Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Newsletter Number 2

Okay, so a bit of a delay in getting this one out, but here it is...Our second newsletter

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Our First Newsletter!

Here is the link to the First Newsletter we put together for the BCC Water Network. We'll be releasing the next one at the end of this month.

Check it out, and laugh and cry...and maybe donate? Haha..but seriously, let us know if you have any suggestions for improvements.

(thanks for getting the link up for us Kent!)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Bloggin' in Canada, baby! (Strangely, it just doesn't have the same ring to it...)

Hey all,

For those of you who are still following the development of this blog probably think Trevor and I are no longer talking to each other since I've been m.i.a. for the last few months of posts...not to worry. We're back in Calgary trying to readjust to Canadian life and support the project from here while the work continues in Ascension without us.

So although we're not actually in Bolivia, we're hoping to keep this blog going with project updates and other random thoughts for anyone who's interested...

Lately we've had a chance to open up a bank account for the organization and are researching the best option of trying to become a registered charity (to be able to give out tax reciepts to donors)...if you don't care about tax reciepts and want to donate, we'd love to hear from you!

We've also been doing some voluteer work with CAWST. A few weeks back they had an open house and we were interviewed for an online news site....frankly I think we look like fools in the video, but I think it might provide some insight into the work we were doing in Bolivia, CAWST's role, the filters...etc.:

take care all!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The EXTREMELY holy trinity

In late April we took a welcome break from the frustrations of trying to coordinate with the town authorities to do a little bit of travelling. We were to use the may day long weekend to take a long-awaited trip to the city of Trinidad (whose full name is La Santisma Trinidad, which literally means the very holy trinity).

We were a little nervous about the voyage, having heard that trinidad isn't the most pleasant part of Bolivia, especially given its reputation for open sewers on the sides of its streets. It also almost 300 km north of Ascension, making it quite close to the equator, rather deep in the amazon basin , and giving it a very humid, muggy climate. On the other hand we were excited at the chance to see another part of the country, and to visit Fanny (the mother-in-law of a local pastor who had befriended Janaki and I).

As it turned out, the city was quite pleasant and laid back, the open sewers (just storm sewers, thankfully) didn't smell too bad, and the weather was refreshingly cool. We had a great time with Fanny and she gave us a tour of some of the interesting sites around the city. One of the highlights was seeing the Rio Mamore, one of the major tributaries of the amazon. It was 800 m wide, and in it we saw a river dolphin.

The river was higher than usual, thanks to some serious flooding that occurred in the region earlier this year. As a result of the flooding many people lost their homes, and the road between Trinidad and the rio mamore was lined with refugee camps of people whose homes were still under-water even though the rains that had caused the flooding had stopped a couple of months before.

At times it felt like our trip was one disaster after another, or at least one very stressful situation after another. The weekend in Trinidad was no exception. In this case it was me getting a throat infection. It started as a sore throat, then quickly became a spiking fever. We ended up going the the Trinidad hospital at about 1am because we didn't know what was causing me to have such a high fever... luckily I was feeling better within a couple of days with the help of some antibiotics. In spite of the unplanned visit to another bolivian hospital, the trip to trinidad was a refreshing rest from the pressures of the project.
Photo: Some folks near Trinidad Paddling across what was formally a farmer's field. Note flooded home in background.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Expanding the project

After our initial rush of the first 9 installations, our priority became expanding the project to include the rest of the Ascension de Guarayos in the most efficient way possible.

We faced 2 major challenges in reaching the rest of the town:
1) Prioritizing which members of the community needed the filters the most - The town has about 2400 families without running water. All of them are at risk to an extent, but some have relatively well-protected wells (more secure, while still under the threat of contamination), while others are drinking water from shallow springs, or streams running through the middle of town (probably much more contaminated).

2) Coordinating a work schedule with the members of the community - With the original pilot project with the old organization, we worked under the philosophy that people needed to contribute their labour to receive a filter, in the hopes that they would value it more, and therefore take better care of it. This wasn't too complicated in the church community where we worked, because there were only 30 families and they all knew our employees. Working with the entire town is, however, another story.

