H20 Ecuador

En route to Otavalo, a monument expresses the importance of water to indigenous communities
En route to Otavalo, a monument expresses the importance of water to indigenous communities
For the last two and a half years, I spent some 10 hours a day, studying, researching, and discussing water.  Field sites, spread sheets, and textbooks all were dedicated to water quality, glaciers, snow, stream gauging, groundwater, and water conflict.  Yet during the whole process I was blind to the faces of the very people who are most affected by the world water crisis…until today.
In the last two days, I have been working with Bruce Stern, a U.S. expat in Quito, who for the last twenty-eight years has engineered “Clean Water Projects,” a mission-based non-profit, serving the water needs of rural communities all around Ecuador.  Unlike the missionary groups that I have encountered in my travels, he and his Ecuadorian engineers run a top-notch program.  They are not there to proselytize nor run a bible school; they are there to get things done for the people.  Their support for community-run wells, drainage ditches, small dams, and water disinfection systems throughout the country is evidence of their good intentions and their competence.  I met up with Bruce to see his program and to explore the possibility of long-term volunteer work. On our second day together we traveled to the rural north to check in with some of his communities.
On a cloudy afternoon, we pulled up to the small indigenous community of Pigurlca, just outside of Otavalo.  The people of Pigurcla were scared.  Their neighboring town had recently seen a contamination of their water network, resulting in several deaths and over 200 illnesses.  They realized that their limited surface water supply was also at risk, and soon contacted Bruce and his engineers.  We showed up to a very welcoming and quite concerned population.
As we sat around the community table, listening to the concerns of the town leader, more and more community members joined the discussion.  Within 15 minutes more than twenty of the town’s 60 people were there to express the severity of their water shortage.  If we weren’t there during business hours, I’m positive that all of the town would have been present.  They feed us hearty servings of corn, beef, potatoes, and cola, and treated us like miracle workers (they obviously didn’t know that I was a nobody in this situation).
We then proceeded on a field trip to visit their springs; the people were hoping that these springs could be protected, captured, and serve as a replacement to the surface water resources they had above town.  On an arduous descent into a gorge, we tunneled through some dense vegetation, and I had several near face plants along the way.  A few older ladies carrying children giggled as they skipped by in their flip flops.  The spring, although full of algae, had some potential.  But the problem was that it feeds into another community.  This would make for a great case study for my water conflict friends at Oregon St.
We then moved on to option #2, a healthy, unclaimed spring, 4 km away, as the crow flies, from the nearest community structure.  To avoid a nasty bushwhack we needed to take the Pan-American highway.  As we climbed into Bruce’s small pick-up, no fewer than twenty of the locals piled into the cab.  About to get on a highway, Bruce asked if we could just go ourselves, but they were too excited, so he requested only eight in the cab. Two got off and we were on our way.
That evening, we sat around the community table once again to discuss possible future development of their water resources.  As Bruce spoke, there was silence in the room.  One could see the tension in the eyes of the community members, as if they were about to find out the results of an important medical diagnosis.  The fate of their community health, as they saw it, was dependent on what Bruce was about to say.
Finances, support from volunteers, the feasibility of using these springs, and community participation all were integral to making water for this community.  Although no promises were made, engineers would return to do further assessments, and the people were left with a sense of hope.  As we rode away on the dust road to the Pan-American highway, local children chased Bruce’s pick-up, until they were overcome with dust and fatigue.  I stared at their faces for as long as they were in view.  I naively thought about staying there, and making this community my project for the next several months.  Bruce, desensitized by so many similar experiences, did not even look in the rear-view mirror.  “5500 communities in Ecuador,” he said. “All with much the same problems as this one.”

For the last two and a half years, I spent some 10 hours a day, studying, researching, and discussing water.  Field sites, spread sheets, and textbooks all were dedicated to water quality, glaciers, snow, stream gauging, groundwater, and water conflict.  Yet during the whole process I was blind to the faces of the very people who are most affected by the world water crisis…until today.

In the last two days, I have been working with Bruce Stern, a U.S. expat in Quito, who for the last twenty-eight years has engineered “Clean Water Projects,” a mission-based non-profit, serving the water needs of rural communities all around Ecuador.  Unlike the missionary groups that I have encountered in my travels, he and his Ecuadorian engineers run a top-notch program.  They are not there to proselytize nor run a bible school; they are there to get things done for the people.  Their support for community-run wells, drainage ditches, small dams, and water disinfection systems throughout the country is evidence of their good intentions and their competence.  I met up with Bruce to see his program and to explore the possibility of long-term volunteer work. On our second day together we traveled to the rural north to check in with some of his communities.

A morning visit to the town of Carabuela, where community members are already reinstalling a new piping network

A morning visit to the town of Carabuela, where community members are already reinstalling a new piping network

On a cloudy afternoon, we pulled up to the small indigenous community of Pigurlca, just outside of Otavalo.  The people of Pigurcla were scared.  Their neighboring town had recently seen a contamination of their water network, resulting in several deaths and over 200 illnesses.  They realized that their limited surface water supply was also at risk, and soon contacted Bruce and his engineers.  We showed up to a very welcoming and quite concerned population.

As we sat around the community table, listening to the concerns of the town leader, more and more community members joined the discussion.  Within 15 minutes more than twenty of the town’s 60 people were there to express the severity of their water shortage.  If we weren’t there during business hours, I’m positive that all of the town would have been present.  They feed us hearty servings of corn, beef, potatoes, and cola, and treated us like miracle workers (they obviously didn’t know that I was a nobody in this situation).

Softening us up with some grub and cola

Softening us up with some grub and cola

We then proceeded on a field trip to visit their springs; the people were hoping that these springs could be protected, captured, and serve as a replacement to the surface water resources they had above town.  On an arduous descent into a gorge, we tunneled through some dense vegetation, and I had several near face plants along the way.  A few older ladies carrying children giggled as they skipped by in their flip flops.  The spring, although full of algae, had some potential.  But the problem was that it feeds into another community.  This would make for a great case study for my water conflict friends at Oregon St.
Investigating a spring that is unfortunately shared by another community

Investigating a spring that is unfortunately shared by another community

We then moved on to option #2, a healthy, unclaimed spring, 4 km away, as the crow flies, from the nearest community structure.  To avoid a nasty bushwhack we needed to take the Pan-American highway.  As we climbed into Bruce’s small pick-up, no fewer than twenty of the locals piled into the cab.  About to get on a highway, Bruce asked if we could just go ourselves, but they were too excited, so he requested only eight in the cab. Two got off and we were on our way.

That evening, we sat around the community table once again to discuss possible future development of their water resources.  As Bruce spoke, there was silence in the room.  One could see the tension in the eyes of the community members, as if they were about to find out the results of an important medical diagnosis.  The fate of their community health, as they saw it, was dependent on what Bruce was about to say.

Finances, support from volunteers, the feasibility of using these springs, and community participation all were integral to making water for this community.  Although no promises were made, engineers would return to do further assessments, and the people were left with a sense of hope.  As we rode away on the dirt road to the Pan-American highway, local children chased Bruce’s pick-up, until they were overcome with dust and fatigue.  I stared at their faces for as long as they were in view.  I naively thought about staying there, and making this community my project for the next several months.  Bruce, desensitized by so many similar experiences, did not even look in the rear-view mirror.  “5500 communities in Ecuador,” he said. “All with much the same problems as this one.”

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