By: Max Woody, Vice President, Tulane EWB-USA
This past week Tulane Engineers Without Borders made its inaugural international trip. After months of planning, three students, Quentin Boose, Briley Bourgeois, and Max Woody traveled along with Professor Brad Moore to the village of Laquigo, Ecuador to assess the ongoing struggle for water within the community. Here is a first-hand account of the week:
When we arrived in Quito we were not really sure what to expect, and were just hoping that we would be able to find our driver. We were warmly greeted at the gate by Laura, an incredibly helpful advocate for the Laquigo community, and Soledad our enthusiastic translator. As we drove, we were given a crash course in Ecuador’s lengthy history, diverse geography, rich culture, and much more. We passed dozens of massive greenhouses used to grow roses to export around the world. We passed snow-capped volcanos: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua. Finally we reached Ambato.
After a brief rest, we met with Wilman, the head of the “Junta Administradora de Agua Potable de Laquigo”. They insisted upon showing us around Ambato. We visited “El Parque Juan Montalvo” named for the 19th century writer from Ambato, which lies right across the street from Ambato’s most recognizable cathedral. And we tried “Colada Morada” a delicious warm berry drink that is traditionally drunk on November 2nd to honor the dead on All Souls Day. It was clear right from the beginning that the people we met were so excited to share their food, their culture, and their country with us.
The next day it was time to get to work. On our first visit to Laquigo, it seemed like the whole community came out to see us. As we stood around and talked to leaders of the village, more and more people came up to add their thoughts, or just to stop and listen. During our discussions we gained a better picture of why Laquigo’s water supply was in such a dire position.
Laquigo is a town of 2,400 people located just 15 minutes outside of Ambato. However, between 2000 and 2016 the population of Laquigo had tripled. Their water supply can no longer serve their growing population. Though Laquigo has a water distribution system in place, without enough supply the system helps no one. Furthermore, there are over 100 residences who do not have access to the system. This means there are hundreds of people taking water from the ditches for all their needs– including bathing, cooking, and drinking.
As we traced the route that water takes throughout Laquigo we saw their two 50 m3 storage tanks, which are never more than half full, and are often empty by noon during the dry season. Here we also looked at how the water is treated. Laquigocurrently uses chlorine from packages of salt once a day to kill any harmful bacteria in the water.
After this, we traveled ‘upstream’ to see how the water gets to these tanks. The pipes precariously cross several ravines and pass through multiple other towns where water is diverted. As we learned, Laquigo is the last village using this shared pipe system. These leaves them at the mercy of the other villages upstream. When those upstream need more water, Laquigo gets less and less. Our challenge then is not only to increase the water that gets to Laquigo, but to make sure Laquigo’s access to their water cannot be cut off by other villages. So the next day we went to see the water at its source.
To get to the source we drove high up into the mountains. From there we parked the van and hiked down into a valley to find the “fuentes.” When we started, we were in a high mountain desert. We were surrounded by shrubs and grasses on the winding narrowpath. Over the hour long hike to the bottom our surroundings gradually changed. We started seeing trees. It got warmer, and more humid. And by the bottom it seemed like we were in a jungle. In this jungle there are several locations were water seeps through the ground. The clouds condense on the vegetation and water from higher up gathers in small pools. These are the “fuentes” that provide water to thousands of people. We examined several of these sources, some currently in use and some that are not yet being used. We took water samplesfrom these sources to bring back and test. On the way back up we quickly found out the difference 10,000 ft. of elevation can make, especially coming from New Orleans where we are below sea level. We reached the top tired, and out of breath, but with a much better picture of the challenges ahead.
Our third day was all about filling in the gaps in our knowledge. In meetings with village leaders we discussed ownership rights of the existing system, population projections for the future, how thegovernment awards water to different groups of people and which approvals are needed and more. We also went to see more of the intermediate steps in the pipeline, after the sourcebut before it reaches Laquigo. Here we learned about some additional problems with their system. As the population has grown, more water sources have been added to the system. But the pipe sizes have not been increased. With too much pressure in their pipes, they have been forced to make “designed leaks” in order to keep the system working. This is a huge waste of resources in a place where water is already scarce. This was added to the list of problems we hope to address. We spent the remainder of the day obtaining the technical drawings of the current system, and looking over maps of the area. With those, and with the pictures we had taken of the various sites we visited we can now trace the entire route the water takes, from its source in the mountains to the homes in Laquigo.
Before we knew it, it was time to go home. But in our short time there the community of Laquigo made a lasting impression on all of us. Everyone we met was immediately trying to help us with whatever we needed. Some villagers made us an incredible traditional meal, including soup, corn, beans, several kinds of potatoes, homemade fruit drinks and cuy—guinea pig. Though we spoke different languages, we were able to tell stories, share ideas, and laugh with the people of Laquigo. By the end of the week even Briley “water is agua, right?” Bourgeois was ordering meals and asking questions in Spanish. It was an amazing trip that I’m sure none of us will forget.
The problems facing Laquigo are complex and multifaceted. Between local political rivalries, obtaining government approval to tap into water sources, transporting the water with pipes winding through the mountains, treating the water to make it safe for consumption, and distributing the water to the entirety of the community, there is a lot of work to be done. Nevertheless, we are more confident than ever that we can help this community, and make a permanent impact on thousands of people’s lives.
If you would like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us. Whether you can donate monetarily, have ideas or expertise that could help us, or just want to talk, we would love to hear from you.
Cash and Checks:
School of Science and Engineering
201 Lindy Boggs
6823 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70112