A community comes together to bring clean water to their homes

The village water committee worked closely with Oxfam engineers and field staff to ensure the smooth completion of all activities.

“A few months back when the first roar of water gushed from the pipeline in my house, I was overwhelmed with joy. I am sure the feeling was the same in all houses in the village"

The day started early for Sanginova Gulbarnisso, a 53-year-old mother of six from the Tagobi Khalq village 50 kms from Panjakent city in Tajikistan. “Our family life revolved around water. Between me and my two daughters who live with me, there would be a daily trek of one hour each time to the river to get water. Even with three to four trips a day we had barely enough water for our household use. From early in the morning to evening, all that we would do is fetch water for our basic needs. The backbreaking routine would leave all of us exhausted by evening, with little energy left for any other work.”

For every woman in the village of 165 households, the story was similar. Without a proper water supply system, the village depended on river water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing and all other household purposes. The women, especially younger girls, often bear the  burden of this chore, which  deprives them of time they could spend studying, playing or participating in community events.

“We did not feel safe going to the river in winters. It’s often dark and the roads are slippery from snow but we did not have an option,” Gulbarnisso’s daughter narrated.

A visitor to Tagobi Khalq will generally notice a common observable malady among the villagers: a distinct yellow tinge in the eyes, underweight children and visibly weak elders. “We don’t know for sure, but many of us suffer from kidney ailments. Diarrhoea is common here, and so are liver diseases like hepatitis. We wonder if it’s due to the bad quality of water we use from the river?”

The village is located downstream and with almost 20 villages upstream dumping untreated wastewater into the open channel, the result is the hazardous contamination of river water. Gulbarnisso lost her husband 10 years ago, and now, her only son sends remittance from Russia to help the family survive the harsh conditions of high mountains in this remote village, often cut off from the world for months in severe winters.

“The double burden of disease and daily hard work for getting bad water from the river was a cause of severe stress for a single mother like me” Gulbarnisso recalls. “It felt like we were always in a crisis. Oxfam came to our village two years back. The talk of getting water to Tagobi Khalq energised all of us, especially women in the village. We wondered there be a day when we will be free from this daily punishment?”

The initial response to the Oxfam proposal was jubilant, but  was also mixed with scepticism. People wondered “Who will pay to build the water supply scheme? Who will operate and maintain it? Will the water be safer than what we get now from the river? Can poor people like us pay water fees?”

The Oxfam field officer reminded the villagers that there will be no free water supply and villager will have to contribute towards the scheme. The villagers were told that they would have to work together in the form of an organized committee to make their own decisions and manage and maintain the water supply system. Finally, all users will have to pay for water usage, just as they do for electricity. 

So the village water user committee (WUC) was born. “I was among the first members to join the seven member WUC where there were three women”, said Gulbarnisso proudly. The WUC was the voice of all villages. It will make decisions on water and hygiene-related issues, monitor the construction of a water supply system (WSS), and now, after the handover, take responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the WSS. ‘I think that, without the WUC, there would be no WSS”, continued Gulbarnisso.

Starting first with the design and land survey, the construction of WSS continued for eight months, often under treacherous weather conditions, road blockages and dangerous mud flows as pipeline was laid from the river to the water tank. WUC worked closely with Oxfam engineers and field staff to ensure the smooth completion of all activities. Villagers gave 5% of their contribution through manual labour work in construction and digging deep borewells for a continuous supply of water. ‘For the village members, participation in construction work like digging trenches for pipeline, erecting the water tank, transporting and connecting pipelines, and installing water meters felt like a joint festivity. “After all, the water will be for all of us”, said Gulbarnisso with a smile.

“A few months back when the first roar of water gushed from the pipeline in my house, I was overwhelmed with joy. I am sure the feeling of rejoicing was the same in all the houses in the village that saw clean, clear water and washed their face for the first time. It was like a dream come true after 20 years of waiting”, said Gulbarnisso. “That day, our lives changed forever”.

Gulbarnisso is now a WASH ‘warrior’ for her village, training men and women on improved hygiene and sanitation, collecting water user fees and participating actively in WUC.