what would it be?

Fun! I genuinely enjoy them as humans. But I want to honor their hard work because they’re also incredibly competent. They’re great at their jobs. They’re enthusiastic and passionate about their work and helping others. So, if I can break a rule here, I would pick two words: Fun and Expert.

Thank you so much for your time today, Megan! I think The Spring will really enjoy your responses and be surprised by the complexity of our work. I hope you have a great rest of your day!

Thanks, Mercy! You too.