Kimberly-Clark (K-C) Colombia leads project to improve water quality in rural communities Puerto Tejada and Barbosa, nearby manufacturing facilities, are the first beneficiaries.
K-C Colombia’s Water 4 Life initiative is improving water quality in rural areas, including villages near K-C facilities where some employees live. The project launched from K-C Colombia’s social committee, which named water as a community priority in summer 2010.
Luisa Fernanda Elorza, Legal and Corporate Affairs manager for K-C’s Latin American Operations’ (LAO) Andean Region, recalls asking employees about their key concern. “All of them said water,” Luisa says.
Elenita Mora, Corporate Affairs manager at K-C Colombia, responsible for K-C’s social programs, says, “With K-C being a hygiene company, we have modern facilities and have a unique responsibility to help in our communities as well.”
Kimberly-Clark embraced the opportunity and Water 4 Life was born as a partnership between K-C’s Global Sustainability team, local governments, UNICEF, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and EAFIT University in Medellin, Colombia.
LAO corporate headquarters in Roswell, Georgia, was the first stop for Luisa and Elenita, who received unequivocal support for their long-term proposal for improving water quality and access in Puerto Tejada and Barbosa, two rural communities where K-C Colombia manufacturing facilities are located.
Mike Lloyd, K-C’s director of Global Environmental Services, assessed the sites and saw the need for immediate action as well, particularly in Puerto Tejada. “The community has a limited supply of water and while the government and various non-governmental agencies have water plans for the area, we thought they were not acting fast enough. A lot of our people live there, and through them and the people on the social committee in K-C Colombia, we started looking at a short-term fix for our own employees.”
That solution was 400 water filters provided to employees for use in their homes, and educational sessions on water, health and hygiene. Each employee paid a third of the filter’s cost with the other two-thirds coming from matching contributions by K-C LAO and individual donations from leaders within the company.
“The response was incredible – as soon as Elenita sent an email to 100 K-C managers asking them to pay for one filter for one co-worker in the Papeles de Cauca (Cauca Papers) mill, we received commitments within two or three hours,” Luisa says.
Elenita agrees. “The project is a good example of how we are working together on this social task, involving the whole company to think about how to help and take action.”
K-C partnered with UNICEF to select the filters and design the training on how to use the new equipment and understand the benefits of water hygiene. “UNICEF has a lot of expertise in Africa and Asia with this kind of project,” Luisa says. “They have good partnerships with the local and national government and they helped us establish key relationships. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like UNICEF can help open that essential communication with the community and policy leaders.”
The idea of improving water quality and delivery goes beyond handing out filters and has broader implications for life in the community, says Suhas Apte, K-C’s Vice President of Global Sustainability. “We have a responsibility to see that the community that provides labor to us has the basic necessities and is a prospering. Unless the community prospers, our business will not prosper,” he says.
The next step is to bring filtered drinking water to the communities of Puerto Tejada and Barbosa through a water delivery system. Using the technical and design capabilities of engineering students from Purdue and EAFIT universities, the global team is coming up with medium and long-term solutions for water purification.
Dr. Rabi Mohtar, founding director of the Global Engineering Program at Purdue University, describes the project itself as sustainable.
“Purdue is not interested in going to Colombia for one semester and leaving; we are interested in a long-term partnership,” Dr. Mohtar says. “We adopt the community and what they need as we progress into the program. Next year, we evaluate what we’ve done and assess new emerging needs.”
From the beginning, Dr. Mohtar worked with Mike and his team at K-C to develop a concept and Purdue subsequently sent a team to the site to assess the project based on community needs. Students from both Purdue and EAFIT meet every week virtually, discuss the design, and work with K-C for feedback. Now nearing the end of the design phase, students will travel to Colombia again to deliver the project to community leaders.
Manuel Acevedo, director of EAFIT in Bogota, Colombia, sees the mutual benefits of this project. “I feel that these communities have a better way of living because of the alliance made with all the partners. Also, we expect our students to learn about the realities of many rural communities in Colombia or Latin America, and we believe if they go out of the labs, work with real people and find real solutions, it will make them better engineers.”
Looking to the future, K-C will partner with local governments to deliver and sustain a permanent supply of water, and ensure that education, hygiene and sanitation practices are in place. Mike says the company is committed to seeing this project make a long-term difference in the lives of its employees and the communities where they live.
“It’s not just about giving money. It’s a question of how do we get employees engaged, how do we give some skill and time to become invested in the communities around us?” Mike says.
Initial champions Luisa and Elenita are thrilled with the progress. “We are quite happy because 400 Papeles del Cauca employees now have purified water through the filters that were installed, which is a dream that seemed to be impossible,” Elenita says. “The sustainability team gave us and continues giving us unconditional support, working tirelessly to achieve this goal.”
One of the 400 filters is making a difference in the life of Maria Evelia Possú, a Converting Area operator in Kimberly-Clark’s Papeles de Cauca paper mill in Puerto Tejada, who used to purchase five gallon bags of water or get water from the nearby river, which often led to illness. “My daughter used to suffer from stomach aches, and other diseases because of the water,” she says. “My family and I are very happy with this water filter and with Papeles de Cauca’s initiative!”