Jesús Uzcátegui is a 25-year-old migrant from Venezuela who came to Colombia in 2015 with his wife and two-year-old son. For the past three-and-a-half years, they have lived in the Pescadito settlement on the banks of the Arauca River, which separates the two countries in the border department of Arauca.

He is a participant in the Emergency Response in Arauca (ERA) II program, implemented by ACDI/VOCA and funded by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). ERA II tackles the most pressing needs of Venezuelan migrants, Colombian returnees, and vulnerable host communities in seven informal settlements of the Municipality of Arauca, Colombia. The program has mobilized a response to the need for drinking water and improved environmental health, and introduced resilience activities related to hygiene, food security, and protection.

In the Pescadito settlement where Jesús lives, the river was not just a pretty background. Many families used it as a source for drinking water and other household uses, which led to a number of health issues such as gastrointestinal problems and skin diseases.

The ERA program’s WASH component addresses the need for water, sanitation, and hygiene in the settlements in which it works through activities such as distributing water filters and hand washing kits, repairing and improving boreholes, and workshops to train participants in water safety.

Water Filters and Committee Improve Community Health

Jesús and his family received a water filter through the program, which he says has drastically helped to improve their health. They no longer suffer from frequent diarrhea and rashes as had been the case in the past. This change has been noted among other members of the community, he says.

The ERA program also formed water committees through which community leaders are trained to lead others in the community, acting as role models of sanitation practices such as waste separation, disposal, and hand washing.

“I wanted to join because I like to help people,” Jesús explains about why he was keen to join the water committee. “I’m always looking out for others and communicating with my neighbors and the ERA team. I think it’s important to contribute.”

His role on the water committee includes making home visits to help community members install the water filters and train them on how to use them, sharing what they have learned in ERA’s WASH workshops.

Jesús Uzcátegui, water committee member

ERA-supported riverbank cleanup

Working together on the water committees and visiting neighbors to help with the filters has helped to bring the community closer together, says Jesús. The DecidoSer workshops have also helped to promote unity, he says referring to ACDI/VOCA’s social change tool that builds trust, respect, dialogue, and empowerment. The workshops provided a space for neighbors to get to know each other and form bonds of trust.

“The best part of the workshops was learning each other’s names. Before we’d just yell out, ‘hey neighbor!’ But now we visit each other and invite each other over for coffee because we know each other.”

– Jesús Uzcátegui, ERA participant

This has also generated greater solidarity within the settlement, with community members coming together to help each other when they see a need, such as sharing food with those who don’t have enough or pooling together to help a neighbor with disabilities clean his living space that was becoming infested with rodents because he was unable to deal with the trash.

The ERA program has also organized large-scale community cleanup campaigns in all seven settlements, mobilizing residents to work together to clear out trash and sewage from their streets. More than 480 people joined a recent community cleanup during which they removed a total of 45 tons of trash and installed waste receptacles for garbage collection. The activity helped to boost morale as participants felt proud seeing the results, and also improved community relationships as neighbors working side by side built trust and coexistence.

“This is the first time the riverbank has ever been cleaned. The activity showed us that change is possible, which motivates residents when they see how nice their neighborhood looks. It builds awareness and a sense of pride.”

– Jesús Uzcátegui, ERA participant