Power of Partnerships: Water for People and Future of Fish – Interview with Gisela Murrugarra, Director of Water for People Peru

Healthy ocean ecosystems are the foundation of healthy coastal communities and functioning global food systems. But sustainable fisheries cannot be achieved with environmental actions alone. It must include and begin with building a foundation for healthy and empowered coastal communities that have secure livelihoods, thriving businesses, and the capacity to effectively manage the ocean resources coastal communities depend upon.

In places like La Islilla, Peru, it is clear that having access to clean drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, and promoting good hygiene practices are crucial for the health and well-being of communities. When clean and safe water is scarce, it not only harms people’s health but also makes it harder to maintain personal hygiene and prepare food, raising the chances of waterborne diseases. Moreover, poor sanitation leads to environmental pollution and human vulnerability to harmful substances, deteriorating marine resources and impacting the local population and coastal ecosystems.

FoF Peru collaborates with communities, municipalities, and NGO partners to find lasting solutions for the significant challenges facing our oceans and the communities that depend on them. This collaborative approach aims to address these issues comprehensively, meeting community needs while also advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By pooling resources and expertise, organizations can implement sustainable solutions that enhance people’s quality of life and support the long-term conservation of marine resources and the environment. Coordinated actions, such as improving waste management, promoting safe hygiene practices, and ensuring access to clean drinking water, not only benefit local communities by enhancing their well-being and health but also help protect marine ecosystems by reducing pollution and promoting environmental sustainability.

This partnership between Future of Fish Peru and Water for People demonstrates the power and positive impact that collaboration among different actors can have in improving people’s quality of life and protecting the environment for future generations.

Gisela Murrugarra, Peru Director of Water for People, and Jennifer Ahern, Director of Social Programs at Future of Fish Peru, shared their thoughts on participatory work, focusing on people and the environment:

How do you encourage active participation of beneficiaries in the planning and execution of projects related to health and the environment?

WFP: One of the pillars of our interventions involves monitoring systems. Every year, we review all the indicators of the districts we work with, and from this information gathering, we conduct what we call reflection workshops.

In these reflection workshops, everyone participates. Community leaders, the municipality, the ATM, who is directly responsible in the municipality, and with them, we reflect and agree on what we will build for the following year.

Not only do we reflect together, but we also set goals. The communities know what will be done, the municipality does too, and thus it determines whether it can meet the budgets because they definitely have related budgets, and we also define our priorities based on this information.

We hold these reflection workshops in the three districts around June and July each year.

FOF: FOF is an organization focused on system changes that supports artisanal fishing and communities affected by overfishing. We work with communities and value chains to support the construction of sustainable livelihoods and resiliency while also protecting fish as a resource, a fundamental source of nutrition, and a means of livelihood for millions of Peruvians. We use a participatory co-design methodology and a systemic analysis of the most pressing issues facing marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them for their livelihood. Together with community leaders and local authorities, we identify solutions to address the root causes of social problems that hinder development through multilevel collaboration among communities, local governments, academia, and the private sector.

We know there is no single solution for overfishing or to reverse or stop environmental pollution. That’s why we work with local leaders in various areas of the community to improve the knowledge and skills of those directly affected and who have a vested interest in finding sustainable solutions.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in working under a participatory approach?

WFP: The challenge is precisely to reach an agreement because there are demands in the districts from different communities and resources are always finite. We prioritize based on this information. For example, if we have a community that doesn’t even have water, it is clear to everyone that we must first ensure that the community can access it; or if it is very expensive to lay all the water networks, we can agree to bring the point closer and at another stage lay the networks for everyone.

Based on this type of dialogue, communities also understand what comes first, what comes next, and the order. They understand that with finite resources, we must define when each community group is considered.

It also happens the other way around, for example, sometimes we have a hard time finding families who want to work under our methodology. They initially show natural distrust, but seeing that it works, more and more beneficiaries start to appear.

How do you integrate education and awareness about health and health prevention into these projects in communities that have not had any information on these topics before?

WFP: The school as a public institution is a fundamental pillar in our intervention. In fact, it is one of the primary indicators of our work. When we say that 100% of public institutions should be reached, we mean schools and health posts, obviously. But the school, for us, is a key point, precisely because the educational community is much larger than a school; behind it are families, authorities, and the teacher, who is often the only teacher for the entire school. This teacher becomes a community leader because they receive much respect.

