Digging into Peru’s past brings water into the present

 
May 08, 2009
Students, with community members from Ciudad de Dios, Peru, line pipe trenches with sand to protect the pipes in the water distribution system.

Students, with community members from Ciudad de Dios, Peru, line pipe trenches with sand to protect the pipes in the water distribution system.

Water now flows to the homes of many families in a small village in the Moche Valley in northern Peru, thanks to the help of members of the Daniel A. Okun chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Brian Billman, PhD, UNC associate professor of anthropology, has worked for a decade in Ciudad de Dios, digging remains from a settlement of the pre-Incan Moche people. In an agreement Billman worked out with the people of Ciudad de Dios, community members guard the anthropological site in exchange for the funding for development projects in the town. For one of the projects, Billman asked the UNC and Duke chapters of Engineers Without Borders to design a water transmission and distribution system. At the time, the village had a limited and somewhat irregular supply of water.

The EWB chapters enthusiastically accepted the challenge. They designed a system that features a spring box to collect water from a nearby artesian spring, about three kilometers of pipe, and taps at many of the homes. Members from both chapters traveled in the summer of 2008 to the town of about 300 residents to get the project started.

Volunteers from other organizations, along with many residents of the community, pitched in to help build the system. As of March 2009, Billman reported that 51 of about 60 families have hooked up to the system and are getting water.

Don Lauria, PhD, retired professor of environmental sciences and engineering and EWB adviser, and Ryan Kingsbury, master's student and UNC EWB president, talk with members of Ecuadorian nonprofit Fundacion Natura about the problems that the communities of El Inga Bajo and El Inga Alto are having with their water system.

Don Lauria, PhD, retired professor of environmental sciences and engineering and EWB adviser, and Ryan Kingsbury, master’s student and UNC EWB president, talk with members of Ecuadorian nonprofit Fundacion Natura about the problems that the communities of El Inga Bajo and El Inga Alto are having with their water system.

“Now that the system is up and running, and most of them have connected (to access water), I think (the townspeople) are at ease,” said Julianne Tajuba when she helped with the project. Tajuba, a master’s student in the environmental sciences and engineering department of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, added, “I think they are very used to disappointment, and I’m glad we were able to overcome that.”

The project wasn’t without problems. The project director for MOCHE Inc., a nonprofit organization Billman co-founded to protect archeological sites and help poor, rural communities, had to get permission from landowners to run pipe through their property and work with them so they wouldn’t tap into the line for irrigation or personal use. The owner of the land where the spring box is located demanded $2,000 for use of his land, but settled for a few hundred dollars and a nice pair of black shoes, Billman said.

Because Ciudad de Dios is located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, some of the pipeline was suspended over the rocks, but the majority of it had to be built by digging into very rocky soil, sometimes on steep slopes. Large boulders were moved without the aid of explosives, machinery or modern tools.

Helping villagers establish self-sufficiencyEWB members engage in a very advanced form of development work by trying to build the institutional capacity of the Ciudad de Dios water committee. While one of the practical outcomes will be submitting paperwork to the authorities, the true development lies in helping villagers establish their water committee as a viable, self-sufficient institution that is capable of organizing itself well enough to receive government recognition.

Earning regional recognition is not only important for getting a government teacher, but also for fostering connections with other water committees in the region. The Ciudad de Dios water committee will learn from the other committees, and in turn the whole system will become more sustainable.

“It was a very eye-opening process in that there were a lot of obstacles that you don’t normally think of running into,” said Lindsay Dubbs, a doctoral student in environmental sciences and engineering at the School.

Still, she said she felt a strong connection with the town and thought it was her responsibility to follow through with the project until the villagers were receiving water.

“I liked how (the townspeople) were trying to provide better lives for their families, and they were paying attention to information about how to keep their families healthy,” Dubbs said.

UNC’s Engineers Without Borders chapter already is making plans for future projects in Ciudad de Dios.

Anna Fabiszewski, a master’s student in environmental sciences and engineering at the School, will spend several weeks in Ciudad de Dios this summer with a volunteer from MOCHE. They will help the village file the paperwork so a government-paid teacher can teach in the town. Running water at the school is one of the requirements for such a petition.

The two also will test the water and develop a treatment plan if contamination is found. They will work with the community’s newly-formed water committee, which will operate and manage the water system. For example, Fabiszewski and her colleague might conduct workshops related to system maintenance, installation of household connections, or basic bookkeeping and accounting practices, says UNC’s EWB president Ryan Kingsbury.

“There could also be education related to protecting the quality of the mountain spring,” he said.

– Natalie Gott

View more photographs of EWB’s work on Flickr.

 


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.