I used to have this idea that giving a community clean water was almost a one-stop activity. You install a purification plant, maybe do a little education about germ theory, and voilà – no one would ever drink dirty water again. People would be excited to have access to clean water and be eager to use it. I have since learned that the actual process it a lot more complicated. Last year, Fito, a local volunteer, Justin, and I went house-by-house and Chamanga to do a survey about water use and disease. And for me, the most telling result was not a number but a more qualitative finding.
“¿En el último mes, de donde obtuvo su casa agua para beber por lo menos una vez?” In English, “During the last month, where did your household obtain water for drinking at least once?” Almost invariably, people responded that they drank water from purified bidones, 20 L jugs of water that cost $1.50, and that drinking dirty water can make people sick. But when we probed a little further and gave some other options (untreated rainwater? river water?), most people qualified their answer. We drank purified water, they told us, except when we were too tired to go buy and lug a 20 L jug home or when the child was crying for water and there was only river water in the house or when the money ran out and they couldn’t afford the hefty cost of clean water. In short, everyone drank clean water sometimes, but very few people drank it all or even most of the time. And whether or not people drank clean water was not a one-time decision but rather a choice made multiple times per day.
It is easy to see why people might choose to drink dirty water if they can’t afford clean water, and that is a problem in Chamanga for many families on limited incomes. But sometimes it is hard to understand other reasons why people drink dirty water, and these are important too. Some of it is a matter of education. People generally know that dirty water can make you sick, but a lot of people in the areas we work, don’t realize that water that looks and tastes clean can make you sick. The relationship between water and illness isn’t straightforward either. You won’t get sick every time you drink water from an unreliable source, and you can get sick even if you drink clean water, especially from foodborne illnesses which are very common here. So emphasizing the key role that water plays is important in our education efforts.
It also is a question of habit. Think about the last time you were on a long car ride and stopped at a gas station for a snack. If you’re anything like me, you probably got a chocolate bar instead of a fruit cup. Maybe it was because, let’s face it, chocolate tastes really good and was right up front, compared to the healthy stuff in the back. Maybe it was because the chocolate was just $1, and you really didn’t want to shell out $3 for fruit. But we make unhealthy choices all the time for what seem like silly reasons or even no reason at all. Or take another example — do you ever skip flossing? Even though it takes all of 30 seconds and the floss is right there? Imagine if floss was as heavy as a 20L jug of water! People in Ecuador are a lot like you when they choose water – all the more reason to ensure we provide inexpensive, convenient access to water and help teach people just how important it is.
Water Ecuador’s mission in Chamanga, where we recently opened our newest plant, is to make it a little more likely that the next time people go to drink or cook with water, they will be a little more likely to choose safe water. Working with Carlos, our water center manager, I’ve had the ability to see exactly how we are spreading our message in the community. Last week, we gave people free samples of our water. They liked the taste, particularly now that we have installed a water softener to get rid of extra calcium in the water and make it taste less hard. And one shop owner even told another water provider – “Lo siento, pero Agua Chamanga es más económica.” Sorry, but Water Ecuador is more economical (our water costs $.50-$.75 compared to the usual water price of $1.25-$1.50) – and more people in a town with extremely high rates of truly desperate poverty can afford it. And when people can afford it, it is more likely that they will buy water when Carlos drives around the town selling jugs, more likely that they will turn to purified water when they are thirsty.
We have also been working on education efforts. With the EcoClub at the local high school, we put together a bingo game, and about 80 people (in a town of maybe 2500) came. In the middle of the bingo, we had a charla, a small informative talk. First, I talked how dirty water can make people ill even if it looks clean and tastes good and presented steps you can take to prevent waterborne disease. I also talked about the problem of water-borne illness in Chamanga, based on the results of the study we did last year. Then Justin, our Peace Corps Volunteer, explained how water is purified in our plant and how Water Ecuador operates. He told the audience that we charge only enough to cover operation costs and the salary of the plant manager, we are a foundation that is not trying to make money, and our water is less expensive because of this, not because it is of lower quality. Finally, the EcoClub members, particularly the leader José, talked about how our water is good water for the community and can help keep people healthy there. Lots of people were talking about safe water and Water Ecuador by the end of it, and the EcoClub was thrilled – we are hoping to hold another, even bigger one next Sunday – Bingo Domingo (the Spanish word for Sunday), if you will.
We are excited about community progress in Chamanga, and there are a lot of exciting developments happening at Water Ecuador this summer. Stay tuned for more volunteer updates in the next few weeks.