A world after WOU: clean water system in rural Vanuatu

By Justin Karr
Spring 2012

A three-hour hike from the nearest dirt road, and sweat drips down the bare back of a runner circling a tiny meadow deep within a humid forest. Etched into the grass is a makeshift running path, carved by his footprints. Each morning this runner paces around this 300-square-yard field as the native children playfully chase him stride for stride. Not far away is his new home, a small shack built for him by the local villagers who now consider him family.

His name is Nik Karr, a 2009 Western Oregon University graduate in community health education and former cross-country standout. After graduation, Nik entered Boston University for a year in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Public Health. As part of that program he decided to serve in the Peace Corps in Vanuatu, an island republic located in the South Pacific. No more than two years ago, he lived down the street from the Monmouth Burgerville, but now he resides on the eastside of the island Maewo in a rural village called Naviso.

Day-by-day Nik devotes his time to serving the people of his new community, educating them about health concerns such as hygiene and sexually transmitted diseases. Nik is one of the first volunteers to serve in this remote area of Vanuatu, where he has no access to modern conveniences such as running water or electricity. Occasionally he hikes for three hours to the highest point on Maewo to make a phone call back to his family in Oregon. Aside from this touch of Western culture, Nik has assimilated fully into his new community, suppressing his desires for Big Macs and Facebook to experience a different culture and fulfill his new role as a community health supervisor. This role requires commitment, knowledge, and planning—all skills and attributes that he gained while at WOU. With his foundational schooling, Nik has begun applying his education in a substantive and unique way, by disseminating knowledge and developing infrastructure to improve the health of his new community.

Nik Karr

His focus on community health has directed his work towards disease prevention and water sanitation. These relevant issues have inspired him to spearhead a rural water system development project to restore the water system in the local community. The current system has had no maintenance or upgrades since its construction in 1979, leading to a gradual deterioration of the pipes with limited resources to fix the damaged system. Some damaged areas spray and puddle water, producing breeding grounds for mosquitoes in an area with endemic malaria. The damage to the pipes also results in the potential pollution of the water supply, further compromising the health of the villagers. Only three taps serve the 500 people village, and the damaged and wasteful water system frequently causes the primary school tap to run dry. Under Nik’s leadership alongside the local government, the community has chosen to develop a new water system with funding for parts, shipping and labor gathered from the regional governance and donors abroad. Though the process is long and arduous, Nik has fully devoted his efforts while overseas to restoring the clean water system for the people of Naviso.

As alumni, we share the experience of walking at commencement, tasting the pinnacle of our hard work as we graduate from our alma mater. However, few ponder the varying trajectories of those that walk beside us—those classmates that we never knew. Where will the world take them, and to what purpose might they commit their lives? The opportunities available to WOU graduates have become increasingly expansive and nearly limitless. A life after WOU can be impactful and significant in many ways; and as we reflect on our own legacies as WOU alumni, we should consider Nik’s work, providing the timeless benefit of clean water for villagers that have accepted him as their family. You cannot gauge the importance of clean water for the people of Naviso, but the benefits will last generations. Nik’s actions demonstrate the quality and relevance of a WOU education, as he applies the knowledge he learned in Monmouth to improve the health of those living at the far reaches of the globe.

Karr with infantWant to know more? Take a moment to learn more about Nik’s Rural Water Development Project by reviewing his webpage at tinyurl.com/ruralwatersystem.

Working to secure clean drinking water in a remote village in the South Pacific is a wonderful example of an impactful life after WOU. Please visit the webpage above or email Justin Karr, Nik’s brother and fellow WOU alumnus, at jkarr06@wou.edu for more information on how you can support this project.

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