If I have a child who starts school at 5 years old until they leave high school at 16, and they find an adequate water and sanitation service, learning good hygiene practices, they will want to do the same at home. Therefore, at home, they will change their behavior, improving their practices based on what the child has learned at school.

So, to improve practices, we focus a lot on the school. The school has a great impact on improving the quality of life of young people and children.

FOF: Healthy ocean ecosystems are the foundation of healthy coastal communities and functioning global food systems. But sustainable fishing cannot be achieved solely through environmental measures. It must include and start with building a foundation for healthy and empowered coastal communities with secure livelihoods, prosperous businesses, and the ability to effectively manage the ocean resources on which coastal communities depend.

We use a Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) approach, a holistic methodology that analyzes the needs of a community case by case. PHE recognizes the systemic relationships between human health and the environment and addresses the intertwined challenges that threaten communities and the ecosystems they depend on. PHE ensures that the basic physiological needs of communities are met so that populations living in close contact with the environment are healthy enough to care for their resources and are aware of their unique responsibility as stewards of these ecosystems. This solution-based methodology leads to the empowerment of local leaders and individuals to implement initiatives that conserve and protect marine resources and the environment.

A successful PHE approach depends on both collaborative efforts among stakeholders and the capacity development, education, and awareness necessary to catalyze sustainable conservation and human behavior change.

We ensure that all our community activities discussing health and the environment are linked throughout our programming, thereby ensuring that beneficiaries are aware of their unique responsibility as marine stewards and their ability to improve their own health while protecting the environment.

The participatory approach involves leaders and their families, requiring a lot of trust-building. How do you establish these relationships to adapt to local customs while still achieving your goals?

WFP: One of the things that characterize us is precisely that we adapt to the practices, culture, and customs of the districts or communities where we work, precisely because what matters most is respect for the community. We all want to be better, but a practice in a city is not necessarily the same as in a community, whether on the coast or in the highlands. For instance, in a place like La Islilla, there might be no water for miles around, and all the water is underground, which is completely different from a high Andean locality where you walk 100 meters and find a stream with non-potable water, but you find water.

The practices and approaches with these types of families are very different, and based on that, there are also different practices that one has to understand to adapt the project.

“We adapt to the practices, culture, and customs of the districts or communities where we work, precisely because what matters most is respect for the community.” – Gisela Murrugarra.

FOF: At FOF, we firmly believe that the true measure of success for any nonprofit organization lies in its ability to empower and involve communities to sustainably manage and take ownership of the projects and initiatives implemented. Therefore, trust-building is at the core of our co-design process in participatory development. We actively listen to the needs of the populations we work with, ensuring that traditional knowledge and cultural identity are reflected in all our projects. This approach fosters strong and trusting relationships that are essential for meaningful collaboration. Our work is only possible with the active participation of communities and local governments, who play a crucial role in ensuring the sustainability of all our initiatives.

Through capacity building in leadership, economic empowerment, and solution-based thinking, we share a common narrative and a long-term goal of sustaining marine resources, improving human health, and enhancing community well-being with a vision of fostering resilient, equitable, and sustainable coastal communities based on environmental management, cultural pride, and collective action. We are committed to empowering communities to take charge of their own future.

What are the expectations of this collaboration together?

WFP: In reality, this is the first time we have done a collaboration of this style. For us, it is immensely enriching what we can learn from this collaboration. I think the same as you; we have a model that provides total coverage forever, and what we seek with our model is to test it in different territories, as our reason for being.

We believe that this model is feasible to be implemented contextually in different places, and that is the advantage we find in La Islilla, and in this alliance we are making with you.

We believe that as an opportunity for us, it is invaluable in terms of learning, getting to know a territory similar to Reque, where we work, equally desert-like and on the coast, but with the particularity that La Islilla is a fishing area, so the dynamics are different, and therefore the contextualization we have to do to reach the community and for our model to work is the challenge. That is precisely why we decided to work with you.

The lessons we can learn from this experience are very interesting to us because we will put them into practice, not only in other coastal areas of Peru but also in other coves like La Islilla that suffer from the same problems and where our program could have a positive impact.

FOF:We know there is no single solution to curb overfishing and marine pollution. That’s why we focus on addressing the intersecting challenges of both the environment and the coastal communities facing them. We are very excited about our strategic alliance with Water for People because together, we are stronger. Water for People has extensive global experience in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene solutions and understands the intertwined challenges of human health and the environment. Together with coastal populations, we will build a roadmap for sanitation that is environmentally responsible and ensures positive outcomes for human health.

