Sunday, January 31, 2010

Water works

2010 feels to me to be off to a flying start. In fact, I´m having trouble believing January is already past us by and we´re on to February, Presidents´ Day and Black History month, a fine combination in these historic times. I´m living in sort of a news vacuum down here which is in some ways a blessing, since I´m spared all of the venomous bleating that comes with following our national politics, but I read a reprint of Obama´s innaugaration speech in an old volunteer newsletter the other day and these lines really grabbed me:

¨To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds...

I do love that corny idealism, and although I´m stretching it a bit, keeping the clean waters flowing in my little community of Bahia Azul has been my main focus in recent weeks. Most of the homes get drinking water from our aquaduct, which is just a system of PVC pipes that brings water down through the community from a little stream up in the forested hills well above us.

At least that´s what happens when the system is working. But at least once a week it seems the taps run dry and people revert to scrounging up water from little contaminated creeks that run through town or from ¨pozos¨, shallow, hand-dug wells. Part of my job here is to work with the local water committee and the operator to improve their management of the system, and to look for ways to get water to more of the community. So I´ve been mapping the water lines, and working alongside the operator to trouble shoot and repair problems when we wake up without water.

A lot of times people here will leave the area for days at at time, either to work distant farmed lands up in the hills, or to take short-term paying jobs, or to visit family elsewhere in the area, or it seems, they just disappear for a while. And so it was with our aquaduct operator, who left town for a couple of weeks without prior notice. So when the water predictably went out several times during his absence, I was hailed by expectant townsfolk with a plaintive, ¨Tolichi, no hay aqua!¨So I´d pack up some tools and hike up the lines looking for the breakdown, which usually turned out to be where a wandering cow had stepped on the pipe and broken it or kicked open an unglued joint. I´ve always kind of enjoyed plumbing, and I´ve learned a few neat campo pipe fitting tricks, like how to make a coupling by softening the end of a scrap of old pipe over a fire and then jamming it onto another pipe to form a bell. The result tends to be ugly, and you don´t want to inhale while doing it, but if done carefully, it can work as well as the store-bought version. Although being the village plumber is not my intended role here, and not the kind of sustainable development Peace Corps tries to promote, I do feel like I´ve gained credibility and some political capital by being able to restore the water supply. Not to mention it just feels good to come sloshing back into town, soaked with mud and sweat, and have kids and old women happily call out from their windows,¨Ya hay agua. Grácias Tolichi!¨
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