Ascension is divided into 16 neighbourhoods, each with a president in charge of representing its people. We decided that while we got the organization better organized and searched for dependable funding, we should try to install 20 filters in each neighbourhood as a sort of large pilot project. The neighbourhood presidents appeared to be the key to both prioritizing the 20 families with the most urgent need (since they should know the people of their neighbourhood, and therefore, which families need the filters first) and coordinating with the people (since they should know where the citizens of the neighbourhood live and be able to get them to come to meetings).

We decided to have a meeting with the neighbourhood presidents to discuss our strategy for reaching the most needy of Ascension and ask if they'd be willing to help us. Unfortunately, the results of the meeting were not what he had hoped for... a total lack of participation... and no questions. We called a second meeting to discuss a strategy with the presidents of the 6 poorest neighbourhoods of the town, but this time, no one even showed up. Finally we managed to meet with 3 of the neighbourhood presidents. They agreed to cooperate, making these the first three neighbourhoods in which we would work.

As I write this, the Bolivian employees have begun in the to work in the 2nd neighbourhood.

Our experience taught us that we cannot rely soley on neighbourhood presidents... our search for an improved work-plan in the neighbourhoods is ongoing, but we have made progress in the area.

Photo: Trevor with 2 of our Bolivian team members (Ángel and Roberto), waiting outside the El Comité de Vigilancia to have what turned out to be a very unproductive meeting with local authorities.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Back home

Janaki and I arrived safely in Calgary on May 28th.

The project continues marching on without us... there are now 27 installed filters.

The last month in Bolivia was quite a whirlwind. We actually had far more to write about in the past month than we had in most other months on the trip, but couldn't do so because we were far too busy and, at times, exhausted. However, now that we're back, there should be some posts upcoming... also, when I find the energy I am planning to add a ton of pictures.

Even though we are back in Canada, the work of our organization is set to continue, so we'll probably continue posting project updates once in a while.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007


In the second week of April, after months of preparation and frustration, we finally, finally reached the point where we were ready to install filters. Next came the awkward task of going to the 9 families who had worked with us back in November and December (and thus had technically earned their filter long ago, since our philosophy is that people have to help to make their filter to get one, so that they have more appreciation for it) and trying to explain what had gone wrong.

Luckily, for the most part, they were quite understanding... most of them even volunteered to help us wash the gravel and sand for their filters. A few were a bit frustrated with us, but that is to be expected, I suppose.

We decided to get the 9 installations done as soon as possible, because we were running short on time in this trip, and wanted to expand the project to the entire town before we left the country(as opposed to the church community were we originally started working).

We ended up doing 9 installations in 4 days, which was crazy considering we had never done one before. It was a bit of a mistake, as we ended up needing to rush to keep up to the schedule, and we all ended the week quite exhausted from working 11 hour days...

In the end we got it all done with relatively few problems, while learning a great deal about how to create a reasonable work schedule so that we do not end up rushing the installations and burning us out. Something that will serve the organization well as we try to expand the original project.

We recently completed follow-up visits to the original 9 families, and much to our satisfaction, they are using their filters without any problems, and seem very receptive to the hygiene training that our employees give them.

It finally seems that our work down here is starting to show results.

Photo: Fermina - the proud owner of the first filter that we installed in Bolivia. Only 6.75 months after we arrived in the country! Her family 'only' had to wait another 5 months after they had been told they'd receive the filter by our previous boss.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A bit of an update

Sorry for the lack of updates for the past 10 weeks or so...

The last 2 months and a bit have been extremely busy, and at times tense... Busy because we´ve just kept on working on the project, and tense thanks to the rather unfortunate and unpleasant dispute that we continue to have with the directors of our former NGO.

Here is basically what we´ve been up to...

New work site - after working in front of a local pastor´s house for nearly 4 months, it became apparent that we were no longer welcome (a new NGO was coming to town and they were going to occupy our space). After about a week of trying to find a suitable worksite to rent, finally got one for free, thanks to a sweet deal with the mayor´s office that came with free transportation for our filters (we have to install the maximum number possible while properly educating the users... sounds like a plan).

