Water—everywhere and nowhere
In the Amazon rainforest there are only two seasons: dry and wet. During the “dry season” the clouds still gather and, on average, more than 1,300 millimetres fall each year. In the wet season it rains over five times more. So how is it that the people who live on the shores of the Napo River—the biggest tributary of the Amazon River—don’t have access to clean drinking water?
Pollution and pile ups
The Napo is one of the biggest rivers in Ecuador. The water starts as ice on top of the Cotopaxi volcano in the country’s highlands, which then travels through cities and rural areas, swirls with fishing nets past oil and mining companies—a total of 1,130 kilometres—to the Amazon basin. By the time the water flows past the communities along the Napo’s shores, the melted ice is no longer clean. It’s contaminated with human waste from the cities it goes through and other pollutants, like fuel, from industrial activity taking place along the river.
A community wanting change
In the midst of the Amazon rainforest, Los Rios is a community that stands out. Settled 45 years ago by four families, it is now home to over 70 families who’ve built homes, farms and schools. But they’ve always had to take water from the river, leaving them vulnerable to waterborne disease and other illnesses. The community first partnered with WE Charity in 2015 to build new classrooms and improve the school campus. Now they are reclaiming their right to clean water through a trailblazing project with WE.
Contaminated river water was making the residents of Los Rios sick with parasites, stomach issues and skin rashes. Erratic rainfall paired with poor storage options (insect larvae quickly take hold in the Amazon’s thick humidity) meant water catchments systems weren’t enough. Over 40 years after its founding, and years of being denied support by the local government, Los Rios partnered with WE Charity to address this pressing issue and bring clean water to their community.
Creating a committee
Meet Ney Goyes, the grandchild of one of the original families of Los Rios. Since settling here, his family has set their sights on one goal: clean water. Goyes was a part of various groups that made regular trips to Tena, a five-hour bus ride away, to petition local authorities for a wastewater treatment system. After several failed attempts, he jumped at the chance to help lead the partnership with WE Charity. He humbly accepted when elected president of the water committee: “As long as I’m alive I will help my community. If I’m not here to serve my people, then my life has no meaning.”
The possibility of true change
Mónica Goyes, Ney’s wife, gets up at 5 a.m. every day to prepare breakfast and make sure that their teenage son, Jason, gets to school on time. She works the farm with her husband as well as being responsible for managing the household. She inspired Ney to become an integral part of the water committee, because water affects every aspect of her day-to-day.
It takes a village
The scale of the water project required widespread community support. Juan Granja, pictured left, is president of the community and worked side-by-side with Goyes over the years, lobbying to bring clean water to homes in the community. When the project with WE started, Granja made sure everyone knew about it, coordinated mingas (days when the community comes together to work on a communal project) and provided all families with project updates.
Construction started in March 2016, on a piece of land donated by community founder Héctor Granja located next to the Jatunyacu River. Water would be pumped into the treatment plant and then purified though a complex process involving filters, gravity, flocculants, carbon and chlorine. It would be the most advanced treatment plant for the whole region.
Landmark in the sky
At the same time, a 10-metre-high tower was built to house a 10,000-litre tank that, through gravity, would pump the water to the school and households—even those that are up small hills. Since there was no crane, building the tower took a minga and a pickup truck to make a pulley system to lift the water tank up the tower. Now there are three water tanks that distribute water to every part of Los Rios.
State of the art
In 2017, the first stage of the project was ready: the water treatment plant, designed by WE engineers and customized to meet the needs of the community. This is the pride of the community, as it is the most modern water treatment plant of any community in the Amazon. This plant ensures the water is clean and safe to drink. Knowing that, the very first clean water tap was turned on at the school.
Kids now having safe drinking water at school and regularly wash their hands, improving sanitation for all students. Students’ school performance is improving as they no longer get sick from river water. Once this handwashing station was in place, the same privilege needed to be extended to everyone in the community.
Practice—or training—makes perfect
Before installing household connections, Goyes, Granja and the rest of the water committee attended several trainings with WE Charity engineers, to learn about the inner workings of the one-of-a-kind treatment system and its finicky maintenance requirements. The members regularly check the pipes and clean the tanks and filters. Ensuring the water test results are optimal is essential to provide clean water to the school, and when it’s going to be pumped to all families.
Tested and true
Every six months, Goyes sends water to a lab to have the quality tested. On a regular basis he uses a kit, pictured here, to test for alkalinity, acidity and chlorine levels in Los Rios itself. The positive test results directly impact the health of the community; drinking clean water will lessen gastrointestinal problems and skin rashes caused by contaminants. In turn, fewer children will suffer from malnutrition, which is often caused by parasites consuming all of the nutrients in the food they consume. With the committee smoothly running, household connections become a reality.
In the Amazon, houses are separated by hundreds of metres of awkward terrain: plantations of cacao, plantain, yucca and other crops vital to the livelihood of residents. So to actually get pipes to reach every household (using no machinery, mind you) it was necessary to dig trenches through roots and hard soil to connect the water from the treatment plant into every family’s home.
Remember Mónica? For the first time, she’s able to do laundry in her own house. She no longer needs to carry clothes to the river and then back after washing them. She can cook with peace of mind and only needs to turn on the tap when she or someone in the family is thirsty. Since the water project opened, she no longer worries about getting sick from the water; now she worries that she won’t have enough cups to share water with her visitors.
Meters read water usage for each family. Goyes is in charge of reading the water meters installed at each home every month. To keep the project sustainable, committee members voted that every family would pay for their water use. The funds are used for maintenance, with some saved for potential expansion of the water system in the future, when new families move in.
Refreshing, cool, clean
After 45 years, and several generations of fighting for clean water, Los Rios now enjoys the benefits of their commitment and endurance. They’ve shown incredible resilience in all their challenges, both natural and human made, and made their dreams of a healthier community come true. Goyes and Granja celebrate the success of their hard work with a glass of water at the Goyes’s home.