"Ustedes tienen acceso al agua potable?" We ask.
"No, todavía no tenemos el agua."
Our aim this trip was two-fold: to close out our potable water system project in la Pitajaya (I heard you gasp, yes it's unbelievable to me too that we are moving on from the Andean community that I love like my family) and to begin looking for new projects in la Libertad, Peru. This blog post is about the latter. A subsequent blog post that I am about to write will be about the former.
We have visited seven communities, all who have need for potable water and banos dignos (stand alone bathrooms with toilet, washbasin and shower) in some capacity: Carnachique, Machigon, Pusunchas, Monte de Armas Bajo, Saccha, El Capuli and Campo Nuevo. I joined EWB after the decision-making process that lead to us choosing la Pitaya, a community that really desired and needed potable water. These visits put into perspective our project there by opening my eyes to the complicated process behind choosing a new community. They showed me how far-reaching small observations are in impacting not only a decision to work for a community but also the difficulty and feasibility of a project there.
Crucial aspects such as the desire and need for potable water, community dynamic and organisation, and the technical feasibility of the project is what guided our assessment of these sites. However it is difficult to gain sufficient information to assess these criteria, no matter how much time you spend there. For example, the longevity and viability of the potential water source: the community may say it has always existed and we may summarise that it's potable (it takes a month to test water in labs in Trujillo and we will save that for a subsequent assessment trip of the community we have chosen) based on how inaccessible it is for animals, absence of trivial contaminants and so forth. However, as the travel team in 2012 found out in la Pitajaya the source can dry up. And one may have to build a longer pipeline (say, 5.5 kilometres?) to bring water from another source.
We did two types of site visits: for the first five I listed, we met with the communities and then went back for the ones that had the greater need for potable water and did a technical assessment of potential water sources and pipeline routes. We saw some eye opening things while doing the technical assessment: water sources contaminated by nearby schools pouring their toilet waste into it. Owners of the land on which potable water surfaces who are not willing to sell the land to a community of 120 houses (600-700 people) without water when the 24000liter/day producing source has more than enough water for their house as well as the community that needs it so badly. Banos dignos which don't work because there's no water available to flow through the toilet, shelter and basin. As both Russ and Spencer, our wonderful mentors, explained to us: water comes first, then sanitation.
We've had many different interactions with communities. A conversation-like meeting with the four members of the JASS of Machigon in a classroom in the school. A walk with two people through the community of El Capuli to see the water sources. A huge meeting with at least 35 people from the community of Pusunchas that broke down into an argument between them and the representative from the Municipality of Otuzco (who we didn't know we would be accompanied by...more on the political angle later) about false promises that three different mayors have made to them for a potable water system in the last twelve years that we had to calm down in order to make clear that we are an independent organisation from the municipality while trying and earn their trust.
What is clear to me is that if we work with one of the six communities that are in the province of Otuzco, we will be involved with the municipality on some level. We met the mayor Lucho Rodriguez (who is an engineer!) who wanted to work in parallel with us and highlighted that his aims and ours are very much aligned: providing basic needs to the 76 communities in Otuzco. We need to be careful that we don't get involved in a partnership that demands from us more than we can deliver based on our timeline that lets us travel for 6-8 weeks once a year. We need to retain our independence as a separate entirety. We need to make sure that credit for the work is given where it is due. We need to be mindful that support from the municipality is helpful. Having spoken to people and organisations who have worked with the municipality before, it seems that the best way to do this is to ask for help with transport of the team and of materials given that we would be doing work that aligns with the municipality's aim in their province.
To be honest I feel very uncomfortable with being in a position to decide which community gets access to potable water by working with EWB Princeton. How are we to assess which one had a greater need? By the number of houses without water? Or by the amount of time and energy that is spent getting water daily in the absence of a water system? Or by the technical feasibility of the project? Pusunchas is the largest community we have visited with a 120 houses, however it requires the construction of an 8-10 km pipeline from the source to the reservoir tank and another 5 km from then tank to the last house. It requires getting permission from several farmers for the pipeline to pass through their field. It requires convincing the owner of the land on which the source lies to sell the land to Pusunchas, and likely connecting them to the system with an electric pump. It requires a massive budget that would likely dictate that not every house in the community gets individual access to water at the same time. Should this be the community we work with? How can we say that one is more worthy than another?
The nature of decisions unfortunately is that they have to be made. We had to short list communities to choose between and let them know before going back to the U.S. On the Linea bus back from Trujillo to Lima, I called the communities of Carnachique and Machigon to explain that we have decided not to work with them. Both of them have existing water systems that require improvement and/or expansion. It cost me dearly to say "desafortunadamente no podemos trabajar con ustedes". It took a while for me to get the sentence out. I explained to them that providing potable water is a priority and that we have visited communities that do not have access to water at all. They understood immediately the logic behind our decision and explained to me their take on the importance of water for life. I was so grateful about how understanding they were and I admire and respect how well they handled disappointment. It made me think back to Fermin's response over Facebook message when I explained (for similar reasons) that we can't build latrines in la Pitajaya because we want to focus on giving water to those who don't. As ever, the perspective that people have in these communities in Peru takes my breath away.
Before my parting thought... As a team, we want to thank Oscar Torrico, a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Otuzco, who visited the 76 communities in the province and while there shortlisted five of them for us to visit. He coordinated the site visits and is a key point of contact between us and them. Oscar, if you're reading this you ought to know that you're our ride or die. The bomb dot com. Thank you so much!!
My final musing is that I have less than a week left of being Project Manager of the EWB Princeton Peru team. Leading the decision making process over which community to work with will not be my responsibility. I am truly grateful that I got to be part of the process of looking for a new project. Every Project Manager has to make hard decisions. I am not ashamed to admit that I am a tiny bit glad that the decision of which community we work with does not entirely rest on my shoulders. All the very very best to the team and future leadership as we embark on the next exciting stage in its life!