'Water First'

New Nonprofit Group Will Provide Hondurans Experienced Well Drilling Services at a Fair Cost

Last summer when Washington was under a boil water order for several days, it caused a lot of commotion throughout the community.

People were told not to drink water directly from the tap in their home because there was a possibility it could be contaminated with E. coli. For cooking, drinking and brushing teeth, people were told either to use bottled water or boil water taken from the tap.

After a few days, things got back to normal, but try to imagine what life would be like if it didn't, if there was no end to the boil water order - or worse, imagine you couldn't get water right out of the tap in your house, but you had to walk a mile or more just to get the water, then haul heavy, water-filled containers back home.

That's a daily reality for people who live in developing countries like Honduras, said Jay Quattlebaum, a member of the Washington Overseas Mission that makes annual trips there offering free dental and medical clinics. In Honduras, women and children can spend as much as six hours a day walking just to fetch water and then hauling it home on their heads and backs, he said.

"On my first mission trip in 2002, we were driving up a mountain to a remote village and we saw these kids carrying all kinds of containers," Quattlebaum recalled. "Then later we saw them getting water from a ditch on the side of the road.

"It had a profound effect on me," he remarked.

Janice Meyer, a member of the Washington Overseas Mission since 1997 and an assistant Spanish professor at East Central College, had felt the same way.

"The first stage of any clinic we set up is to give people medicine to kill the parasites in their bellies, because they all have them from drinking unclean water," said Meyer.

"We treat them by giving them three weeks worth of medicine, but we know it's not a permanent solution, because they will have to drink the bad water again."

That is now changing, thanks to Quattlebaum, Meyer and several others (see the list of officers and board members).

Last fall, they created Primero Agua, "Water First," a nonprofit humanitarian organization focused on bringing clean water to the people of Honduras by offering reliable, competent well-drilling services at a fair cost. It's a sister organization to the Washington Overseas Mission with its own nonprofit status and fundraising efforts.

"There are all of these groups like Washington Overseas Mission and Engineers Without Borders that are trying to find entities to drill wells for them, but they can't," said Meyer.

The lack of working wells in Honduras is a key obstacle in the country's access to clean water, said Meyer, and that is directly affecting the people's health and welfare.

"Access to clean water is key to addressing poverty and health," she remarked.

"Imagine if you had to spend 20 to 30 percent of your income just to purchase water, plus you had to use 25 percent of your time to get the water.

"A lot of the problems we see in the dental and medical clinics for Washington Overseas Mission are secondary infections caused from bad water," said Meyer.

She recalled a past mission trip where a woman came in for a dog bite that she had cleaned out with water. She had no money, said Meyer, and there was no doctor in town, so she had made her own poultice out of lard and coffee grounds to wrap around her leg.

"When she took off the poultice, she had all this dead skin," Meyer said, noting had the woman had access to clean water to rinse out the infection, the result may not have been as bad.

They see Primero Agua as being able to make a difference because it will be able to drill wells.

"Of all the water sources in Honduras, only 4 percent come from ground water or drilled wells," said Meyer. "The rest are from surface water, and those are all polluted by agricultural chemicals and animal and human waste."

Part of the reason why there aren't enough wells is that few organizations in Honduras focus on water issues, and even fewer have access to well drilling equipment. On top of that, there are few quality well drillers willing to work in remote areas where the need for clean water is greatest, said Quattlebaum, and very few willing to provide the service at a fair cost.

That's what Primero Agua plans to do.

"We will take small teams of volunteers with expertise in engineering, well drilling, filtration/purification systems, project management and education to work closely with Honduran partner organizations," Quattlebaum said.

The group will offer services beyond drilling, such as distribution, filtration systems and educational services.

"Our scope of services is not just drilling, but whatever is the appropriate service for the area's level of technology," noted Quattlebaum. "That might be a filtration system or it might be a well with a hand pump.

"We don't want to put in a big, electronic pump and months later, the community can't afford to pay the electric bill, so it gets shut off. We will provide that project management, oversight and education."

Primero Agua teams will work with the communities they serve to bring water, and they also will provide education, training and follow-up support to ensure technical and economic sustainability of the project.

"Our goal is to be a one-stop-shop for any water project in Honduras," Meyer said. "We want to be the contractor of choice."

Past Water Efforts

The Washington Overseas Mission began conducting small-scale water projects on its annual trips back in 2002. Its first efforts were installing water filtration and purification units in local schools. Quattlebaum and Meyer, along with Tom Mouser of Texas and Jeffrey Albrecht, were involved in the projects and quickly realized much more was needed to really address the need for clean water.

