Outsmarting water scarcity to save lives around the world

Bahamian woman collects water at spigot.
March 26, 2020

When water is at risk, lives are at risk.

“It’s vital, you know? Water is vital,” said Debbie Williams, a hospital unit manager on Grand Bahama Island, where Mercy Corps currently supplies water for about 5,000 people.

Around the world, Mercy Corps is often the first to respond when a community’s water supply is disrupted by natural disaster, conflict, or drought. Our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) experts have acted quickly in The Bahamas, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jordan, Palestine, Puerto Rico, and Yemen to ensure that people have the water they need to survive. With the world in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to clean water for hand washing and sanitation is more important than ever.

The new challenges presented by the pandemic have mobilized our teams around the world to help communities to prepare for and protect against the Coronavirus outbreak. Mercy Corps’ WASH programs are a critical component in preventing the spread of disease and ensuring communities have the resources they need to be resilient to future challenges. 

Handwashing in the drc.
Woman showing child how to wash hands
Mercy Corps Project Ebola Response helps families in the DRC. Martine, 30, shows daughter Christine, 6, hand washing techniques she learned at the health center.

Women lead the way

Mercy Corps has implemented water and sanitation projects for more than 40 years. One early observation that continues to guide our work is that, in many communities, women are in charge of gathering and managing water. That’s why today, as we develop designs, plan logistics, and build communications strategies, women’s voices are at the center of each conversation.

“We try to make sure that the majority of the people in discussion groups are women,” said Mugur Dumitrache, WASH Senior Expert for Mercy Corps. “They bring a lot of knowledge.”

In the DRC, 4.5 million people have been displaced by armed conflict. Many of the displaced have moved to cities where they feel safer, but a shortage of clean water in Goma and Bukavu is causing water-borne illnesses and many children have died.

The women of Goma are mobilizing to save lives by teaching each other water safety practices they learned  from partnering with Mercy Corps—how to get clean water, how to treat water, how to keep jerrycans clean, how to wash dishes, and more.

“Everywhere, you have to be innovative. You have to increase the water available where water is scarce,” said Dumitrache.

Mercy Corps volunteer Noella Batibuka leads a group of 3,200 women, who each have a network of 15 women with whom they share their learnings. This means that more than 45,000 women in Goma now know how to keep their water and their families safe.

Noella is a house trainer and leader in programs to reduce child mortality rates, focused on water, sanitation and hygiene in the DRC.
Noella leads her women's group in learning about cholera. Each woman and leader shares her learning with another 15 women.
Jacqueline, 37, washes clothes outside her home where Noella leads the women's social mobilization group.
Mercy Corps officer Silvie, left, walks alongside Noella as she heads to a Mercy Corps pump to collect water.


In Northern Yemen, many people have fled conflict to rural areas where water is scarce. In these communities, women and girls often have to walk for hours each day to get enough marginally clean water to meet their daily needs.

Yemeni girl gathers water at a mercy corps pump.
A girl fills water jugs at a solar pumped well built by Mercy Corps in Northern Yemen.

When Mercy Corps built a solar-powered water pump to provide clean, reliable water, women and girls suddenly had a safer, less labor-intensive way to get water.

“With the water project, things have been better. We used to lose a whole day collecting water. Now we have more time for other things,” said Fatima, a 48-year-old grandmother in Yemen.

Smart, community-based solutions driven by women can also be seen in Puerto Rico, where a Mercy Corps water project is both helping a community garden regrow after Hurricane Maria and helping to rebuild a center of community resilience.

Association Pro Juventud y Comunidad de Barrio Palmas (APJ) was founded to strengthen social cohesion and improve quality of life in Cataño. “The center is the right hand of the community,” said María Salomé Casiano Meléndez, APJ member. “Everything we need, we just go there.”

In 2018, Mercy Corps kicked off a project to provide off grid solar power and reinforcements to APJ’s water system to ensure that this community will be better prepared for the next storm.

Communities build a sustainable future

Bahamian and mercy corps employee next to water tender truck.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, Mercy Corps teamed up with the Mission Resolve Foundation to increase access to clean water on Grand Bahama Island. Photo: Mission Resolve Foundation
Bahamian filling water jug.
Mercy Corps set up a water distribution point at the YMCA, which not only helps people who badly need water, but is also a focal point for the community to come together.

When Mercy Corps responds to a crisis, it addresses immediate needs first. If a community has no local access to water, Mercy Corps will truck it in. But water deliveries are often just the start. Real solutions need to be sustainable.

“From the very beginning we try to look at sustainability. Once the funds run out, can people take over and maintain the facilities?” Dumitrache said.

In Puerto Rico, Mercy Corps is collaborating with Walmart, the Miami Foundation, and BlackRock to help rebuild the island’s energy and water supply. And in The Bahamas, Mercy Corps installed reverse osmosis water purifiers to desalinate ocean water that had infiltrated the aquifers and deliver clean water to the Freeport YMCA and Salvation Army. 

These innovative projects are helping stabilize the communities, making it possible for schools and businesses to reopen, and for community members to reconnect and rebuild.

“It’s the sharing, you know?” said Titi McKenzie-Moss, executive director of the Beacon School, which serves children with mental and physical disabilities in The Bahamas. “I think we definitely are working together more than we did before.”

In Jordan, the influx of 650,000 Syrian refugees has strained an already water-scarce region. In response, many Jordanian farmers are working with Mercy Corps to implement smarter ways to water their crops.

“In the past, if you compared the percentage of people to the water resources, it was enough. Now, the population has increased, so the water availability has become less,” said Tareq Alwer, a farmer from Mafraq, Jordan. 

Drip watering system in jordan agricultural field.
Tareq's new irrigation system optimizes water use.
Two jordanians examine their agricultural crops.
Tareq talks with Mercy Corps team member, Aram, as they walk through Tareq's fields.

Tareq grows olives, peaches, dates, and many other fruits on rolling farmland in Northern Jordan. His large farm once used inefficient, large-scale irrigation methods. His new drip irrigation system, which he purchased through a Mercy Corps-supported local retailer, saves gallons of water per day and improves production. Now he feels good about his water use because he knows he’s helping his farm and the people who live in his country.

Every water project is about more than water. Other Mercy Corps programs—to reduce gender violence, adapt to climate change, spark economic development, and many more—are often integrated into how Mercy Corps finds and delivers water. It’s this smart, holistic approach that has helped communities come together again.

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