Posted by: aviloewenstein | October 24, 2012

Impressions of my first trip to Waslala

I joined Imagethe board of Water for Waslala in the Fall of 2010, and after two years and many hours of hard work on behalf of the organization, I figured it was finally time to make the long trip to Waslala. One of the ironies of modern day travel is that we can travel far across the earth, yet our bodies do not physically move from one or two spots all day. Unfortunately, the trip to Waslala is an exception – while the plane trip to Managua is typical, the final 3 hours of the 7 hour journey from Managua to Waslala are spent on a steep and jarring jeep road, making the journey both mentally and physically exhausting. Upon arriving in Waslala, I felt as though I had traveled every inch of the 3,000 miles from Denver. This is all to say that Waslala is a remote part of our world, separated from a metropolitan center by almost a day’s travel. Few places in America can claim the same.

Waslala refers both to the city of Waslala and the surrounding 90 or so communities scattered around the adjacent mountains. Seeing the people and places I knew only through phone calls, emails and pictures felt a bit like meeting a pen pal for the first time, or seeing the movie of a book you’ve read. Waslala is hot and humid, but exceptionally beautiful. If the trip to Waslala wasn’t such a nightmare, ecotourism would abound, with hiking, zip lines and rafting trips; instead it is a place untouched by tourism. In contrast to the outlying communities where we build water systems, the city of Waslala is a bit more affluent than I had expected – the abundant cell phone stores indicate that the residents do have some disposable income, though the awful infrastructure and decaying wood-built houses are a reminder that this is an area of tremendous poverty.

Water for Waslala has a valued partnership with the engineering and nursing schools of Villanova University, and my trip coincided with a visit of a group of engineering undergrads who use the trip to study the design and construction of our gravity-fed water systems. The purpose of my trip was to see the people and the places, as well as assist in the construction of the water systems, though it is the communities themselves who are responsible for building the systems. As an organization working in a region that witnessed some of the most intense fighting in Nicaragua’s civil war between the US-backed Contras and the ruling Sandinistas, we are cognizant of the “white savior industrial complex” as it is known, and have structured our organization and our solutions to thoughtfully address the complex and difficult context of Waslala. As described in our annual report, we provide the materials and technical expertise needed to construct gravity-fed water systems, but each community that applies for a water system must form a management committee, raise at least 5% of the system cost for its maintenance fund before construction begins, and create written rules governing the management and use of the system. Waslalans are also in charge of constructing the system (with technical help provided) and maintaining it with their own personnel and funding. Water for Waslala helps the Waslalans achieve their own water-related goals by facilitating community organizations and providing materials, engineering expertise, and health and environmental education.

During my week in Waslala we visited three projects – Yaro Central, a system very close to completion, Acote Cubali, a system still in its design phase, and Santa María Kubal, the rehabilitation and extension of a system we built in 2006. In both Yaro Central and Santa Maria Kubal, we helped oversee and build two stream crossings that would permit the systems to be extended across two streams. To ensure their longevity and safety, the designs are technical – there is lots of graph paper involved and I kept hearing words like “abney” and “frictional losses,” which to a non-engineer are as perplexing as English is to the Waslalans. I contributed where I could, recreating my summer in Alaska by digging part of a trench and moving rocks, although calling my contribution slight is an exaggeration.

Acote Cubali is one of the more remote communities in Waslala. While the treacherous roads through Waslala get pretty close to many of the communities, the first homes in Acote Cubali are a solid hour’s hike from the road on poorly constructed horse trails. Our task for the day was to do a topographic survey of a branch of the system off the “main line,” which required hiking another 2 hours to some of the furthest homes in the community. As we mapped out the system and how it would be routed from home to home, the residents of the community acted as our guides. While we were slugging through dense jungle and steep slopes taking measurements, our project manager, Iain Hunt, became concerned the branch was becoming too long, which was not only too expensive, but not mechanically sound. The residents wanted the branch to extend to a group of three homes further down the valley, but after hiking and measuring almost a mile, it seemed that the homes were simply too far, and Iain instructed the group to stop taking measurements. The realization that the branch might not reach the three homes caused visible angst and frustration among the residents. As a corporate lawyer, I’ve experienced many difficult conversations with our clients and had to deliver plenty of bad news, but this was markedly different: in the balance stood a fundamental human necessity. Thankfully, after descending down closer to the main line, we realized that it is very possible to reach the homes from another branch of the system, and we relayed the good news. Iain and a team will have to return to ensure its feasibility, but knowing that it is likely that the system can reach the homes is incredibly relieving.

Despite dutifully following the advice of the travel doctor I visited before the trip and avoiding untreated water and raw vegetables, I became quite ill for about 24 hours in the middle of my trip. I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that I think I now know what an all juice cleansing diet does to the system, and am not interested in repeating the experience. I think getting sick drove home for me the importance of our work here; Waslalans too get sick from the food and water, and the lack of access to medical professionals and facilities (not to mention the Ciprofloxacin that saved me) only increases the urgency of our work.

One final thought: On Sunday in Waslala we attended a quasi-religious “celebration” that involved lots of music and signing. One of the community members gave a sermon of sorts, and discussed the importance of helping others in need, no matter how much one can give. He asked the group of Americans why we come down to Waslala to help. The answers were predictable: we have an obligation to help those less fortunate; helping others restores our faith in humanity and heals our souls; helping fulfills our religious obligations, etc. These are all good reasons, and true, but for me the most compelling reason is that of necessity: if we do not provide Waslalans access to clean water, it is unlikely that anyone will. While the local municipal government is well intentioned, they wholly lack the resources and expertise needed. The Catholic church had been doing wonderful social work here, but a recent organizational change resulted in the church eliminating essentially all of their social programs. Moreover, there are virtually no other NGOs in Waslala focusing on water issues. Although I can’t explain how it has come to this, access to clean water for most of the 56,000 Waslalans now depends on Water for Waslala, a U.S. non-profit located some 3,000 miles away. We’re committed to continuing and scaling our work, and I hope that you’ll continue to support us and help us achieve our goal of sustainably providing clean water to all 56,000 Waslalans.

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