Posted by: justinknabb | January 31, 2011

Transcript from Virtual Brownbag Conf. Call, part 2 of 3

In this installment of our “Virtual Brownbag” conference call from Dec. 2010, Meag Gruber focuses on the exciting installation in the El Varillal #2 community, which was completed in October 2010.  We published the first of three installments of the transcript from the call last week.  The final installment will be published next week!  As always, thanks for stopping by to read our blog… we’re so proud of this work and the progress that we and communities have made in Waslala.  We can’t make this change happen without your support!

MEAGHAN GRUBER: First I would like you to take a moment to look at this picture of a school girl and some community members enjoying the arrival of fresh, clean water to El Varillal’s school for the first time.  It’s hard to express the joy felt watching people in the community smile with pride because clean water is now accessible  – for them and for their children.  There isn’t much else more beautiful than seeing this – people gaining dignity and access to a human right that we all should have.

This is the end result from the construction in El Varillal, but as you can imagine, a lot of work went into making this happen.  I’m going to give you a general overview of that journey now.

In September 2008, community leaders from El Varillal approached the pastoral for a water system because their families didn’t access to clean water at home, nor at their local schools or chapels. Their children were typically suffering from severe health problems, especially diarrhea and parasitosis, and many families spent several hours a day fetching contaminated water for drinking and cooking.

In response to these requests, Virginia and I began to hold meetings in the community to identify a solution that would bring clean water to El Varillal. The people of El Varillal knew of a natural spring in the mountains above the community neighborhoods and houses that could potentially be used to supply clean water to the community schools, parishes and neighborhoods.  Virginia and I took several steps: We collaborated with community leaders about the design; We conducted necessary surveys; We worked on house and community contracts; We discussed the work schedule for construction; and We emphasized the importance of having a community savings account to ultimately ensure sustainability of the system.

After we worked with the community to identify their needs, we collaborated with the Waslalan municipal government and the Villanova Engineering Department to design the water system. The designs were spearheaded by Moises, an expert engineer who has been working in Waslala for over a decade on potable water projects. Jordan Ermilio, who is one of Villanova’s engineers and WfW’s Director of Water system engineering, was also an instrumental leader throughout the design process.

While the system was being designed, we hired a professional surveyor named Santiago to come to collect data from each of the 48 households in El Varillal regarding the amount of time each family spends collecting water each day, the health effects from drinking unclean water, and other socio-economic data. The purpose of collecting this information is to measure how the construction of the wáter system changes social well-being: how much time families save per day by having clean water at home and at school, how waterborne illnesses are reduced, and possibly even how educational outcomes and economic productivity increases as well.

Santiago will return to El Varillal in about March or April 2011 to collect similar data, which will be used to quantify the impact of our work on the lives of the people of El Varillal.

Once the designs and surveys were complete, WfW wired the funds needed to purchase the materials to Waslala. I purchased the materials with Denis, our Waslala general contractor, and the materials were shipped via truck out to the community.

After buying the materials in town, we arrange for a secure place to drop off materials in the community.  The El Varillal project took five round trips with the truck from Waslala to the community about 25 miles away for the material drop-off – though close to 4 hours roundtrip as the roads are filled with potholes.

As you can see in this slide, during delivery, we ran into a little hitch when one truck went off the road.  The community worked together to rebuild the road – the younger men in the community were sweating for hours in the 90-degree heat that day.  We ran out of water, too, which made us all more motivated to overcome this obstacle.  What we thought would be a 4 hour delivery one Sunday turned out to take 12 hours.  This is one small example of the initiative the people of El Varillal took to realize their dream – having clean water in their community.

Once the materials were delivered, the community began donating their time to work on the construction of the system. Community members worked together with Denis, our general contractor, for over a two-month period to complete the construction of the system.
The community members first constructed a spring intake, which collects water from the natural spring serving the community.

This picture shows the starting point of the El Varillal system, taken at the source of clean water emerging from the ground.  You can see community members working here on the construction of system.  All the rocks you can see in this slide were carried by hand or by mule (1 or 2 at a time due to the weight) up to the source – about a 20 minute walk from the community center.