CAWST course refresher - In late March, Diana Frost, a CAWST international advisor, came to Camiri, Bolivia (a fairly large town in the south of the department of Santa Cruz) to teach some local NGO´s about the biosand filter. We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to send our (then) employees to the course to make sure that what we were teaching them was correct. Janaki and I also ended up joining the course for the last couple days, and although we couldn´t get away for long enough to really explore the area, it was a nice change in scenery from our regular Ascensión-Santa Cruz stomping ground. We found the course useful, but discouraging at the same time, because it seems that CAWST knows about as much about issues that one may encounter with the new flow rate as we do...

New molds - One thing we learned at the CAWST course, was that the stupid molds that were giving us so much trouble when we worked with the old organization were worse than we had thought... after looking at them Diana informed us that they did not have the correct measurements and that the walls on the filters that they produced were way too thin... part of the reasons our filters always broke...

Even before we knew this we had already started making new ones... a very long process that started with buying large planks of sheet metal in Santa Cruz in early march, transporting them to Ascensión in buses (a story in and of itself) and spending lots of time with welders as they worked with them.... as I write this, they are just finishing up... making it more than 2 months to get 3 molds made...

On the bright side: The two molds we have so far are fantastic! Of 19 filter boxes we have poured 19 filters have worked.... it has been a little less frustrating than our 45% success rate with the other molds.

New employees - After three months of working with us, and going to Camiri to become an expert, Mariano, left the organization to become an illegal motorcycle-taxi driver. I suppose to earn more money...

So... we moved on and hired 2 new employees, both of whom bring a lot of construction experience and enthusiasm to learn. One of whom has lived here his whole life and has worked with other NGOs in the area and thus brings a lot of useful ideas and local knowledge.

Within two weeks of working with these guys, we had solved the flow rate problem (thanks to some good fine sand and a lot of work), and with good, sturdy filter boxes (thanks to 2 new molds).... we were ready to install filters in the homes of Ascensión de Guarayos.

And as I write this we have 14 filters installed (more details to come)....

Photo: The course in Camiri. The woman in the blue shirt by the filter in the middle is Diana Frost, who led the course, and is now one of the BCC Water Network's board members (January, 2008).

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Due to some differences of opinion with respect to how funds were spent in the organization, we´re no longer going to be volunteering with CEAGUAC.

The last message sent to us by the founders of the organization was not exactly amicable, so for obvious reasons we´re going to keep details to a minimal.

We do, however, still maintain our commitment to helping the people in Ascensión who lack access to potable water.

We´ll keep you posted on our progress.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Remembering Chris

I would like to take a moment to reflect on the life of a good friend of mine who passed away three years ago today.

The way in which he made the best of his situation in spite of his many health problems has and will continue to inspire me to overcome any obstacles that I may face (Including but certainly not limited to the ones that we´ve faced here).

Thanks Chris

Friday, February 16, 2007

A little political background

As we´ve mentioned a few times in this blog, politics is a very important part of daily life in Bolivia. There always seems to be something big happening in the country in support of/ or opposition to the government whether it is blockaded roads, stores shut down in protest, riots (usually on the other side of the country, thankfully), political marches, or hunger strikers in the central plaza. The factors contributing to these actions are generally very complex, but since they have affected us on a few occaisions on this trip, and are so important to understanding Bolivia generally, I am going to do my best to give them a brief explanation.

Many of the current political issues facing Bolivia have their roots in the complex ethnic make-up of the country. Although it was conquered by the Spanish in the early 1500s, they did not succeed in eradicating/assimilating the native population to the extent that they had in many other of their colonies. For this reason, over 60% of Bolivia´s population is of pure indigenous descent, and more than 40% of the population speaks an indigenous language rather than Spanish.

