Saving Lake Atitlán: Women-Focused Business Provides Clean Water – and Good Jobs
Throughout this year, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. This post is part of our focus on the environment for the month of March.
I’ve known since I was a little girl that I wanted to give back to my childhood home in Guatemala. My mission began when I returned to visit my grandparents at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala in 2009. The lake had become so completely overrun with blue-green algae that the water looked like sewage. NASA called it one of the worst natural disasters of our lifetime, as you could see the contamination from space.
The lake had become contaminated due to a sanitation plant being wiped out by a hurricane, years of agricultural runoff, and decisions put in place by the Guatemalan government in the 1950s when they hoped to stimulate the local fishing economy by importing an invasive species that ate the animals that normally kept the blue-green algae in check.
The image of young girls collecting the contaminated water to drink, to cook and to clean remained with me and later proved the catalyst for starting my own socially conscious fashion brand, Ix Style. Until that point, I had always taken clean drinking water for granted. After the contamination, I learned that diseases from unsafe water kill more people each year than any form of violence, including war.
Water scarcity affects every continent on the planet, and countless individuals every day. In the Latin American and Caribbean region alone, 32 million people live without access to water. After the lake became contaminated, local communities in Guatemala suffered both economically and physically from water scarcity. Mismanagement of existing water resources and the lack of access to water coupled with the lake’s inability to meet local demand jeopardized the livelihoods of the more than 400,000 people who depend on the lake to survive.
The water crisis at Lake Atitlán rendered women and children even more vulnerable for social and health-related reasons. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation increases the risk of waterborne diseases and chronic malnutrition. At the same time, women and children traditionally bear the responsibility of collecting water for their families, which detracts from the time spent in school and a mother’s ability to care for her family or pursue job opportunities and vocational growth. Since women invest 90 percent of their work income into their families, compared to the 35 percent men reinvest, involving women in water and social good projects can have a major impact on their communities. As such, women and children are the primary focus of Ix Style’s work; we want to ensure the continued improvement of lives around the lake as well as provide educational and vocational resources and avenues of growth that these individuals typically lack.
For me and my family, the lake holds special significance. It is where I was baptized, it is where I learned to swim and it is where my grandparents lived for many years. It is where my family celebrated and continues to celebrate countless birthdays and holidays. As such, my mission hits close to home; my mission is my home.
Starting my company with only $1,000 and the simple idea of helping one woman, I’ve stretched my knowledge and experience from finance and wealth management to build a company that has provided thousands of Guatemalan women and children with clean drinking water and the educational and vocational resources needed to break the cycle of poverty. For every pair of artisan-made Huarache sandals and bags sold, Ix Style donates 15 percent of proceeds to purchase water filters for families in Guatemala. (For more on Ecofiltro, a Guatemala-based social business that makes water filters, click here.)
Guatemala has the highest malnutrition rate in the Americas and the fourth-highest malnutrition rate for children in the world. Ix Style’s mission is to help end this crisis. Ix Style is a fashion company with a triple bottom line, achieving financial, social and environmental returns in Guatemala. In addition to supplying water filters, our work improves financial resilience through employment. The artisans who have worked with us have increased their income levels from below poverty level to premium fair trade; from being paid a few dollars for each pair of their sandals to $12 for each pair.
Proceeds from sales also fund scholarships for the artisans to attend programs offered by our partners at Asociación Puente. These programs provide workshops on food security, nutrition, food preparation, early childhood stimulation and education, agricultural activities, local savings and loan associations and income generation. Upon completion, our artisans are given water filters and encouraged to build their own businesses. Ix Style currently employs more than 800 artisans to help make our products, and with the help of Asociación Puente we have helped change the lives of over 10,000 people in Guatemala … and counting.
And because of our continued efforts, the hard work of local NGOs such as Guatemala Conexions and Amigos del Lago de Atitlán, and support from the local government, 10,000 of the roughly 400,000 people around the lake have benefitted from our water filters.
Meanwhile, beautiful Lake Atitlán has been partly restored to its former glory, with the potential of once again becoming the vibrant heart of life for the people of Guatemala. Only 60 percent of the lake has been cleaned up, however. It’s still contaminated and if we don’t clean up the remaining 40 percent by 2020 we won’t be able to save it, according to research compiled by Amigos del Lago de Atitlán.
Many women are now capable of feeding their families. Several have even started their own companies, which have strengthened and diversified economies around the lake and throughout the country. Instead of spending hours collecting safe drinking water, many children now have the resources to purchase their own textbooks and attend school, a crucial step toward securing their futures.
Photo: The author dancing with artisans. Courtesy of Ix Style