Ensuring Environmental Volunteers Make a Positive Difference to Global Water Issues
Around the world, at least 2 billion people drink contaminated water which is estimated to cause half a million deaths each year. Action Groups and private companies work tirelessly to support and develop innovative solutions to solve global water challenges and achieve long-term positive impact. In addition, according to a Tourism Research and Marketing study an estimated 1.6 million people volunteer overseas each year, some of whom work to improve access to clean water. This growth in ‘voluntourism’ has lead to criticism of poorly managed projects and self-serving volunteers. However, where volunteers are open minded and flexible, and, most importantly, are placed on projects that match their skills, then for environmental projects of even a short duration, they can make a positive difference.
Emergency Humanitarian Assistance
There’s no doubt that sustainable solutions to water related challenges are the way forward. However, when disaster strikes, innovative and immediate relief is required and volunteers provide an essential role in offering assistance. In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, the 3 million survivors in desperate need of humanitarian aid are now at risk from waterborne diseases and cases of cholera are on the rise. Volunteers not only play a vital role in clearing debris and restoring order, but can also help in ensuring people can drink water safely without fear of contamination.
However, something as important as monitoring clean water projects on a long term basis should be properly supervised by qualified professionals and not managed by inexperienced volunteers. It’s also vital that volunteers have skills to match the projects that they are working on. In remote communities, a poorly fitted water system could result in flooding, erosion or bacteria infestations, damaging the local environment and even putting people’s lives at risk. As well as large scale building works such as digging wells or constructing latrines, proper supervision must also be given to volunteers supporting communities, enabling them to manage resources for themselves.
Dams and Reservoirs
The use of dams to improve access to clean water is controversial as, although at first they may benefit local communities, on a large scale they can cause environmental damage by impacting on water quality and destroying ecological habitats. Smaller volunteer projects such as building sand dams in Africa’s seasonal sandy rivers do however, make a positive difference to local communities. They are a cheap and simple way to retain irregular rainfall in order for locals to farm crops and produce a year round supply of food. In contrast in Maine, volunteers have helped remove some dams from the Penobscot river. As a result of opening up the river, the water is cleaner and healthier, and ecological systems have been restored, without compromising the production of hydropower from the remaining dams.
The growth in popularity of volunteering abroad has led to criticism of mismanaged projects, and volunteers who are inexperienced and untrained doing more harm than good. However, with more care taken over matching volunteers to projects and ensuring that environmental projects suit the requirements of each individual community, then their help can be invaluable.