Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Summer 2008: Back in Ascension

Janaki and I arrived in Ascension with high expectations for the last 3 weeks of our trip. We were going to provide detailed feedback to COBAGUAL on their work, plan how the team was to shift it's focus to rural areas, perfom water testing on several of our already-installed filters, try to convince local authorities to give COBAGUAL more funding and support, figure out how to get COBAGUAL more autonomy as a Bolivian organization so that they could actively seek their own funding, and pass on CAWST training we had received in rainwater harvesting and latrine construction. Needless to say we had a lot on our plates.

As one might predict, we didn't manage to get it all done. On the other hand we had a very productive 3 weeks, which laid the groundwork for the next stages in COBAGUAL's evolution. We mainly split our time between shadowing COBAGUAL during filter construction, follow-up visits, installations, workshops etc., meeting with them to plan how and when we would start to work in rural communities and better capacitate COBAGUAL to one day be able to seek its own funding. We were able to provide some feedback to improve the quality of COBAGUAL's community education based on lessons we had learned from CASWT in our year in Canada, but were were generally extremely impressed by their diligence, patience and attention to detail in this area. Were were glad to see that filter building continued to go well, all of the mold problems of our first 5 months in Bolivia were safely in the past.

After much discussion we decided to move COBAGUAL's work to rural areas as soon as possible, because they had received many requests for projects in nearby communities, and because the dry season made conditions ideal for navigating the dirt roads outside of Ascension (many of which are impassible in the rainy season). Additionally we found out that the municipal government was on the verge of procuring funding for a massive expansion of their municipal water network and felt it would be best to wait to see how that project works out rather than duplicate their efforts. The main issues we needed to tackle were how to minimize transportation costs given that the municipal government was unable to support us and none of the employees had reliable vehicles. We decided that the best course of action was for the team to bring all of the materials out to the communities at the beginning of the project, and then to camp in the communities while carrying out their work (coming back home for days off, but only taking a maximum of one trip per person per week). We accompanied COBAGUAL to the community of San Andres, near Ascension, to lay the groundwork for the project there, and by the time we left Bolivia, they were ready to begin their first project outside of Ascension.

Our quest to convince the local authorities to give more support to COBAGUAL led to the conclusion that they wouldn't take COBAGUAL seriously until the organization was locally run. After much discussion with Pastor Ernesto, and the COBAGUAL team we decided that the best course of action would be to sign an agreement with Pastor Ernesto's church so that COBAGUAL could work under their legal structure, allowing them to operate as a charity within Bolivia. We hope that this change will lead to COBAGUAL becoming more independant in the long-term.

On July 30th we were excited to receive a visit from CAWST international technical advisor Andrea Roach, who spent a couple of days verifying COBAGUAL's work. We enjoyed playing host to a fellow Canadian in 'our' Ascension and had several interesting chats about the project, Bolivia and how it compares to other Latin American countries that she's travelled to, and life in general. She was able to provide some very useful comments on COBAGUAL's work and accompany us on several visits to homes where families had been using their filters for several months. Overall we felt that COBAGUAL received her 'stamp of approval' with her comment that they paid much more attention to detail than most BioSand Filter organizations she had dealt with.

Once Andrea left on July 31st, we literally only had a few days left before we had to head back to Canada. Unfortunately this meant that our water testing, and personell training ambitions had to be left by the wayside. We did feel, however, that we achieved a great deal in getting COBAGUAL well and truly prepared to work in rural areas, having their work verified by CAWST, and taking important steps towards giving them the power to fundraise more independently.

Summer 2008: Leaving Cochabamba and good bye to the immigration office

After Janaki had recovered in Cochabamba we met once again with CEDESPAR to try to coordinate possible collaboration between our organizations. We had spoken to our friends Duane and Marlene and the younger members of the group quite extensively, but this meeting was a bit more awkward because most of their board of directors were present, including several older members who we didn't know very well. We were left to explain our ideas to them regarding how CEDESPAR could possibly incorporate the BioSand filter into their work, and in all honesty, were greeted by a cool and skeptical reception. It seems that, at least for the time being, they do not feel that they really want to get involved with water issues in the communities in which they are involved. We found this quite understandable since they are also a new organization and, like us, can't do everything at once. Somewhat disapointed, Janaki and I left Cochabamba to spend a few weeks back with COBAGUAL in Ascension.

On the to Ascension we had to stop in Santa Cruz to pick up our extended tourist visas at the immigration office. Needless to say, given our experiences from our first trip to Bolivia, we were prepared for the worst... long delays, rude officials, etc. Luckily, perhaps because this time we were just tourists, we breezed through the process and picked up our passports without any problems. The only downer was that they confiscated our expired Bolivia citizenship cards which we had kept from the first trip as a reminder of all that the good people at the immigration office had put us through. From their it was a same-day ride on the good old Trans-Guarayos bus back to Ascension de Guarayos.