Simón Zimmer was born in Bogota, Colombia, but was adopted by a German family who lived in Columbia, Maryland, in the U.S. “To be honest,” Zimmer told Colombia Reports, “I never thought much about Colombia until I turned 25. Then from one day to the next it became one of my major life goals to go back to Colombia and learn about the country I was born in.”
Over the past decade Zimmer has spent time exploring Latin America through volunteer and nonprofit organizations and was moved by the diverse needs in the region, but his mind kept returning to his native land, Colombia. In 2006 Zimmer and his wife, with the help of his adoptive family, founded Aguayuda, a non-profit organization that provides clean water and water education to communities in need.
“We chose water as our focus because my father … is a chemical engineer [and] has a lot of experience in water filtration systems,” explains Zimmer. “Also while [my wife] Sabrina and I lived in Honduras … we learned how difficult life is when you don’t have safe drinking water on a daily basis.” Zimmer said that during his time in Honduras he also learned how important proper education is for the success of a community. “Our mission is to provide appropriate and sustainable water and education solutions to rural communities,” says Zimmer.
“Aguayuda” is a combination of the Spanish words “agua” and “ayuda” which means “water help.” Since its founding in 2006 Aguayuda has produced educational manuals on water management education, waste management, alcohol and drug abuse and other health-related topics. It has also successfully completed three projects in Colombia and initiated another five projects in Colombia and elsewhere.
In Colombia’s northern district of La Guajira, Aguayuda has “installed a total of two windmills in the communities of El Pajaro and Ramonero as well as a water distribution system in Santropel … The community of Santropel helped install the pipeline connecting Santropel with the windmill installed in El Pajaro … The windmill in El Pajaro is currently providing safe drinking water to El Pajaro and Santropel,” explained Zimmer. “These three successful projects provide 1,500 people with safe drinking water on a daily basis. Prior to Aguayuda’s involvement, these 1,500 people had to walk several miles to retrieve water from contaminated ponds or salty wells.”
In 2009 the Red Cross constructed 19 houses for people in Santropel, and Aguayuda helped connect these buildings to the water supply. Zimmer says that “Without Aguayuda’s projects it is very unlikely that the Red Cross would have built new homes for Santropel.”
In late 2009 Zimmer returned to La Guajira to review the projects. “We are proud to report that the two windmills and the water distribution system are being maintained and operated properly,” he says.
Zimmer says that he finds most of Aguayuda’s projects through other non-profit organizations that are not able to provide communities with access to clean water. Aguayuda visits each site to assess the needs and evaluate the costs. When they return to their office in the U.S. Aguayuda begins the 8-12 month process of seeking funding for the projects.
Zimmer says that “during the initial site visit it is important to listen to the community and see what they believe the best solution is. Often these communities know exactly what is needed but lack the funds and knowledge to fix the problem.” Zimmer believes that it is essential to include the community in every part of the project. “It is important that the communities feel a sense of ownership towards the water solutions which will make them care more about maintaining the solutions after we leave.”
Aguayuda uses simple technologies and local companies to bring clean water management to communities. “High-tech solutions like desalination and membrane system are great,” says Zimmer, “but due to maintenance costs and complexity as well as the initial investment cost, they are generally not sustainable. The most sustainable solutions are … available locally.”
The windmills that Aguayuda built in La Guajira and El Pajaro were constructed by a local company and are maintained by the community. After the project was complete one El Pajero resident decided to attend a technical institute to learn about windmill maintenance and has since started his own windmill company to serve the region.
There appears to be no shortage of work for Aguayuda. The organization is currently working on five projects, three in Colombia, one in Costa Rica and one in Cameroon. Although there is a high demand for clean water in developing nations Zimmer says that financing for the projects are hard to come by.
Since 2006 Zimmer and his wife have operated Aguayuda while holding full-time jobs in the U.S. “Due to the economic situation in the United States and around the world, foundations and donors have cut back,” he explains.
Zimmer also says that he often has difficulty getting local governments to cooperate with his organization. He says that almost 20 years ago La Guajira built a pipeline that passed through four communities “with a total of 3,000 people.” The pipeline was supposed to connect to these communities, but the government never completed the work. Aguayuda received a grant to complete the work and needed the government’s approval to do this, but according to Zimmer the government has “ignored the community and Aguayuda’s countless requests and … shown no desire to help out.”
Despite his struggles Zimmer remains hopeful that Aguayuda will continue to grow. He hopes to establish an office in La Guajira in late 2012. Zimmer believes that once Aguayuda has established a Colombian office they can “help over 10,000 people annually gain access to safe drinking water and education.”
For more information on Aguayuda visit their website at www.aguayuda.org.