Just as the human body is comprised of 60 percent H2O, for Nicolaas van Vliet, the pledge to bring safe water to developing countries is only partly about the wet stuff. In truth, it’s more about the people. As the community development coordinator for Water Missions International (WMI), this social studier strives to know each participating nation’s story—its history, demography, and culture—in order to implement sustainable, community-run, safe water systems. “We don’t want to just show up and tell residents how the system should work,” stresses the 24-year-old, who spent two months in Haiti last fall and will return this spring. “We want the people to take ownership of the system and be able to manage it long-term.”
Empowering a community begins with understanding its inhabitants. By reading native authors, listening to popular music, learning to speak the language, and getting to know the faces in the villages, van Vliet opens the door to a trusting relationship between residents and WMI. In Haiti, that faith has led to a positive reception of the nonprofit’s offers of sanitation training, safe water education, and system establishment. And by drinking in knowledge of how to work hand-in-hand with a society, WMI’s community development team can determine the best approach to spreading safe water practices in other developing countries, such as Indonesia and Malawi. To van Vliet, that’s a refreshing way to look at the world.