Posted by: davesnewadventure | May 31, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere and not a drop to drink

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Dave’s New Adventure: Adventures From the South American Continent: 03/2007

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to DrinkMap of the location of Huancayo, Peru.

It started the morning I went to wash my hands after taking a dump. When I turned the faucet on, only to discover there was no water pressure, and no water, I snapped. I walked back to the bathroom and remembered a vital lesson from my years in Bolivia. Volunteering only works when the people you’re helping actually want to help themselves and become independent. Most importantly, it helps when both parties have a finite expectation of what will be accomplished.

The author with Michel Sakamoto, a sansei, near the Central Plaza. Japanese and chinese ethnicities have a long history in Peru, and unlike the USA, there's no real distinction between ethnic groups. They're just peruvians.

Two days before, I arrived in Huancayo to greet my friend, Anthony, and to travel with him to Huaraz. Anthony had one more week to go in his volunteer work, so I stayed with him and the host family for that week. On the first day that I arrived, Anthony informed me about his diet with the host family, which consisted primarily of rice, potatoes, and eggs. Obviously he was sick of this, and I wanted to cook my own food. Being familiar with my family’s cooking, he eagerly agreed to help me with the dish, which was my younger brother’s body builder soy protein barbecue. While we cooked, he educated me on the oddities of the host family’s water system.

Anthony and the host father share a laugh while cooking.

Huancayo had the most erratic water system I’d ever observed in a developing country, and I’ve been in 11. The public utility was erratic in its water supply and notably, pressure. Also, in a paradox of logic, the utility actually had less water available during the rainy season. The explanation for this was that the river water became turbulent, and full of silt, which made water treatment difficult, resulting in chronic water shortages. The public situation obviously was something the family couldn’t solve, which we accepted. To compensate for the water shortage, the father put a large 280 liter water tank on top of the home. However, the poor design of the home’s water system made a difficult situation worse. The house was built by the family’s father, and the house water system was poorly designed and implemented. Attached to the house line was a line for a bakery, and another shop. Both shops were on the ground level, below the house, which was on the second floor. Because they connected to the house line, they drained the pressure even further. As for the water tank, even though it was the highest structure, it was sealed off with a valve, only to be opened in the evenings when there was no water supply, and the kitchen relied on the open system. Not surprisingly, there were days when there was no water at all because the kitchen, and the shops were open simultaneously.

On my second day, taking note of the problem, I asked questions and made some observations into the system. When I gathered enough data, I drew up a simple proposal to both resolve the problem of the water pressure, and to provide the family with an alternate supply of water as a supplement. The moment I committed myself, I crashed into the same brick wall of bone headed stubbornness that Anthony was smacking into for a month. In that week, I went through his experience in a microcosm.

The solution was simple, cheap, and elegantly engineered. It was something I saw in my grandfather’s house in a poor village in Vietnam. My grandfather’s roof caught rain water, and channeled it into a well in the ground. An electric pump then moved the water to a gravity tank high above the house, thus providing him and my aunt with a consistent, reliable, water supply 24/7. My design was even simpler. It consisted of a simple lean-to roof built out of plastic or aluminum corrugated roofing, which channeled water into a 50 gallon drum, which was connected to the house water supply. That only solved 50% of the problem. The other problem was the water pressure, which was resolved by putting the public line to the 280 liter tank, and connecting the house line directly to the tank. The tank would function as a gravity tank, and that would allow them to have consistent water pressure. Altogether, the system cost 100 sols, or 33 dollars to fix. It was cheap, simple, and easy to do, but only if they’d do it.

Alas, human nature can be a bitch. I drew up the plan, with design specs, colored 3D drawings, budget, and write up, and I first pitched it to his wife. I figured my easy going charm with women would work in my favor by gaining her support. She loved the plan. I then bid my time for when the father would return, and went with Anthony to meet the volunteer coordinator, Aldo, whom he had some issues with regarding his volunteer work. I left the plan on the table, hoping the father would read it. When we came back, the father was up late in the kitchen. Or, more likely, pensive with hurt pride that I’d resolved his water problem.

Our conversation at first seemed positive, and he did read the plan. I was ecstatic, because I felt it would help the family, and it was a cool project that I would be happy to work on with them… until the grand standing began. At first, the father asked questions that I though were normal. After all, any plan should be questioned before implementation to see if it’s sound, but soon the questions became stranger, and soon they started to sound like denials.

David, why can’t we connect both tanks, so that the public water supply will fill them both?
I want to build a well and sell the water, but the public utility won’t permit me too.
What about the shops? Where will they draw water from?
Sure we’ll do it. You know, I’ve thought about this problem for a long time.
Why do we have to put the public line to the tank?

I looked at Anthony as I noticed the stream of questions and comments appeared more like a stream of excuses. I went to sleep, feeling disappointed, and I wondered what the priorities of the family were. And then it was the day after, when I tried to wash my hands after a dump, and there was no water pressure, that my patience snapped. Here was a family with a DVD player, and a computer, yet without a consistent and reliable water supply. This wasn’t just a reflection on the family. Here was a city, a big, major city, with high mountains on all sides, and yet there was no reservoir, no gravity tank, nothing, while a small community a few hundred kilometers away maintained several small reservoirs and canals to feed the town with consistent water. Such things like clean, 24/7 water, refrigeration, and general cleanliness took a backseat to status, money, appearances, and prestige.

It was difficult for us to comprehend. I made a comment on how the Vietnamese and Bolivians were poorer than the Peruvians, and they managed to have running, consistent, water, as well as refrigeration. What was the father’s reply?

