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Water, water everywhere… and every drop to drink?

Indonesia, October 21, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Indonesia  </span>
    On our way down the steep hillside. Photo: Mercy Corps Indonesia
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Indonesia  </span>
    Me crossing the massive boulders just above the start of filtration system. Photo: Mercy Corps Indonesia
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Grey/Mercy Corps  </span>
    “We’re grateful for Mercy Corps’ help to get clean water for our community. Before we could not get clean water easily, and things are easier now," said Achim, who heads the local water and sanitation committee. Photo: Erin Grey/Mercy Corps

As I write this, my shoes are hanging up to dry, dripping onto the ceramic floor of my hotel bathroom. In more ways than one this — my first day in Ambon, capital city of Indonesia’s Maluku Islands — has been thoroughly water-soaked.

Taking me out on my first trip to see water and hygiene projects funded by UNICEF, Miki from the Mercy Corps Ambon office told me we were going to start with a visit to a water filtration project that was now nearly complete. Tired from my overnight flight and expecting a dull, rather uninspiring visit to look at some kind of technical gizmo, I struggled to stifle a yawn but dutifully jumped in the car. I didn’t stay sleepy — or unenthused — for long.

We pulled up at the top of a steep hillside in Batu Meja, high above Ambon city, covered with giant palm trees and vegetation. As I followed Miki and the team down a dirt track, I got more and more confused. Where was the boring grey building I’d expected? It didn’t materialise, and we only walked further into the green mass. Miki motioned at a pile of small boulders at one side of the path,

“We could only get the materials for the filtration system this far by machinery,” he said, “So we had to have the rest taken down by hand.” Still confused, I asked how far they had to be carried. “Only 200 meters, but…well, you’ll see,” he replied with a grin.

Pretty soon the track narrowed, and began to cut steeply downhill, with only tree roots and dried palm fronds as grip for our feet. The vegetation got thicker and — on a warning from Miki — I learnt not to reach out to grab nearby plants to steady myself as I slid and scrambled my way down. Big plant stems covered in long thin prickles stuck out everywhere.

Finally, we reached the water. A bubbling river popped up between the trees, snaking around and underneath rocks and boulders along the forest floor. Ahead of me, the others had started picking their way across the water, nimbly leaping from one rock to the next, making it look easy, even in flipflops.

Following their lead, I psyched myself up and took my first step. My foot held, despite the slippy rock surface. More confident, I took a second step — and promptly fell in to the river, right up to my knees.

Thankfully, the team were on hand to help and the water was lovely and clear. The only harm caused was the embarrassing squelch my shoes made each time I took a step for the next hour or two. And, once across the river, I realised why we’d come all this way — the river itself, and the boulders across it, were the first part of the new filtration system Mercy Corps has worked with the local community to build.

Based on a local traditional technique, the water — running straight from the hilltops — flows down the river and hits a wall of small boulders, which catch any mud or large debris. The water is then channelled through series of chambers of sand and palm fronds to filter any smaller debris, and then follows newly-repaired pipeline down to a reservoir. From there, when the project is completed over the coming weeks, it will be pumped straight to 215 homes in Ambon city, providing more than 1,000 people with clean, community-owned water to drink, cook and wash with.

As existing water sources for city residents are often expensive, unreliable and unclean, this new supply will make a real difference to the daily lives of hundreds of people.

After the river —as I began to dry out — we headed to Urimesing and Waihong in Ambon city itself to see more of the Water and Environmental Sanitation programme’s work. Miki and the team guided me round a rabbit warren of alleyways to look at the wells, boreholes and latrines that Mercy Corps has built there over the last year with help from UNICEF and others. He also told us about local events and campaigns Mercy Corps has run to educate local people about hygiene, keeping their local area clean and how to get the quality of their water supply tested by the government.

About half an hour in to our visit, some serious rain started. I got soaked all over again, splashing through puddles and dodging streams of water spraying of the corners of corrugated-iron rooftops. Sheltering under a wooden shack, I got talking to Achim, head of the local water and sanitation committee. He told me: “We’re grateful for Mercy Corps’ help to get clean water for our community. Before we could not get clean water easily, and things are easier now. We have put the rubbish bins Mercy Corps gave us out on the main streets to keep everything cleaner too. We are starting to see a real change.”

Like Achim, I’m impressed with what the project has achieved so far, and will achieve in the coming weeks. Providing a total of around 2,500 families across Ambon with clean water, latrines and access to information about health and hygiene is no small task, and will make a real difference to the lives of local people crammed into some of the city's poorest areas.

It’s clear from walking around Ambon that there’s still a long way to go before its water and sanitation problems are solved. But the team have made an impressive start, and the results are already starting to show.

I just hope my shoes dry out sometime soon.