Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Agua Yaku well drilling trip to an Ayoreo village near San Jose de Chiquitos

Warren and I just returned from an exploratory well drilling trip to a small Ayoreo community near San Jose de Chiquitos in the Chiquitano region of Santa Cruz called Familia Unida Ayorea, or FUA for short. In English the name means United Ayoreo Family. The community is also called Nueva Jerusalen (New Jerusalem) by the local mestizo population. SAM (South American Mission) missionaries have been working with the Ayoreo for several decades in Bolivia. Ken Massey, a SAM missionary working in FUA, shared with us the problem of water scarcity in the area. This part of the Chiquitania is in dry forest ecoregion. The area is covered in short scrubby trees and it does not rain much at all compared to the nearby Amazon rain forest. Even worse there is almost no surface water such as rivers, lakes, or springs. Any useable water in this area will come from either wells or rainwater catchment. Most of the Chiquitania region is covered by an escarpment of granite called the Brazilian shield. Simply put, it is impossible for us to drill through the Brazilian shield with our drilling method. The only practical way to drill through the rock is with a large cable-tool drill rig. A local driller in San Jose charges $90 a meter to drill in the area and estimates that a well in this community would need to be at least 130 meters deep. A quick calculation yields a cost of $12,000—well beyond the budget or Agua Yaku or the community. We have had some success in the Chiquitania drilling shallow wells, say 15 to 25 meters that sit on top of the Brazilian shield and collect water in an aquifer on top of the rock. We didn't know what we would find in FUA, but it was our hope that we could drill an inexpensive shallow well that would produce enough water with a hand pump to supply the community.

FUA is a community of about 50 people that recently broke off from Santa Teresita, a neighboring Ayoreo community. The Bolivian government has given land concessions to all indigenous people groups in Bolivia. Unfortunately, most concessions are in marginally productive or isolated regions of the country, making it difficult and to scratch out a living. Santa Teresita, located in a 22,000 hectare Ayoreo reserve, was originally set up by the Catholic church. I have not visited Santa Teresita so I do not know anything about the history of the community. The SAM missionaries said that in order to avoid further conflict, the evangelical Christians who were living in Santa Teresita decided to leave and begin their own community. They chose to settle on top of a hill, seven kilometers up an old logging road from the highway. They chose the site because the forest wasn't too thick, making clearing the land for farming a bit easier. One critical need they did not consider was water. Maybe 500 meters from the community a small arroyo channels water during heavy rains, but it does not run even intermittently most of the year. The community attempted to dig a collecting pool in one of the depressions. They were able to collect a bit of muddy water, but it soon became the gathering place for local wild pigs and was too impossibly filthy to even consider drinking. The only other ways they have been able to get water into the community is by paying to have it trucked it in from other communities, or by collecting rainwater from the couple of tin roofs in the village. When water is trucked in they can store it in a 1000 liter plastic tank they have on the ground. The SAM mission is helping build a church and the local government is building small brick school. The family dwellings are made of local materials—sticks, rough timber slabs, palm thatch roofs, etc. When we visited the community the plastic tank was empty and there appeared to be almost no water in the community. Leading health organizations estimate that people need a minimum of 25 liters of clean water per day. Anything below this is considered water poverty. Surviving on the minimum standards, FUA should be consuming more than 1250 liters (more than one tank) per day. Now, they are doing well if they can fill the tank once a week. Just to put this in perspective, the average person in the U.S. consumes 600 liters of water each day. If FUA were populated by Americans, we would need 30 tanks of water a day.

Agua Yaku traveled to FUA with our manual drilling rig on the slim hope that we could drill a shallow well and install a hand pump that would at least increase water availability for this community. We set up the drilling rig on an embankment just above where the community had dung the water pit in the arroyo. Several dozen adults and children from the community, Agua Yaku, and SAM enthusiastically carried equipment, tools, and water down to the site. After several hours of hard work drilling through clay and thin layers of sand we hit hard rock at about five meters. Sadly, five meters is not deep enough to install a hand pump and the layers of sand where too thin to collect water through the filter. On the surface it may have seemed like a failed attempt at drilling a well, but we actually gained valuable knowledge about the geology of the area and now the community can proceed with plans for a deeper well, confident in the knowledge that a less expensive practical alternative for subterranean water does not exist. The alcaldea, local government, has promised to drill a deep well in FUA. The only question is whether this is an empty promise, or if it will actually be completed in the near future. It would not be a wise use of resources for missionaries to invest $12,000 in a privately drilled well if the government already has funds designated for the same project. We recommended that SAM invest a smaller amount in the construction of tin roofs and rainwater catchment systems for the church, the school, and each family dwelling in the community. This could supply a good portion of the communities water needs, and could be supplemented with water brought in by truck during the drier months. Perhaps in the coming months or years the alcaldea will come through with the promised deep well.

We returned to FUA the following day to clean up the drilling site and collect our equipment. First we met with the school teacher, the kids, and as many adults as were around to train them on how to disinfect their drinking water using the SODIS method. SODIS (which stands for SOlar DISinfection) is a simple way to insure safe drinking water using two liter plastic soda bottles and the sun. We explained that by simply filling two liter bottles with water and setting them in the sun for one day, ultraviolet radiation and heat will kill 100% of the organisms (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) that can make you sick. It is essentially the same as boiling water, but does not require fuel for the fire and is safer and easier than boiling water. As long as the bottles are sealed after they have been in the sun for a day, the water will remain safe until it is consumed. SODIS gives people who do not have access to safe drinking water an inexpensive and convenient way to improve their water quality. Even if they collect surface water from rivers, streams, ponds, etc., SODIS can assure them they are drinking clean water. If the water is turbid (muddy), they can pour it through a simple bio-sand filter and then treat it with SODIS. Even though rainwater may be clean when it falls from the sky, it can become contaminated as it sits in open barrels and is transferred with dirty containers and utensils. If people with suspect water sources learn to rigorously use SODIS to treat their drinking water they can greatly reduce the number of water-borne illnesses. To help put unsafe drinking water in global perspective, unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of all diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Worldwide, 42,000 deaths occur every week from unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions. Children are the most vulnerable—90% of water-related deaths occur among children under five years old. Encouragingly, most of these deaths are preventable. Studies have shown that clean water alone can reduce water-related deaths by 21%, sanitation (proper disposal of excrement) alone can reduce water-related deaths by 37%, and hand washing alone can reduce water-related deaths by 45%. While Agua Yaku is committed to improving access to water for families and communities through drilling wells or other systems of surface water collection, we also emphasize the importance of ensuring that water sources are safe to drink, and that proper sanitation and hygiene is taught in schools, churches, and homes. SODIS is one component that we will be adding to all of our Agua Yaku training.

The Ayoreo students and parents all confirmed the importance of clean water and promised to begin treating their drinking water using the SODIS method. The teacher said she would follow up with the training and begin to promote it daily among the students. We left several dozen empty bottles and two SODIS tables with the teacher. Before the crowd disbursed we asked for a hand in dismantling the drilling rig and carrying the equipment back up to the community where we could load it on our truck. All of the adults wandered back to their homes and only a handful of small children followed us back down to the well site. We eventually got everything loaded and were soon back on the road for the six hour trip back to Santa Cruz.

To see a complete photo gallery from our trip visit:

No comments: