Water Water Everywhere…

10 12 2011

In the fall of 2009 I moved into a house in a poorer area of my rural town.  Upon moving in, I found that though part of a greater community in which most residents drink water straight from the tap, in this part of town there was a poorly built aqueduct that permitted contamination to enter the water system.  Weirdly enough, this in a way was exciting news. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer can be maddeningly ambiguous.  I work to instill a value for education and critical thinking, inspire youth, create functioning committees… It’s a process more than a project, and I may never be able to really see or measure success for most of my efforts.   Suffice to say, the potential to fix something, physically, with my very own hands even, was extremely enticing.

As I have zero experience in civil engineering I turned to the Peace Corps water sector team, and in the end they decided to come do a training in my site.  Even better.  Not only would I fix the water problem for the 26 houses that make ‘Lo Abanico, Manabao,’ I would bring in a new group of 20+ volunteers for 5 weeks- stimulating the local economy with the funds that Peace Corps provides for host families to care for trainees.  The final bonus was that I would be free to participate as much as I pleased in training- basically a free course on rural gravity-based water systems.

Training was great, the volunteers and community members worked- and played- well together, I learned quite a bit about water system construction (and also that I could use some quality time in the gym), and the community benefited from economical and infrastructural influxes.  But what about that goal of fixing Lo Abanico’s water once and for all- woops.  We connected the new system only to find we had not captured sufficient water.  This came as a shock because according to measurements the quantity of water should have been fine- but we weren’t providing a brand new system with Peace Corps approved pipes to families accustomed to using little water.  We were working with a system built with cheap and easily breakable pipes and people who leave taps open, farmers who connect the water to their crops, and vacation houses who use the water to fill pools.  Well, people should sacrifice their lazy habits in the name of clean water, right?  Maybe, but the general attitude was that the project just flat-out failed and it was best to go back to free-flowing dirty water.  It probably should have ended there, but my ego cried out its need for tangible results.

To back up my ego there were community members still dedicated to he effort.  There is Roberto, the poor community plumber who because of the poor source design had to hike to spring to clean out the clogged pipes just about daily.  And there is Jose, who promoted the original project and organized the community so well; and, though people are too polite to complain to me are not shy to complain about the water situation to him. We decided the best option was to convince a nearby community to share their water by constructing a larger structure to capture all of the plentiful water at the base of a small river.  It was a relatively simple and low-budget plan.  We aimed for a fundraising goal and went for it, but alas, failed to convince community members it was worth the investment.  It probably should have ended there, again.  We always try to stick to high standards for community involvement for Peace Corps projects and not provide one-sided handouts.  But, it was still feasible so even though the community didn’t raise the money necessary and didn’t show up in the numbers we asked for to work we went for it anyways.  I felt an odd sense of guilt as we worked away, like I was betraying the proper development model because only four of us were 100% dedicated and the community seemed apathetic.  Who was the project really for after all?

After a .week the work was done, and successfully- two communities, 35 houses, now connected to a better-protected and more abundant source.  The communities will now benefit from year-round clean water (si Dios quiere), Roberto will no longer have to hike to the source daily, and I will leave here with my ego intact, maybe even boosted.

I could sell it as selfless and tireless dedication to a community need, but it would be a lie to neglect that part of me that was motivated by the selfish desire to get accomplish something tangible during my time here.  Days after, seeing the positive impact our work has already had on the community, I am feeling less guilty about my selfish motivations