We’re a little stupid here.

We’re a little stupid here? What kind of an excuse was that? As the father continued to talk about more ridiculous, grand schemes based on my design, I got the gut feeling that water was not a priority. Neither was cleanliness, as the family didn’t seem to shower on a regular basis. Come to think of it, I don’t ever remember them taking a shower during the week I was there. Cleanliness wasn’t a priority, and Anthony had consistent problems with diarrhea for a month. Before him, two Canadians stayed with the family, and they also had problems. I avoided the family’s food, and both Anthony and I were meticulous in cleaning up, so my bowel movements were normal. Usually the body adapts to new conditions in two weeks, but to lose weight and have diarrhea for a month indicated a major problem with sanitation.

Cooking Polary, an indian/west indian dish, which is part of Anthony's family cuisine. 10 of these will knock you out, they're so heavy.

Anthony is really happy cooking pancakes, a dish we haven't had in months.

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The last experience that disturbed me was observing the so called “volunteer” organization that Anthony signed up with. A major problem in Latin America is the use of “volunteer” organizations for personal gain. Local organizations manipulated naïve, well meaning people into donating their time and money into front shops which then used the money to raise their status and prestige. It happens all the time. A local creates a front shop, advertises “volunteer opportunities” on the web or in hostels, with an upfront cost to pay for room and board, and maybe Spanish lessons. Often, foreigners would work on their behalf, and raise money overseas to benefit the organization, and little to none of the money is used to aid the benefactors, ie. poor kids, communities, etc. Often, to validate an organization, foreigners would send representatives to check on them, and the locals would set up a guise operation to fool the reps. That works for at most, a few days to a week, which is often the amount of time the reps spent to inspect an “non-profit” organization. Anthony caught on to the operation in about two weeks. He noted how the “organization” was severely disorganized, especially for a non profit that was supposedly operating for five years. A staff of 4 people performed useless administrative tasks, there was no plan, no surveys, and even the applications were poorly worded in English. For me, it was most evident when I went with him to monitor the soccer classes he gave to impoverished kids. While he was there, several sacks of donated soccer balls disappeared. I later to found out that soccer balls weren’t the only things to disappear.

Anthony demonstrates ball control in the soccer pitch.

When I got to the field, I noticed that despite receiving several thousand dollars in donations from a pair of Canadians who worked on their behalf, there was no water available for the kids. No water? All it took was two dollars of a portion of that thousand to provide water each day. Instead, the kids, aged 10-12 were begging us to give them water. I watched Anthony train the boys, and his frustration grew with the group’s lack of discipline. When the opportunity arose, I interceded. Two kids quarreled; I broke them up, and punished them by making them do pushups with me. Percy, a local and assistant coach, observed my actions, and asked me to teach them exercises. I smiled a wicked grin at the request.

Sure I said.

The author disciplines the boys with pushups.

I come from a long history of tough discipline, where most of my martial arts instructors were tough, strict, penalizing, and upstanding black men. They were military drill sergeants in karate or kung fu uniforms. I was determined to faithfully maintain that noble tradition, and honor my masters by disciplining these little squirts.

Alright! From this moment on, you are all mine. I want to make this clear right now. I am not your friend. I am not your teacher. I am your daddy. Is that understood?
Yes came a meek reply.
I said, is that understood?!
Good! Anyone who fails to do these exercises will receive a grievous penalty, and I will execute it. Is that understood?
Goood. Let’s get started.
I put them through 100 squats, 50 situps, leg-lifts, run and pushup, pushups, leg ups, the works. I tortured them, and I loved every moment of it. When they whined, and called me “abusive”, I barked at them and made them do more pushups. I was determined to make these kids into little men. And you know what? It worked. When I raised the bar of expectation, and made them suffer, and did the exercises with them, they immediately knew I expected them to perform to my standard, and they did it. At the end of the day, I taught them my favorite childhood physical activity, a rough house game called British Bulldogs that I used to play with my troop. It was a combination of tag you’re it with hard tackling. They loved it, and when we were about to leave, the kids begged us to stay. I told them to remember us by doing the exercises, and to continue playing the game.
In that day, I realized that the lack of expectation was the real problem. Sure, there was corruption and apathy, but having some kind of expectation of results mitigates that. Expectation is simply the foresight of what you will do, and at what level. Because there was no expectation, there were no results. Add the lack of priorities to it, and the end result was the city of Huancayo. When it came to the volunteers, no one had any real expectations from them, and the end result was a local populace who only cared about receiving money and aid, but without learning to strengthen themselves. For the volunteers, the end resulted in a frustrated bunch. As for me, when I last volunteered, I worked as a marketing consultant with some Peace Corps workers in a microeconomic project, which, not surprisingly, fell through due to the lack of expectation. I concluded since then that at least with business development projects, where both parties have a vested interest, expectations were usually higher, as well as transparent. So, I chose to stick with business development… and no more water projects.

The Author hard at work making food that doesn’t make you run for the bathroom in Huancayo, Peru

Come sign up for the Dave’s New Adventures Newsletter, where we can update you on the latest in Dave’s adventures in the world, technology, and geopolitics. Put yourself ahead of world events with events and analysis that the mainstream, and even the fringe isn’t even reporting!

Come listen to David talk about his Adventures, and World Economic Financial Crises, and what it means for you. “Cashflow with James Martinez” about his new book, Jackfruit: A Bicycle Quest Through Latin America, and to learn more about David’s adventures and observations in Latin America.

A short clip about coming into Huancayo, and a little bit about Michel Sakamoto


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