At the times of the Spanish conquest, the rugged Bolivian highlands were a part of the Incan empire and were occupied by the Quechua-speaking Incas, and their predecessors, the Aymara. Both of these groups had sedentary lifestyles and complex civilizations. The lush, tropical lowlands, were occupied by a diverse mixture of hunting/gathering tribes. Although many indigenous people live in the major cities of Bolivia, there are still millions who live in isolated areas and practise a more or less traditional way of life.

When the spanish arrived, they enslaved natives to extract silver from the highlands, and work on agricultural plantations in the lowlands. As is the case in most of Latin America (and according to some North America as well), indigenous people have generally been treated as second-class citizens ever since, with less access to education, clean water, health care, etc. than their counterparts of European or mixed descent.

Finally after almost 500 years of being ruled by viceroys, generals, and presidents of European descent, Bolivians elected an indigenous leader (with well over 50% of the popular vote in a multi-party democratic election), promising to correct age-old injustices, and provide Bolivia´s marganilized citizens a better way of life. Obviously the wealthy elite of the country, especially in the eastern areas where we are currently residing, are quite untrusting of these initiatives.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The project: frustrations, barriers and lessons learned

I would be lying if I said that this trip to Bolivia has been all fun and games. Our frustration with our experiences here peaked in the past month, when I picked up a parasitic infection on a trip back to Santa Cruz from our project site to battle through another chapter of sorting out our immigration situation (which needless to say, continued to be a bureaucratic nightmare). I recovered from it fine, after an educational visit to a private Bolivian hospital (my illness wasn´t really that bad, but we didn´t know any doctors and the hospital is conveniently located a short walk from our beloved Hotel Aeronáutico) and Janaki and I restarted work again later in the week (our new employees diligently continued in Ascensión without us, they´re good kids).

Our frustrations resurfaced a couple of weeks later when someone snuck into our room in Ascensión and stole the majority of the money that we had with us to pay for project supplies and the wages of our employees (we are getting reimbursed). This was especially inconvenient because we have no way of accessing our bank accounts in Ascensión. We ended up being fine, however, and work with the project has continued as normal.

Which brings us to the project...

Back in October, when we were still building practice filters in Santa Cruz, we thought that the pilot project would be just the beginning.... get it done in a month or two, write up a report for funding organizations about how great everything went, and wait for the real funds to start coming into CEAGUAC to cover future projects... right...

Now, more than 4 months into our trip, and more than 3 months after we first disembarked from the now all-too-familiar 5.5 hour ride on the Trans-Guarayos bus from Santa Cruz to Ascensión, we still haven´t installed the first of our 30 filters.

How can this be?
Well... we have faced, and continue to face 2 major obstacles to installing a filter in someone´s house.

Making filter boxes - we were so excited in Santa Cruz, when we first build a working filter box, but the problems that caused the first ones to break have continued to haunt us. Of the 34 filter boxes we have poured in Bolivia so far, an unimpressive 14 have been successfully demolded without breaking. The problems, we have learned, come from the molds themselves. The concrete gets stuck in grooves and minor-looking imperfections in the molds, causing the filter boxes to break as we try to take the molds off the filters. We have done our best to fix this problem - taking the molds to 3 different welders in Ascensión, and more recently, using metal sand paper and a grinder to try to smooth out the bumps, and now epoxy to try to fill in some of the troublesome grooves. We´ll try to make some more on Monday to test our latest attempt, but so far, our efforts have only brought sporadic success.

Getting the proper flow rate - For the filters to work water needs to flow through them at about 1 L per 60 seconds. If it´s much faster, the filters won´t properly treat the water, and if it´s much slower the users might become impatient and not want to use their filter. To get the right flow rate, the employees and us have spent countless hours preparing media and installing practice filters at our work site. Finally, on about our 12th attempt we reached that illusive flow rate of 1 L per minute...Wonderful! Except that we recently found out that CAWST is now recommending a flow rate of a 1L per 100 seconds to ensure that the filters work at optimal efficiency. This has lead us to have to go hunting around Ascensión for the right sand for the job... a process that is ongoing.

