Water everywhere, but not a drop was drinkable

Text by Katie Hewitt with photography by Sara Cornthwaite

Rio Jatunyacu—Big Water River—moves lazily, dragging foam and scraps of plastic with its current while, near its bank, the local water committee of Los Rios is busy making it safe to drink.

Jugs of chemicals are passed among a group of men, who redistribute their contents into other, smaller containers. Toxic warning labels are read, buttons pushed and charts checked, all so that these men and their families can have clean water in one of the wettest places on Earth.

Los Rios isn’t far from the Napo River, the largest tributary leading to the Amazon River, which has the highest volume of water discharge in the world. Annual rainfall is as high as you’d imagine in a forested jungle region named after its rain. The small community is nestled beside Rio Jatunyacu, which, despite its grand title, isn’t all that great for drinking.

Big rivers have long journeys. By the time their rushing waters straddle Los Rios, the rivers have passed through urban industry, development and pollution. And though it’s almost always raining, catching rainwater is tricky. Even if enough rain is collected, heat, humidity and insects threaten storage tanks.

And so the Los Rios committee has gathered to make sure its elaborate water treatment system is functioning properly.

Water training at Los Rios community with WE Charity clean water project

When we arrived, a teenage boy in a blue soccer jersey was leading a rickety horse down the bank of the Jatunyacu to drink, while the water committee peered over the edge of a raised metal platform into a vat, assessing the sloshing contents in hushed voices. Below them, river water churned through one of the most advanced treatment systems in the Amazon, a custom design from WE Charity built by a local company, Yakupro, to serve this region of Ecuador and the 72 families in Los Rios. Today, Yakupro has sent a trainer to conduct a refresher course on the system’s workings and maintenance, and to check on its mechanics.

Inside a chain-linked enclosure littered with warning signs, the vat sits 13 feet long, 7 feet wide and 6 feet high, with the group’s observation perch at one end. It houses a series of eight compartments that force untreated water through a downward-tilting maze. From the group’s view on the platform, the vat looks a bit like a giant pinball machine. Compounds called flocculants, which attach to solid waste and cause it to sink, are injected into the first compartment and, as the mixture zigzags through its course, waste is dragged down and left at the bottom while the water moves on to the next compartment— gravity continues its work. Outside the vat, in a separate tank, treated water is filtered again with a mix of activated charcoal to remove impurities and chlorine to kill parasites. After its journey and these few additives, the water is safe to consume.

Ney Goyes, 38, is president of the committee, tasked with monitoring pH levels in the drinking water. He explains that injecting too few chemicals into untreated water leaves impurities but adding too many can make the water—piped from the treatment system into every home in the community—unsafe to ingest. He monitors a Goldilocks ratio of flocculants, charcoal and chlorine, as well as acidity and alkalinity levels.

Checking option levels at WE Charity clean water project in the Amazon

Goyes speaks Spanish through an interpreter, telling us his term as committee president started three years ago, before the system was installed. He picks up his test kit, a blue plastic container, the size and shape of a pencil case, and snaps it open. Before WE’s intervention, and before the treatment system was finished late in 2018, he says water from the river was piped unfiltered into homes.

The community frequently suffered from waterborne illness, a roster of diseases including diarrheal disorders that can be deadly. To combat this, another nonprofit installed tanks. Trucks of clean water were shipped in from the city to fill them, and families arriving in alphabetical order collected their allotted portions once weekly. There was never enough. These old tanks sit empty nearby, their spouts locked with chains.

From the blue case, Goyes removes a set of plastic tubes, affixed together between two vertical lines that look like paint samples, gradients of yellow and red. Taking water from the filtered tank, he fills one tube then adds a few drops of a red liquid solution—the resulting shade, when matched with the colour chart, will determine pH levels. He snaps on the lid and shakes the tube between two fingers with a shy smile, clearly bemused by the attention his regular ritual is suddenly attracting. He holds the test kit over his head as the swirling water settles to a warm apricot hue.

Our translator interprets Goyes’ assessment: “It’s ideal.”

Heading the committee, monitoring water quality and system maintenance are big responsibilities, Goyes acknowledges, and he doesn’t take them lightly.

Mientras viva, estoy aqui para dar mi granito de arena,” he says. “As long as I live, I’m going to contribute my grain of sand.”

Juan Granja, president of Los Rios, is among the group watching Goyes’s water test. He’s been preoccupied with thoughts of mercury poisoning, but for a moment he feels comforted.

WE Charity state of the art water treatment plant in the Amazon

Late in 2018, Granja’s 20-year-old niece, Brigitte Mantilla, asked him to send her some fish from Big Water River. As an agricultural studies major at Universidad Estatal Amazonica—Amazon State University—Mantilla wasn’t seeking a care package from home. Her class was testing mercury levels, and her professor asked that each student provide samples. Granja sent four dead fish.

His niece called him in February 2019, to tell him that the fish might be contaminated, though they don’t yet know for certain. Her professor warned Granja and the community to reduce consumption to once weekly.

“I was born here,” says Granja. “For 44 years I’ve been eating the fish.” He says he became very worried awaiting official test results from his niece. Though it’s a natural element found in air and soil, mercury can be toxic at high levels.

He’s come today to ask Yakupro’s trainer if the treatment tank filters out mercury. It does. Relief floods Granja, now that he knows he and his family are not drinking it.

Earlier generations of the Goyes and Granja families were among the first to settle in Los Rios, so it’s little wonder that the two men feel an overwhelming sense of duty to the community. Their ancestors, along with two other founding families, were part of a government incentive program to redistribute dense populations and spur job creation. They are the descendants of pioneers who thought they would find an untouched slice of land. Now, Goyes checks pH levels and attends maintenance sessions. Granja leaves his cash crops, cacao and maize, to visit every home and monitor water usage.

It isn’t enough to be surrounded by bodies of water. And the efforts of the Los Rios committee are a stark reminder that humans must reverse-engineer our damage to the environment in order to keep living in it. Even here in the Amazon basin, where nature is relatively unspoiled and water is everywhere, drinking it requires chemicals and mechanical feats.

Water is work. But water is life.

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