The community brought over 50 buckets of sand up to the source for cement… as well as hundreds of rocks.  This work is incredibly back-breaking, but the community worked long days knowing that the eventual goal was worth it.  Men, women and children alike came out to help, all knowing  that the whole community was really going to benefit.

By September the system source looked like this—enclosed to protect the source, and to keep foreign matter such as animal waste from getting into the water.

In this slide you can see community members excavating the land to later lay the piping. Water travels downhill through the power of gravity from the spring to the community through buried PVC pipes.  The community members dug the 1.4km of trench and laid all of the pvc pipe themselves.  As you can imagine, this is also back-breaking work.

This next photo shows you the community working on the storage tank, and also gives you a stunning view of Waslala from this outlook.  On the right and in the blue hat is Denis, who oversaw the system construction.

The storage tank is located further down the mountain from the spring.  This is where the water is stored until someone turns on the faucet in their home or at the community’s central tapstand.

This last one is especially cool, hopefully on your screens you can see how the community members left their mark in the cement for generations to come.

In the next slide you can see Denis working on the stream crossing in El Varillal.  Stream crossings in a region like this are notoriously difficult to construct, yet are so critical to a project’s long term sustainability. For this reason we wanted to ensure that we had a solid design as well as guidance from Moises during the process.

To transport the water across the stream, Denis hung a suspension cable on two concrete beams located on each side of the stream. Then Denis hung a set of galvanized pipes below the suspension cable using a set of steel supports.

Finally, Denis worked with the community to build the tapstands at the school and near homes in the neighborhoods. Each tapstand consists of a faucet reinforced by a concrete support.

Here is the central tapstand of the community located at this community school.  This stand has a concrete floor with drainage to prevent stagnant water from building up underneath the faucet. This drainage prevents disease-carrying mosquitos from breeding near the tapstand.

In El Varillal, seven tapstands were created – this one and six more for individual houses located near the central distribution line. In total, the El Varillal water system directly benefits 120 Waslalans with a constant supply of clean drinking water. The system was completed in October 2010.

To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing the smiles and excitement on everyone’s faces after the installation of a new system in the community.  These working tapstands equate to healthier lives, easier lives, more free time for work and study.  Here are people that live on about $1-2 per day, and the overwhelming consensus is that this  project fills the most important and essential of all their basic human needs for survival.  Sometimes I found myself unable to respond to the outpouring of love and appreciation.  But, Waslala taught me that too – how to take it in, smile, love, and know that together we can do some great work.

One person that really struck me from the beginning of construction to the end was Don Jesus, the vice-president of the Water Committee in the community.  Here he is working hard on the storage tank– I just wish I have a better picture with him on my computer. He is a super friendly guy with a great sense of humor.

Don Jesus always invited us into his home when we arrived to meetings… there we’d find heaping plates of beans, cheese, fresh tortillas, hot coffee and a chair to sit in after our hike.  He has beautiful young children and his 10-yr-old boy, Eduardo, often went out with the men on weekends to help out with the project.  Their family was one of many in this community that benefited so much from this new system.

Don Jesus and his wife used to start each day walking several kilometers at times to fetch water… water just to drink, to clean their clothes, and to cook… on top of that his children frequently became sick from drinking polluted, muddy water. The moment clean water first came through the main tapstand in El Varillal, life literally changed for Don Jesus overnight.

How did it change?  The health of Don Jesus, his wife and children has dramatically improved.  Also, since his children are getting sick less often, they present and focused more often at school and are achieving higher results.   And Don Jesus’ wife and children now save hours each day since they no longer have to haul water from contaminated local streams – time that can now be spent on other productive activities.

Thinking of even just this one family and how WfW has impacted them makes me so proud.



  1. […] final thoughts on her time spent working with Water for Waslala.  We published the first and second installments on our blog over the past two weeks, which you can view by clicking on the links.  […]

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