Water for Waslala

How one 20-something turned a brief service trip into his life's mission

Each year hundreds of college students visit developing countries to volunteer on humanitarian projects, learn about another culture and foster solidarity with people whose poverty and trauma are shaped by the geopolitical actions of wealthy nations. While the lessons of the service trip continue to inform students’ actions, as time passes their intensity generally fades.

Not so Matthew Nespoli, a Villanova University alumnus and founder of Water for Waslala, a micro-development initiative that brings safe drinking water to isolated communities in the mountainous Waslala region of Nicaragua. Nespoli’s brief trip abroad in the summer of 2002 has determined the course of his life since.

While the 45,000 people of Waslala—an area roughly five times the size of Manhattan Island—live in a lush forest with frequent rainfall, two-thirds of them have no access to clean water for drinking and bathing. Throughout Nicaragua, 70 percent of rural people and half of the entire population–most of whom are an ethnic mix of Spanish and indigenous–lack access to clean water, according to the United Nations. In the absence of deep well and reliable water systems, three million Nicaraguans collect water for cooking, drinking, cleaning and bathing from ponds, streams and rivers that are contaminated by human and animal waste, according to data collected by UNICEF.

The effects are disastrous. Each year hundreds of Waslalans, mostly young children, die from diarrhea and hundreds more contract intestinal worms that exacerbate malnutrition and retard growth. According to UNICEF 2.2 million people die worldwide from the dehydrating effects of diarrhea each year.

“All the experiences I had at Villanova in faith and spirituality led to this. I’m always thinking of that verse from the Epistle of St. James, ‘Faith without works is dead'”

Simple and Attainable

Since its founding five years ago, Water for Waslala (WFW) has completed eight water systems in the region, bringing clean, drinkable water to two thousand people. The organization is intentionally tiny, hoping to keep its mission simple and attainable, but the transformative experience of that brief summer visit to the mountains has grown into an ongoing and practical project. Volunteers have raised $200,000 for water systems since 2002. WFW aims to build 50 systems, likely reaching its goal by 2015.

The work Nespoli and others have done to secure clean water for thousands of people is intrinsically linked to his religious conviction, “All the experiences I had at Villanova in faith and spirituality led to this,” Nespoli said. “I’m always thinking of that verse, ‘Faith without works is dead'” referring to the Epistle of St. James.

Nespoli, 24, founded and continues as president of Water for Waslala, but his concern about clean water for poor communities has shaped his paying career as well. Next month he begins work at an infrastructure consulting firm that advises governments of developing countries on irrigation and road systems.

Gravity’s Pull

WFW began simply. In the summer of 2002, Nespoli went to Waslala to visit a friend who was helping to build schools in the district. A group of ten Villanova students spent two weeks riding mules into the mountains and through the rain forest visiting rural villages, learning the area’s history and listening to residents speak about their needs. Many of the people they met were relatively new to Waslala, displaced from their homes in other parts of Nicaragua by the civil war of the 1980s and by the rampant deforestation of the country’s rainforest. As their land was turned over to cattle grazing, people followed the tree line east into the forest, Nespoli learned.

When Nespoli first visited the region, community leaders in Waslala were working on solutions to their water crisis. In one village, El Guabo, a local leader named Bernardo told the students of an innovative gravity-based system a Nicaraguan engineer had developed for retrieving water from mountain top springs. The system had been successfully installed in 35 small communities with support from the lone Catholic parish in Waslala. More people could have clean water, Bernardo told the Villanova students. All they needed was money for supplies.

“We wanted to help the community. There was so much need, but we wanted to find a way to help that was sustainable, that wouldn’t support dependency,” Nespoli said. The group of students committed to raising money for at least one new water system. By the end of the summer of 2002 the students raised $2,000 by telling their families, friends and parishes about Waslala. A gravity-based spring collection system was built in El Guabo by January.