The complexity of sustainable water projects

I went into this trip naively believing we were addressing a simple issue. El Cajuil had numerous households that had to go without water on a daily basis due to the insufficient supply being fed into their current system. Surely, the solution would be simply to tap into a second source to increase the water supply. While this may be a project we pursue, the reality of El Cajuil’s situation is in fact for more complex. Half of the engineering challenge we face will be not just increasing water supply, but designing a system that makes better use of the water already available.

This is in part good news. Without some very cheap, minor fixes we can increase the amount of water available to the community. For instance, at their water source (i.e. a dammed part of a stream above El Cajuil) the flow into the pipeline is being blocked by an inefficient straining system comprised of a number of rocks placed around the intake designed to prevent debris from flowing in. A better mesh strainer than they currently have could fix this issue quickly. Then there’s the fact that the primary water storage tank often overflows, losing water that tragically dissipates into the ground a few meters away from the tank, never reaching community homes. With a control valve, we could prevent this overflow issue and utilize the storage space in the pipeline above the water tank. Moreover, although our water testing results indicated there was almost certainly biological contamination in the community’s water, simple changes in El Cajuil’s chlorination regime could address this – an automatic potable solid pellet chlorinator would do the trick and would avoid placing a huge burden on water committee members for manual chlorination.

But there is also less good news news. There are significant water losses in the system we’re still working to understand The second tank in the community supplies only twelve houses with water. After conducting a test to see how quickly the second tank was filled and how quickly it was drained there were evidently losses so huge that the only explanation could be that community members were storing massive amounts of water in tanks in their homes or there’s a leak in the system. During this test, an entire sector of the community went without any water. If the problem is a leak, our job is actually easier. In this case, we have identify and patch wherever this leak is, a tedious but achievable task. But if water hoarding is the cause, we have a different type of challenge. The technical solution to this is to install water meters at each user point to help identify the system losses and to encourage more conservative water usage. But ultimately, conservation education and close community collaboration will by necessity become a large portion of our project. Back to the good news again, we have the Water Committee on our side, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more hard-working, dedicated, and eager to learn group of leaders. With their help, we are optimistic about our ability to implement both technical and social change in the community.

Engineering sustainable water solutions is a formidable challenge. Understanding how to balance both the social and technical challenges in an engineering problem is perhaps one of the most valuable learning experiences our team encounters. What the client – in this case the community – wants and how they’ll interface with the technology is just as important as our own notions of what will best work for them. It is unfortunately common in development work to misunderstand the nature of the problem and to not ask enough questions, addressing only the symptoms of a problem rather than the route cause. In our case, that would look like blindly walking into the implementation stage and increasing water supply without asking questions about how the water is being used and where it’s ending up. Much of the cause in fact lies in management practices within the system. But luckily, we were diligent enough in asking these questions, holding numerous Water Committee meetings, walking to 85 plus community members’ houses to inquire about water use practices, and inspecting numerous key points in the water system itself. Diligent enough that we feel like we have at least some grasp on what’s happening to El Cajuil’s water.

It is important to try to understand not just the technical but the social, economic, and political underpinnings of a project, and doing this requires extensive communication with all stakeholders. We plan to continue a strong dialogue with the community to gather additional data and to make sure they remain active participants in the planning of project implementation. With their help, we hope to move forward working to understand El Cajuil’s water habits and needs as we begin designing our project for next summer’s implementation trip, learning more and more about engineering and development as we go.

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