The Overseas Mission then got involved in funding the drilling of wells and small teams installed pumps to existing wells, made repairs to water storage tanks and improved local distribution systems. The Mission partnered with Washington Rotary Club and the Honduran Rotary Club to fund construction of a 40,000-gallon elevated water tank and developed a micro-enterprise project that constructed and sold concrete bio-filter purification units.

"The Washington Rotary Club has been very supportive with a number of projects," Meyer said.

In 2005, those involved in the water projects started seriously thinking about what they could do to make substantial progress. Mouser, who is president of the Drilling Services of Pinnergy Ltd. in Fort Worth, Texas, and an experienced gas and oil driller, noted that if the team had its own commercial drilling rig, they could drill the wells themselves.

"Using Honduran companies to do the drilling, we always got mixed results," Meyer noted.

'It Fell Out of the Sky'

The group was able to acquire land next to the Overseas Mission's warehouse facility in Pimienta, Honduras, so if they did acquire a rig, it would have a secure storage location. Still they didn't know if they would be able to purchase a drilling rig. It would require an enormous amount of fundraising, which is part of the reason why the group decided to separate from the Washington Overseas Mission - in order to seek its own fundraising and concentrate solely on water projects.

Then right before Thanksgiving, Quattlebaum and Meyer received some unexpected news. Terracon, a large engineering firm based in Olathe, Kan., was interested in possibly donating a used drilling rig to Primero Agua.

"One of our board members, Dr. Rick Stephenson, who has been a professor of civil engineering for 30 years, met with a former student of his who works in the drilling industry and when he asked what he could do to help, Rick said, 'Donate a rig,' and the student responded, 'Let us think about it.' "

Quattlebaum, Meyer and the others put together a presentation, and just before Christmas they got the news that the rig was theirs. It was delivered to Washington last Friday.

"We were prepared to do fundraising and continue with small-scale water projects until we could buy a rig, but this has put us ahead three years," said Meyer.

"This is what we have been going for and it just fell out of the sky," she remarked.

The rig is now being tuned up and serviced at Riechers Tire and Auto in Washington. Quattlebaum will then drive it to Texas where Mouser will oversee some necessary modifications.

Plans are to ship the rig to Honduras by boat. Quattlebaum estimates cost for that will be around $10,000. The hope is to have the drill in country by Christmas.

Drill, Baby, Drill

Plans for Primero Agua are to send small teams of specialists, maybe three or four people who are experts in drilling and engineering, to Honduras to drill wells.

"We envision multiple groups going down for a week or 10 days three or four times a year to drill a couple of wells each time," said Meyer.

Primero Agua plans to hire a Honduran administrator who will coordinate the drilling operation, said Quattlebaum, noting several experienced well drillers in Texas have already expressed a desire to volunteer their services.

"And these teams will train a local Honduran crew who will work alongside the Americans or on their own throughout the year," Quattlebaum noted.

The well drilling services will not be free, but they will be offered at a fair price to cover operating costs, materials and payroll. This way the operation can become self-sufficient, said Quattlebaum, and U.S. donations can be used to purchase additional equipment and expand services.

Primero Agua has the full support of the Washington Overseas Mission, said Dr. Tim Long, one of the Mission's members. It's the logical next step in the evolution of bringing help to Honduras.

"This group will be continuing the services that were initially housed within our group as well as expanding additional services," said Long. "The Washington Overseas Mission has long supported many water related activities including the instillation of water filtration devices, repair and construction of water storage tanks, water purification education as well as the digging of new wells.

"We believe that these many services will best be housed and performed by Primero Agua and it is our intention to employ their services and skilled personnel to forward our agenda of helping those without access to clean water."

Currently, Primero Agua estimates the need at $16,000 to cover expenses for modifying the rig and transporting it to Honduras. To raise necessary funds, Primero Agua has several projects planned, including an event, "Water First, Wine Second," to be held at a local winery. They also plan to hold events in the St. Louis metro area.

Looking ahead, Primero Agua has set specific goals for the next several years. In 2011, the group wants to assemble a staff in Honduras, begin operations and complete six wells. They expect they will need $12,500 in donations.

Goals for 2012 and 2013 are eight wells, and for 2014 possibly as many as 12 wells.

For more information, people can visit Primero Agua's Web site at www.primeroagua.org or contact Meyer by e-mail at janiceengemann@yahoo.com.


Primero Agua

Board of Directors

Jay Quattlebaum, executive director/co-founder.

Janice Meyer, director/co-founder.

Tom Mouser, director/co-founder.

Dr. Richard Stephenson, director.

Brady Hayes, director.


Jay Quattlebaum, Washington, president.

Jeffrey Albrecht, Sacramento, Calif., vice president.

Jennifer Summer, Washington, secretary.

Meredith Chalk, Washington, treasurer.

Janice Meyer, Washington, international coordinator.