The Messy Business of Clean Water in Africa
The men planned to meet in the desolate rainforest of Central Africa, amid towering 150-foot trees and swarms of small butterflies clustered like shark teeth on the seemingly endless red clay road. Their discussion would lead to clean drinking water for hundreds of destitute villages—and the fracturing of a tight-knit missionary community.
Driving east from Berberati, a town of 80,000 where diamonds can be found in nearby streambeds, was Roland Mararv. The former Iron Curtain Bible smuggler had traded the life of a Swedish Baptist missionary for that of a commercial well-driller—a better way, he believed, to help the Central African Republic (CAR) escape the ranks of the world's 10 poorest nations. After 20 years in business, Mararv was seeking a suitable buyer for his drilling company, Sangha Forage.
Having traveled originally west from Bangui, the landlocked nation's capital of 700,000 along the wide Ubangi River, was Jim Hocking. The longtime Grace Brethren missionary had been raised in the CAR and was looking for a way to pursue his empowerment dreams for Central Africans that his mission's emphasis on souls had been constraining.
Their 2003 meeting was a fateful one. What transpired over the next few years provides a window into how complicated it is to build clean wells in remote villages and let donors know exactly where and how wisely their money was spent.
Mararv had drilled 1,400 wells nationwide and was ready to retire from drilling thanks to a 600-well contract with the German government and a fortunately timed devaluation of the local currency. Hocking was chafing at a mission desk job in the States while his wife recovered from a traumatic experience. (Their family was robbed at gunpoint before the CAR's 2003 civil war, the nation's fourth in 10 years, making it Africa's most lawless country after Somalia.) Yet Hocking still wanted to help his fellow Central Africans, who face an average life expectancy of 50 years and, for most, income of less than $1 per day.
They devised a plan: Mararv would donate his $1 million drilling operation to Hocking, who would use it as the cornerstone of a new charity, Integrated Community Development International (ICDI).
ICDI was birthed at the right place at the right time. It caught a surging wave of evangelical interest in Africa and water aid. Living Water International, with more than 10,000 wells completed in 26 countries, got the ball rolling in 1990 in Kenya. Dozens of smaller Christian ministries have sprung up since. Charity:Water, launched in 2006 by former New York City nightclub promoter Scott Harrison, has arguably taken water aid to a new level of prominence, raising more than $40 million for 4,300 projects in 19 countries.
The pitch was compelling: Bring clean drinking water to the African nation once deemed "the world's most silent crisis" by the United Nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that water-related illnesses kill more African children under age 5 than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Access to clean water reduces water-related deaths by 21 percent, and the hours previously spent either ill or fetching water can now be used by women for economic endeavors and by children for schooling.
Within a few years, ICDI—which also launched orphan care, radio, AIDS education, and agriculture programs—was pulling in more than $2 million in donations from NGOs, churches, and individuals.
In September 2010, Charity:Water chose ICDI as the recipient of its high-profile anniversary campaign. It raised $1.7 million in four months to help provide wells to the Bayaka, an indigenous tribe known as pygmies (adults are less than 5 feet tall). A special edition of ABC News' 20/20 this past December highlighted ICDI as one of six groups improving global health.