One week ago I left Miami with four bags filled with 200 nalgene bottles, 200 bacterial testing kits, an incubator, 200 plastic cups, an iron, and lots of other miscellaneous scientific equipment- and a change of clothes! That same evening (two taxis, two planes, a bus and boat-ride later!) I was having dinner with Water Ecuador’s President, Ecuador Heriberto Napa, his family, and fellow volunteer Alex at the Muisne water center. Alex is the other volunteer currently at Muisne, and lucky for me she speaks excellent Spanish! Heriberto’s wife, Agnes, runs a delicious comedor outside the water centre, where she teaches young people to become waiters and chefs. It’s a great place to hang out with the locals, have meetings, and work out how you’re going to transport twenty-four 20L jugs from a water treatment center two hours away to the island of Muisne (more on that later)
I came by Water Ecuador’s role of Water Systems Research Coordinator by chance; I’ve taken a year off my PhD in Water Chemistry at the University of Western Australia and have been travelling through South America since the beginning of July. But turns out I couldn’t really leave my work behind, and when I heard of Water Ecuador through some fellow travellers I thought it would be a fantastic way to contribute to a region I’ve grown to love- while hopefully improving my Spanish at the same time!
The project I am running here aims to investigate the bacterial contamination of bottled water currently being sold in the Esmeraldas region of Northern Ecuador. Many locals, aware of the poor quality of the piped or nearby untreated water sources, rely heavily on the reusable 20L jugs commonly sold for around 75c-$1 in the region. Sadly, while the water itself is treated perfectly, it is suspected that the jugs are not sterilized properly between use, and many end up contaminated with coliform bacteria.
I hadn’t really given much thought to where I would like to stay, but after an enthusiastic welcome from Heriberto’s family, I decided to accept the offer of a homestay – a decision which I don’t think I’ll ever regret! They live about a 15 minute walk from town in the campesino, and every morning we are surrounded by enthusiastic puppies, chickens, ducks, pigs, cows, and the odd horse as we leave the house. It’s quite simple, but having spent much of the past few months in a tent being able to bucket shower every day is fantastic, and every morning I am excited to see what Agnes is cooking. I had no idea there were so many ways to cook a plantain, it puts the potato to shame! As well as the water center and restaurant, Agnes and Heriberto run a drug rehabilitation center. I feel like I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my homestay!
So now to the science, we’ve had a very successful week, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we might just get this phase of the bottle contamination project done! We plan to test water from five different distributors over the course of a month and this week we have visited four water treatment centers and collected 44x20L jugs of water for testing without any issues, tomorrow we will visit the final distributor. The jugs were transported from the mainland to Muisne by camioneta (a pickup truck), boat, and one overworked moto – and with many helping hands! We’ve also got our first round of results, which is both exciting and very concerning – as it looks likely that much of the water is indeed contaminated.
Also, our meeting to get approval from the organization responsible for monitoring bottled water earlier this week went very well and we have our stamp of approval, despite my Spanish not yet being perfect! It seems my Spanish still needs some work, but luckily there’s still 6 weeks to go :). This project is progressing well, and I look forward to the weeks ahead!