A Right to Safe Drinking Water

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair, sweating under the shade of the water office roof, during a water board meeting in the rural community of Santa Clara, El Salvador. Our Engineers Without Borders team had installed a new water system about a year prior and we  returned every year to provide “post construction support”, helping train and guide in the administration, operation, and maintenance of the system.

The water board was drafting new regulations and we had heard that some people in the community weren’t so sure about them. As I listened (through our translator) as they read the new regulations, I quickly got uncomfortable and even offended by what I was hearing. These new members of this supposedly volunteer board were proposing that they should get paid for every meeting they attended.

Leaders wanting to take a portion of community funds…this fit perfectly into the definition of corruption we all had in our minds, especially from what we had been told about political leaders in the country. Frustrated, we voiced our opinion that the water board was a volunteer committee and should not receive payment and that all the funds received should go to the community fund to ensure a sustainable water system.

Fast forward 10 years.

I had been a Peace Corps WASH volunteer for about 2 years, and I was sitting in a meeting in the municipal auditorium in Peru, speaking with stakeholders from the province, the region, and the national government about rural water systems. Based on my experience working with rural water committees, I was advocating for the state to contribute a type of subsidy to help pay rural water system operators.

I present a plan to hire operators from the local communities to each be in charge of three nearby water systems, with the water committees paying a portion of the operator salary and the state paying the rest. I explain that rural water boards simply can’t raise enough funds to pay an operator enough so that he or she is able to prioritize maintaining the water system over working on his/her farm or other work that puts food on the table. My proposed plan would ensure a trained operator was maintaining the systems, and it would bring jobs with stable salaries to trained and capable people in the rural communities.

A certain member of a government water authority (whose salary comes from the national government) responded that the government should not give any more financial help to the rural water systems because the rural populations have already received a lot from the state (in many cases the government builds the rural water systems), and he goes on to say that it is a bad habit that the people get used to receiving “handouts” from the government. (He even added that the some of these rural populations even have smart phones so they should be able to pay the required water fee.*)

He was voicing a common sentiment in Peru that comes from a distaste for government help and even social programs because so many political parties give nominal gifts to populous areas to win votes.

His statement also aligns with the international development strategy and philosophy that has been used for decades to construct rural water systems – the international aid community builds water systems and gifts them to the community, leaving the responsibility to maintain the system in the hands of the community.

Before entering Peace Corps, I might have agreed with this point of view, but having lived the reality of working with small, rural farming communities, my perspective has changed. And I’m not the only one. The academic literature shows that nearly 50% of constructed water systems stop working before their useful life and are not repaired, and a growing consensus points to the flaws in relying on “community based management” where the community is “gifted” a water system and then bears the full burden of maintenance and operation.

The water boards I work with in Peru are volunteers, a perfect example of this community-based management strategy. In their free time, these moms and dads with full time jobs are expected to manage a technical business – running a water system. In their free time, they have to attend meetings to learn how to run the water system and then also do all the tasks associated with managing that system.

Most of these water systems serve less than 100 households, so it is rare to find a community that has 5 people with enough free time, enough passion, and enough knowledge to be able to do this job well. I have yet to see it. (The best ones I have seen are rare cases, where a community has two really strong and passionate leaders whose kids are already grown, and they are able to do a decent job of managing the water system, with a lot of support from the local government.)

In addition to the water board that manages the legal and financial aspects of the water system, a community needs an operator to maintain the system. In a city of thousands of users, each user can pay $1 per month and the community can raise $1,000 each month (still not enough to maintain a system well), and in rural areas with only 10 or 30 users, each person would have to pay an exorbitant water use fee to raise enough funds just to pay a full time operator. Additionally, these are populations of mostly farmers, with a very low income in the first place.

 

So, as I sat in this meeting in Peru, having worked closely with farmers and rural populations trying to manage their own water systems, I recognized how easy it was for a government employee who worked in an office and received a fixed salary to not understand the reality of the people living in rural areas. And it made me remember that day in El Salvador, talking to the water board.

I am now embarrassed to remember that we chastised the water board for wanting to pay themselves for the time they put into managing their community water system. “What ignorant arrogance,” I think. While it is truly a slippery slope for a water board to pay its members because it does allow for corruption, it is also necessary for people to receive incentives and to be compensated for the time they give to a job as important as ensuring that the community has safe drinking water.

Would you want to live somewhere where the people managing your water supply were volunteers or were not paid well and had another full time job on the side?

While I am proud of the work we have done in improving the capacity of the volunteer water committees here, and they are doing excellent work, they are less than 10% of all the rural water systems in the district, (and they don’t all have potable water 100% of the time because they don’t have full time operators).

