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World Water Day: Dutch Cyclists Step Up Water Awareness in Latin America

March 21, 2011

  • Marathon cyclists' journey to raise awareness of water gets attention
  • They see communities "take ownership" of Bank-financed water and sanitation project
  • "Our children won't have to drink contaminated water anymore": community leader

WASHINGTON DC, March 21, 2011 - On World Water Day two Dutch cyclists turned water advocates are making a splash in Latin America. Joost Notenboom and Michiel Roodenburg are riding their bikes from Alaska to Ushuaia to raise awareness of the need for action on the global water crisis.

They stopped cycling this month to visit two water projects financed by the World Bank in Nicaragua. One was in the country's capital, Managua, and the other in the rural community of Tecuaname, near León.

In Managua, a crowd turned out to greet them, as Nelson Medina, Coordinator of the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) in Nicaragua, explained to them that the project, financed with a $40 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA), will bring clean water and sanitation services to the city's low-income barrios.

In Tecuaname, a village on the Central American country's hot Pacific coastal plain, another $20 million Bank-financed (IDA) rural water supply and sanitation project will bring clean drinking water and sanitation to more than 45,000 people. Upon visiting it, Michiel sensed "excitement" in the community.

"People there have organized themselves into committees to facilitate the upcoming project, and the engineers brief them on progress," Michiel said. "It's really great to see an example where multi-level governance of natural resources works, where a large institution like the World Bank can work together with local communities and allow them to take ownership of their own success."

Community water committee member Luís Reyes Hernández told the cyclists that "the people here are very motivated to help create a better future for ourselves."

"It is very important for all of us to seize this opportunity," added William Ordoñez Chévez, another Tecuaname resident. "Our children won't have to drink contaminated water anymore, it will be drinkable water, safe water, healthy water."

Closer to Achieving Goal

The two cyclists are halfway through their 18-month journey, and their goal of raising awareness of the water and sanitation crises is bearing fruit. They'll be interviewed by CNN for the third time on World Water Day, March 22, and they post stories, photos and videos of their journey on their website.

The cycling Dutchmen are becoming a phenomenon as they ride the Pan-American highway on their custom-made bicycles made of bamboo. Their journey is symbolized by the bottle of water they drew from the Beaufort Sea in Alaska, from which they set off last July, and which they plan to empty at the other end of the road in Ushuaia, Argentina.

"Lack of access to water and sanitation is a silent killer in Nicaragua, and in many countries," said the World Bank's Nelson Medina. "These two young men are doing an important job by raising its profile, because solutions come from action, and action starts with awareness."

Joost, 28, and Michiel, 26, graduates from Holland's Erasmus University, were inspired by witnessing the impact of water scarcity while travelling in the Middle East, where they met.

Joost, a cycling enthusiast since he was a boy, did his thesis on trans-boundary water conflict, while Michiel wanted an adventure with a goal, inspired by Goethe's appeal: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it—for boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

What has he learned from the arduous trip so far? "We have visited several water projects throughout Latin America now," Joost said. "You can really see that water is a basic, deeply human issue that touches the lives of people directly."

A teenage girl in the community of Padre Fabretto in the San Isidro de Bolas barrio in Managua told them that before the project's implementation:

"The latrines were dirty, there was no way to wash your hands, no water to cook or clean the kitchen, and the water tank was only filled twice a week forcing kids to bring drinking water from home. Now everything is kept spotless and there is even a new vegetable garden, which will soon be watered by water re-used from the kitchen. We learn in school that water is a precious resource and should not be wasted, and we share this message with our neighbors and families."

The World Bank Group approved a total of $5.7 billion in financing for water projects last year, making it the largest external source of financing for water management in developing countries. This support, over two-thirds of which is for water supply and sanitation, reaches more than 60 million people a year.

Water for Green Cities — Time for a Change
By Guang Zhe Chen, Sector Manager, Urban Development and Water, Latin America and the Caribbean
The old way of managing water in big cities isn't working very well: costs are rising, environmental quality is not getting any better, flooding seems to be more prevalent, and interest groups continue to fight like cats and dogs over water rights.

The conventional approach of constructing ever larger and more expensive infrastructure to meet these challenges is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

The International Water Association has recognized these new realities and has initiated a "Cities of the Future Program" to promote greener or more sustainable cities.

In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), the most highly urbanized region with numerous mega-cities, the World Bank is also trying to promote new urban water management practices.

Instead of just focusing on infrastructure and service, the Bank is exploring and expanding to new practices to reduce water demand, pollution, storm water run-off, and energy use, and generally trying to integrate water into a broader urban planning and regional water resource management framework.

There are a lot of innovative water projects in LAC.

In Sao Paulo, the Mananciais project is focused on protecting an urban watershed and the Reagua project is offering out-based aide for water conservation.
In Buenos Aires, the Matanza Riachuelo project is not only constructing wastewater infrastructure, but also trying to tackle the industrial pollution control and sustainable flood management.
In Bogota, the Bank is financing an ambitious river restoration project that aims to transform 68 kms of the Bogota River-- which is now a sewage canal--into an urban environmental amenity with parks and restored riparian habitat—a place where plants, birds, people and maybe some fish can enjoy!