Add to these problems the fact that the beginning of the project was delayed for a month for various reasons (see October and early November blog entries), we lost half of our potential workdays in November to getting a run-around from immigration and the Santa Cruz branch of INTERPOL, and we were rendered inefficient in December by a labour dispute with the organization´s sole paid employee at the time (who is now preparing to start working in Switzerland).... and you start to see why we are in the position that we are in.

But... there is a bright side... our new employees, citizens of Ascensión, are continuing to show a great deal of promise and enthusiasm. We´ve finished training them, so they now know everything we do about household water treatment and the biosand filter, and the general principles of hygiene and sanitation on top of their extensive knowledge of local customs, hygiene practices, sanitation issues, and the health problems that face community members.

We now have 4 minds working through our above-mentioned 2 major problems, instead of just 2, as was the case in December.

From here the goal is to get those filters installed, sometime before we go back to Canada in May, and leave them with the know-how and resources necessary to continue working in other communities in eastern Bolivia, and teach others what they have learned.

Wow! long entry, hey? I hope that makes up for the fact that I haven´t been heard from since November.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Once Upon a Time in the Project

This here water project has been the cause of many frustrations, panic-stricken nights and at times sadness at the slow progress we’ve made over the last few months. While there were many contributing factors, one in particular was our concern that the work we’d been doing to set up the organization was not going to realistically continue given that we were only really working with one other person here.

Before Christmas this changed when serious disagreements with our one employee led to him no longer continuing with the organization. We spent some of our time in Samaipata developing a new project plan for the next few weeks and interview questions to hire a couple people in the community. All the prep work was worth it because this past week we successfully hired two people to fill the roles of a Filter Technician and a Community Steward.

So far they haven’t let us down. We’ve been so impressed by their excitement for the project and truly enjoy hearing the suggestions they offer us in attacking some of the project’s major problems. There is also some sign that at least one of them will want to continue with the organization in the future and they both seem open to training any new staff that the organization may need to hire.

While there are certainly still many obstacles ahead, we feel like we’re more on track now than we’ve ever been.

Happy B´Day (Yesterday) Trevster!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Search of El Fuerte

Sorry for the lack of blog posts for the last little while. Hope everyone had a great Christmas and that the New Year is treating them well so far.

We headed back to Santa Cruz for Christmas Day and soon after escaped to Samaipata, a sleepy tourist town about 2 hours SW of Santa Cruz. The town itself is pretty unique since it is where Bolivia’s lowlands meet its highlands. This makes for some pretty spectacular landscape. Our appreciation for the Andean ranges started with our drive down there. Our shared taxi driver zipped through the mountains with ease despite his excessive speed and distractions like roaming donkeys, dogs, rock debris and newly established creeks flowing across the road along the way.

A big part of Samaipata’s draw for tourists is El Fuerte, a Pre-Columbian archeological site. It’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in particular because of the significant work preserved on a large surface of rock a top of a mountain peak. We were certain that we had to check it out, but thought it would be cool to go on an alternative route to the site that we’d heard about on New Year’s Eve.

Long story short we got lost. And although we managed to see some spectacular views, when we realized that what we presumed to be El Fuerte was still two valleys and a significant peak away, hiking back to Samaipata before a) we ran out of water and b) the sun went down, became our new priority,

Ín the end we ended up having to cut through privately owned forested area to get to what we thought was the main road to Samaipata. Instead, it was a scenic view (not what we were hoping for at this time) to a ridge overlooking the town. From there we hiked down to the bottom of a valley which once again was supposed to lead us to the main highway. One last ridge climbed and we were on our way back just in time for sunset.

So 12 after hours of hiking through more than 30km of rough terrain we arrived in Samaipata, downed water and juice and tried to relax while children lit firecracker after firecracker outside. Overall, it made for a pretty incredible, but strange New Year’s.

We did make it out to El Fuerte a couple of days later. While it was certainly an interesting place, it’s safe to say that it would have had to be pretty darn marvelous to live up to the expectations we had created for it during our long journey to find it.

Photo: a back country valley in the Andean foothills, taken during our search for El Fuerte. Lots of nice scenery, but no tour of pre-columbian ruins that day.