Based on my experiences, I would want my water system to be managed by a professional business with quality government oversight, and I would be willing to pay a fraction of a dollar more in my taxes or in my water fees to ensure that people living in rural areas – the farmers providing the food that feeds us – have potable water to drink.

 

Footnotes

*Regarding the comment about rural populations having smart phones, there are a couple of important things to point out here, the first one being that many of the rural populations where I work live in areas where there isn’t even cell phone service. One of the communities where I work has cell phone service, but when I need to talk to the operator, I can’t call him directly because he doesn’t have a cell phone – I have to call the wife of the treasurer to be able to get a message to the water board. Not only does not every person have a phone, not even every household has a phone (and the person who does have the phone has a simple phone, not a smart phone). And while some poor people here do have smart phones it’s because it is actually cheaper to have a smart phone to be able to communicate by whatsapp (which is practically free to use here), whereas having a plan with calling and texting usually costs more.

**That El Salvador project I mentioned is doing a decent job with community-based  management, but it is one of few (and it receives a government subsidy that helps with the financial situation.)

A “Typical” Saturday

This title is a joke because I do not actually have a “typical” any day here. But let’s pretend I do, and today would be a great example of a “typical” weekend day.

This morning I woke up around 6am when the sun started peeking through my window, and I did my normal stretching/PT routine before heading downstairs to prepare my breakfast. My host mom had already left to sell pork and sausage in the Saturday market (the “feria”), like she does every Saturday, so I prepared myself a power fruit smoothie and a hard-boiled egg with bread. (Normally during the week, I prepare a smoothie for both my mom and I for breakfast.)

Then I headed out for a 30-minute bike ride, in my “campo clothes”, dry fit pants and shirt, rubber boots, hat and sunglasses, and a rain poncho just in case.

There is no better way to start a morning than a beautiful bike ride through the verdant hills of Oxapampa!

The district of Oxapampa is a long skinny district that consists of around 50 different communities spread out along about 40km of windy highway through the mountains.

I live in the little city (or large town, if you prefer) of Oxapampa, but I work in 5 different communities spread out along the highway, (two are a 40-minute van ride away, and 3 are within an hour bike ride.) Luckily, I work in communities close to the highway, but there are also communities that are really high up in the mountains, about an hour off the highway that you can only access by motorcycle and/or walking.

Unlike the rural US, the houses in each of the communities tend to be pretty close together and you can usually walk to all the houses within about 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the people are farmers, who produce one or various of the common crops for the area: a large pumpkin-squash called “zapallo”, a hot pepper called “ricoto”, avocado called “palta”, coffee “café”, or a fruit called “granadilla”, and they usually have their farms up in the hills in the community where they live, or a nearby community. Most people get around, going up to their fields “chacras”, or going into town on motorcycles.

Most of these communities have piped water, though not potable piped water (which is where I come in). Since the water systems capture water from a spring or a stream up in the hills above the houses, to arrive at the water source or the water tank, I ride my bike or walk up a hill either 10 minutes (the closest) or an hour (to one of the furthest.) I love going out to the water systems – even the far ones, because I get to hike or bike through the verdant hills, see some amazing views of valleys and mountains, and hear different birds singing – basically part of my work is hiking through the high jungle; I really can’t complain!

On this particular day, I was headed to one of the closer water systems – a 10-minute ride up a hill from the main highway. Today I was going to install a system of tubes to prevent the water tank from wasting chlorinated water through its overflow pipe. My colleague had done the inspection of the system, I had ordered the parts and carried them in a backpack, and I had arranged for the president of the water committee to bring the pipes up to the reservoir.

When I got the reservoir, the operator was not there, the pipes were not there and it started to rain. Lucky for me, I had brought my rain poncho, the water tank had a roof, and there was cell service in this spot. So, I called the operator, but the phone went straight to voicemail. I have gotten used to waiting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for people to gather, so I wasn’t stressed, but I was a little surprised because the people in this community do tend to be really punctual and responsible.

One thing we learned in training about cell phone culture in Peru is that Peruvians don’t use voicemail (so it’s not even worth leaving a message), and that it’s not rude to call a million times in a row. In fact, if it’s important, you should call at least 3-10 times in a row, until someone picks up. So, I kept calling. For about 30 minutes. At which point, I decided I was going to have to leave the shelter of the water tank and look for the operator and the pipes.

Long story short, I did find the operator (sleepy-eyed and embarrassed; he must have had a late night the night before!) and I also found the pipes in the president’s house, so we hauled them up to the water tank. I am so glad I didn’t give up and just head home!

