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Potable water systems in Bolivia

Community Engagement: Lessons learned developing a potable water system with Quincucirca residents in Bolivia by Terri Harris

Kevin Dumler, undergraduate in Civil Engineering

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 780 million people do not have access to safe (potable) drinking water.  Robert Bos, who works for WHO, says that the actual number may be even higher, as the official number is done by counting the number of people who have access to “improved water sources”, many of which have been found to be contaminated.  Non-potable, contaminated water can carry disease vectors, pathogens or unacceptable levels of toxins or suspended solids.  Drinking or using this water for food preparation leads to widespread acute and chronic illnesses.  An assessment commissioned by the United Nations (UN) estimated that 4000 children die each day as a result of diseases caused by drinking contaminated water.

The people of Quincucirca, Bolivia, must travel about a kilometer up and down steep mountain terrain each day in order to get their water.  Because the water is contaminated with fecal matter, they struggle with illness and skin disease that prevent them from working and attending school.  The residents of Quincucirca are determined to reduce the incidence of morbidity and mortality from contaminated water, and the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter at UC Davis has been working with them for 3 years to try to address this issue.

In 2010, the Davis chapter of EWB went to Quincucirca and tested possible water sources to find one that was free of contamination.  They found several options, and returned to California hopeful that soon they could design and construct a water system for Quincucirca.  It turned out that this was not to be a simple project.  Issues around water rights and land rights (for land the pipeline would travel across) brought delays and EWB was unable to return until 2012.  Over the course of the three years, the community had become discouraged.  They were frustrated with the delays and frustrated that EWB could not move more quickly once land and water rights were secured.  

bolivia 1Enter Kevin Dumler.  Kevin is a UC Davis undergraduate student majoring in Civil Engineering, who has a desire to improve the quality of life for those living in poverty.  In the summer of 2012, Kevin traveled to Quincucirca with the help of a Blum Center Poverty Alleviation Through Action (PATA) grant, hoping to complete work on a potable water system for that community.  Kevin soon discovered that the survey work between the water source and a central tank in Quincucirca was incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate.  Faced by a community whose determination to build the water system brooked no more delays, Kevin and the rest of the EWB team needed to quickly figure out an appropriate path towards helping the community attain their goal:  establishing clean water in a timely fashion.

bolivia2After meeting with the community and with Engineers In Action, a local Bolivian Non Governmental Organization which was EWB’s partner on the project, Kevin created a new agreement between Quincucirca and EWB.  The EWB UC Davis chapter agreed that they would help design and construct the pipes that would lead from the central tank of water in Quincucirca to about 60 residences.  With that in hand, the community agreed to build the system of pipes that would carry the water from their new water source to the tank in the village.  

When Kevin returned to California, he felt discouraged that the work he had planned had not been completed.  But he also felt elated that there was an agreement between Quincucirca and EWB that represented a promise that EWB could keep to the community.  They could help design and build the piping to residences and would be available to troubleshoot issues with the piping between the water source and the tank.  

Kevin recognized that one of the reasons this project had been able to survive the many setbacks of the past three years was rooted in the fact that the community was working together on it. Regular meetings were held by a core group of people determined to make it happen.  Kevin was inspired by this and subsequently added Community Development courses to his studies at UC Davis.

Kevin also took a “step back” to look at the larger goals of the community for this project to see if there were other ways that EWB could support them.  Quincucirca was working hard on this project largely in the hopes that it would reduce water borne disease in their community.  According to the WHO, a supply of clean water might reduce the incidence of diarrhea by about 21%.  Hygiene education and good sanitation would be necessary to make a more significant difference in the health of the community.  Kevin has now created a committee on his team focused on the reduction of water borne disease.  They will be doing a health survey this summer, with an eye to seeing what strategies can be added for sanitation and hygiene education that might help Quincucirca wipe out the scourge of water borne disease in their community.

In the summer of 2013, Kevin expects to construct piping from the tank to the residences.  If there are problems with the piping between the water source and the tank, there may be ways that EWB can help with this in the future, especially since the land and water rights issues will have been resolved.  With the help of the health survey, it is Kevin’s hope that EWB will be able to support the community in their quest for better health.