Northwest NEWS

August 3, 1998

Front Page

Water commish raising money for wells in Africa

   by Andrew Walgamott
   Staff reporter

   WOODINVILLE--Walter Backstrom has embarked on a worthy campaign to bring safe drinking water to west African villages.
   Backstrom, a Woodinville Water District commissioner, has pledged to raise $10,000 for digging wells in Sierra Leone, a country of 4.1 million.
   "I've always wanted to do something like this," said Backstrom, 46. "We live in a prosperous suburb. People here want to do something but don't know what to do ... I believe in helping thy neighbor."
   His "neighbors" are the approximately 3,000 residents of Kathakera and Gbainkfay-Memankay, two villages about twenty miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean which would benefit from the fund-raising effort.
   It's a land of mangrove swamps, seasonal rice farmers and little electricity in one of the poorest countries in the world. The average life span in Sierra Leone is 38, according to project manager John Niewoehner of the Denver, Colorado-based Water For People (WFP). He says 200 of every 1000 children born there die before they reach the age of five due to water-borne diseases.
   "There's a lack of understanding of germs," he explained.
   The project would not only bring new wells, Niewoehner said, but would educate villagers, mainly the women and children, on hygiene and where diseases like cholera and dysentery originate and how they are communicated between people.
   Community Action for Progress (CAP) will actually lead the field work. Funds Backstrom collects will go to WFP for distribution.
   Along with the Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District which he spoke to in mid-July, Backstrom hopes to make presentations before the Woodinville City Council, the water district, Woodinville Chamber of Commerce, Microsoft and AT&T.
   Backstrom recently described the task as "a spiritual one."
   "I believe I have a unique opportunity, as an elected black official, to do something for a fourth-world country," Backstrom said.
   The payoff, he said, was "doing the right thing, making a difference in the lives of folks who don't know who I am."
   About two-thirds of the funds is needed by this November, Backstrom said, and would go for training and purchasing hand pumps for wells.
   The other third would go towards constructing four concrete lined wells next spring before the onset of the rainy season raises the water table.
   Currently, villagers draw their water from unlined and uncovered wells using buckets or rubber containers attached to sticks. Wells become contaminated when earth falls in or by insects and frogs in the water.
   "Young children are most susceptible to water-borne diseases," Niewoehner says. "They don't have the strength to ward off dehydration from water-borne diseases."
   One hand pump can serve 500 people, he said, and would take the drudgery out of walking to streams or faraway wells when wells dry up.
   As part of an earlier phase of the project, villagers have been constructing 40 pit latrines. Where toilets are few or unavailable, 70 percent of people use the bush and 38 percent use streams to defecate, a survey of residents found.
   Niewoehner says WFP's goal is to help communities in developing countries obtain and maintain good water and sanitation services.
   Also, he said the project would provide local employment and management of development.
   Long-range, Backstrom sees opportunities for more than just digging wells and said he'd like to speak with Evergreen Community Hospital and the Northshore School District about donating used medical equipment, computers and forging links between local schools and Sierra Leone via the internet."Anything could happen after that," he said.
   So far he says he's secured a $500 donation from a Bellevue engineering firm as well as a pledge from the State Association of Sewer and Water Districts to name WFP its primary charity for 1998/99.
   WFP is an arm of the American Water Works Association. Backstrom found out about the project at the Dallas conference from Niewoehner.
   Backstrom, who is also active in local politics, maintains this isn't about political posturing. "This can't wait until next year," he said, pointing to the 1999 elections. "The need is now."
   Anyone interested in donating can contact him at 483-9104 ext. 403., or drop off checks made out to Water for People at Towne Bank in Woodinville. All donations are tax deductible, Backstrom said.