When the operator unlocks the valve box and reservoir top so we can get started, and I stare in disbelief. My colleague had told me the wrong size pipe, so all the pipes and components that I had brought would not work to do the installation.

I have gotten this far, and I’m not about to give up yet. I call a colleague that was going to come out and help later and I ask if she can bring us the materials of the correct size. While waiting for the materials, I draw up the plans for the operators, so that they understand what we are doing and how it works.

When the pipe arrives, I see that we won’t have enough to complete the project. Not too surprising considering everything that could possibly go wrong has so far. But we’re already here so, again, I’m not going to give up now.

I sit down and draw up another way we could install the pipe so it has the same effect but uses less pipe. I present the design and explain it to them, but I admit that while it should work in theory, I haven’t ever installed it like that. They aren’t too comfortable with “theory”, and I see the worried looks on their faces. I try to convince them it will be fine, but they start talking about some pipe they might have stored somewhere, and then they head off to look for more pipe. Magically, they return with more pipe within about 15 minutes, and we are back to the original design.

I take the first measurements, but I have them verify the measurements and make all the cuts and do the installation. While I would love to do all the work and install it myself (I love this kind of work), I don’t because I want them to understand how it is installed, how it works, and to own it, so that they also will be able to fix any problem that arises when I’m not there. So I mostly just guide the work, only inserting if needed.

(They were hesitant to drill a hole in the side of one tube, so I did get that part going.)

We had a good time working together, joking around a little, and finally, in the early afternoon, we completed the job, just as the skies cleared up and the sun started to peek out.

As I headed back home on my bicycle, I reflected on how I’ve changed since I started my Peace Corps service. All the things that went wrong this morning would have stressed me out so much before, and I might have gotten so frustrated as to go home right away, but today I just maintained a little bit of patience, adapted to the situation, and that patience paid off.

CommuteVideo

Before, I would have been really frustrated at the operator for not showing up, and I might have just gone back home angry. But having worked with water committees for so long now, I know that the operator is taking care of the water system on top of his normal job of being a farmer every day, and he is definitely not receiving overtime pay that justifies this extra work he has to do so his community can have clean water. So, I don’t get mad if he oversleeps on a Saturday morning, (or maybe I do for a second, but I get over it quick).

For a few minutes, I may have been pretty frustrated at my colleague who gave me the wrong pipe sizes, but I know he is a good guy who just made a mistake, so I was able to let it go and just try to find a solution (and not make a big deal about to him or anyone else, knowing that he would already be pretty embarrassed about.)

Maybe the beautiful bike rides through nature are what help me manage my stress and adapt to challenges, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to so many things always changing at the last minute or “going wrong”. Either way, I’m really hoping the patience, stress management, and adaptability that I’m learning to practice here can be translated to other situations… like long lines in the grocery story, rush hour traffic, bad customer service… and all those unexpected annoyances and challenges that life is sure to throw at me in the future.

That’s a nice end to this blog post, (and you can stop here if you want), but that was not actually the end to my day. I had to quickly eat lunch and then catch a ride down to our farthest-away water system, about an hour van-ride away, where they were having a water committee meeting and where I needed to inspect the reservoir to prepare to install a similar system there.

The next van wasn’t leaving for at least an hour and I was already late and needed to get there before dark to do the inspection, so I took a car, which costs twice as much. About 10 minutes before arriving to the community, I saw my colleagues pass us in the highway, having already left the meeting. I panicked a little, realizing I had just spent extra to take a car and I might not even make it in time for the meeting! Somehow I convinced the driver to not charge me full fare, and as I arrived I saw the meeting was still going on. Phew. I was able to do the inspection with the operator and speak to the president afterwards, and all turned out well.

On the hour-long ride home that night, squished between people on a crowded a van, I realized that I actually felt right at home. I felt really content and actually enjoying just being another passenger in the van, having learned to integrate, being capable of traveling with the local transport, feeling part of that micro community there in the van – everyone slightly uncomfortable but making room for everyone so we could all get where we’re going. (Not so totally different actually from taking public transit during rush hour in any big city in the US, but with a slightly different feel, a little more organic, maybe because the vans are privately owned and don’t have a set schedule.)

I know a lot people would really not like this kind of lifestyle and work; they would find it too hectic, unpredictable, unorganized, inefficient, and stressful. But I really love it! I love the challenge – both physical and mental, I love seeing other ways of doing things and learning to adapt, and I love being surrounded by nature! My friend Julia told me before I joined Peace Corps that she thought I was made for this type of work, and I think she was on point.