By Mark De Haan, PE, Prein&Newhof Engineer
First published in Michigan Water Works News Winter 2020 Issue
There are certain principles within the engineering field that remain true no matter where you work, whether it is in Michigan or Imbabura Province, Ecuador.
Two of us that are part of Safe Water in Ecuador (SWIE) recently spent six days visiting the South American country. On the very first day visiting communities, two of these principles were made evident. First, it benefits the client to be thorough with initial design and design implementation. Second, unless you understand the root of the client’s needs, you cannot provide the proper solution.
Our first community visit was Ambuela. In Ambuela, the community did not have sufficient flow of water, but this wasn’t always the case. When the community initially protected the spring where it collects its water about a decade ago, they had enough supply. But, because the spring was not properly protected, the community now receives about one-fifth of the flow it initially did as the spring protection has broken down over time. Whether this was because the community wanted to save money up front or because the contractor did not correctly complete the work is unclear, but the problem remains the same: the community has to spend money twice where it should have only done so once because corners were cut.
The second community that we visited was Carabuela, where the community recently began the work of building more water collection in order to meet system demand. However, as we discussed this with the aguaterro, or system operator, it was determined that the real reason they couldn’t meet demand was that there were three users that were using up to 20 times the average monthly amount, and the rate structure was such that it didn’t deter the users from doing so. In addition, the amount of money being collected through monthly use was not enough to keep up on maintenance or system improvements, a fact that many of us looking at asset management or capital improvement plans here in Michigan are finding to be the case locally as well. So, while the problem was presented as inadequate water supply, the actual issue was excessive water use and an improper rate structure to both curb excessive water use and keep money in reserve for system maintenance.
Of course, these problems cannot be addressed if the community itself does not accept the information that is being presented. The best way to present this information is within the context of a long-standing relationship, something the non-profit organizations we work with in Ecuador seek to establish. Life Giving Water International (LGWI) and CODEINSE (Corporacion de Desarrollo Integral Socio Economico – Corporation of Integral Social Economic Development) have found that the best way to build this relationship is through the concept of co-labor. Neither LGWI nor CODEINSE want to tell the community what to do or perform the work for the community. Rather, they want to walk alongside the community, helping them with funds or technical matters as they arise. It is this idea of co-labor that leads to systems that are well-run and well-maintained and has also resulted in great success for SWIE-funded projects that have been managed by LGWI and CODEINSE.
A portion of our time in Ecuador was spent discussing potential projects which SWIE can help fund. As we discuss these projects, we’d like to take a moment to thank you for your continued support of SWIE events, especially the golf outing and chance auction at the annual conference. Thank you!
Safe Water in Ecuador is a non-profit organization created by the Michigan Section of American Water Works Association (MI-AWWA). Funds are raised to provide safe, clean drinking water to communities in Ecuador.