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.