The intertwined challenges of biodiversity loss due to pollution, overfishing, and multidimensional poverty exacerbate each other. In impoverished communities, where daily survival takes priority, awareness and understanding of environmental concerns are often low. This lack of awareness, coupled with the urgent need for immediate economic gains, can lead to uncontrolled ocean pollution and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, threatening biodiversity in artisanal fisheries already under pressure.

Addressing these challenges requires holistic approaches that prioritize community empowerment, education, sustainable resource management, and the establishment of resilient infrastructure. By breaking this cycle and fostering sustainable development, we can work towards a future where both people and the planet thrive in harmony.

Focusing on aspirations towards sustainability and responsible management, we believe it is possible to reverse biodiversity loss and improve living conditions in coastal communities. With the support and collaboration of strategic partners like Water for People, we are committed to developing comprehensive solutions that promote marine conservation and long-term human well-being.

Working with people to improve their quality of life and the quality of the environment takes a lot of heart and passion. Can you tell us what drives you to do this work?

WFP: I always say the same thing: I am an industrial engineer by profession, and industrial engineers typically work more on processes. When I got involved in projects related to water and sanitation, I could directly see the impact of my work on improving people’s quality of life. In the particular case of water, I always say that water captivates you. It’s a job with such an impact on people’s well-being that it’s very difficult for someone who starts working with water to stop feeling motivated by it. On the contrary, it captivates you, it excites you, it keeps you constantly looking for ways to improve, to keep building around these projects that challenge us as new factors are added to the equation.

Twenty years ago, when I started with these projects, nobody talked about resilience, nobody talked about climate change, nobody talked about the circular economy. Now add all these factors to the equation, and it keeps getting more complex, but in a good way. This way, you’re always challenging yourself to innovate, to build, to create solutions for the most vulnerable populations in the country and the world. That’s particularly what motivates me the most.

I find that I have a strong sense of service; I always remember seeing people open their water taps with satisfaction, and seeing empowered women in the communities motivates me. I thank God for having a job that allows me to apply all my knowledge and keep looking for alternatives and funding.

FOF: I grew up on the coast of Maine in the United States and I think I learned to swim before I knew how to walk. My journey into community and international development began at 14, working on medical brigades and community projects in the Andes, coast, and Ecuadorian jungle. Growing up in North America, I witnessed the stark contrast between the developed “global north” and the developing nations I visited on volunteer trips. From a young age, I was aware of my ability to make a difference. My family instilled in me a strong sense of service and a commitment to improving the conditions for those less fortunate.

This calling shaped my professional career, driving me to work with people. I obtained my university degree in International Development Studies, with a double major in Global Health and Marine Biology, reflecting my deepest passions. The ocean has been a constant in my life, influencing my favorite foods, sports, and leisure activities. It brought me to Peru, where I have built my home. This closeness to the ocean has given me a profound respect for its power, natural beauty, and precious resources.

I believe that those of us who are fortunate to live in close contact with the sea have a responsibility to protect it and share our reverence for it with others. I truly found my calling working in an institution that allows me to focus my heart and passions into one job. As they say, if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.

What does resilience mean to you and how do you work on this aspect in your projects?

WFP: Resilience is about not being overwhelmed by difficulties, being able to move forward despite all the challenges you face. These can be climatic challenges like an El Niño phenomenon that destroys a water system, or any other type of disaster.

I believe that being able to generate enough strength to overcome all these barriers is part of resilience. Lately, we are incorporating this resilience perspective into our projects through nature-based solutions, precisely because we are in rural areas. This way, it is easier for the community to understand the challenge of climate change by experiencing it every day.

At Future of Fish, we focus on community resilience through our holistic, participatory, and collaborative approach. We believe that building healthy and empowered coastal communities is essential for the effective management of ocean resources. Through our co-design approach and systemic analysis, we work closely with community leaders, local authorities, and various stakeholders to address the most pressing challenges and promote sustainable solutions. This approach not only improves people’s quality of life but also protects marine ecosystems. We deeply appreciate Water for People for their ongoing collaboration and commitment to this shared mission. Together, we continue working to ensure a future where both people and the planet thrive in harmony.

Originally published in Spanish, view original copy here.

Published Jun 04, 2024