planetwater

ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

Experience: Water – Basic Human Need or Human Right?

with 2 comments

With no further ado, here is the first planetwater.org guest post, the thoughts of our first planetwater.org MVP, Trish Stadnyk!

Perspectives from my time spent in the Atacama Desert, Chile, South America.

Honestly, as silly as this may sound to those of you living in less water-rich countries, prior to my experience in the Atacama Desert it had never occurred to me that there even needed to be a discussion on water-rights issues. Being born in, and living, my entire life in Canada made it easy to stick my head in the sand: I mean, doesn’t everyone have access to water? Of course, as we are more aware each and every day, this could not be farther from the truth. Even international media has started to cover stories of water-related problems, to the point that environmental and water-related issues appear as daily (certainly weekly) stories. Apparently all it took for me to “wake-up” was to find the courage to leave behind my comfortable, safe and plentiful lifestyle and travel a mere 16 hours from home to see and live among water scarcity first-hand. This is the experience that changed me forever. Back in 2001, I was an eager, naïve undergraduate at the University of Waterloo nearing the end of a Bachelor’s of Applied Science degree in Environmental Engineering. For the past four years, I had been immersed in higher educational experiences that talked about water, water availability, and water quality issues around the world. In the fall of 2001, two close friends and I selected an undergraduate thesis topic, deciding on a thesis that would allow us to work on a drinking water quality project with Engineers Without Borders. We decided to tackle the issue of removing arsenic from the lone drinking water supply in a small, remote village: Molinos, Chile. Molinos is a lies in the heart of the Atacama desert along the Lluta River valley in northern Chile, near the border of Peru.

Lluta River valley

Lluta River valley, Molinos

Like any project course, we submitted our proposal shortly after selecting the topic, along with our craftily “engineered” budget for fixing all the issues these people in Molinos had with water. An easy problem, right (of course not!)? Just “move in” with North American technology and offer these villagers the chance to have clean water – and leave feeling good about ourselves and what our education has enabled us to do. As we began to learn more about Molinos, and how daily life progresses there, I saw for the first time the complexities of real-life engineering problems. There was no electricity, no jobs, grade-school education and no money. Life consisted of sustenance: farming for a living. Matters were complicated by the numerous and frequent flooding of the Lluta River that, each year, stole precious land from the village and villagers. Like all of this wasn’t enough, the flooding destroyed roads into and out of the village, and any remnant of existing infrastructure. There was only one source of water: the river, and it was contaminated with arsenic, and as we learned while there, apparently a variety of other contaminants like Boron and E-coli. It turned out to be not so easy of a problem after all…

Road destroyed by flooding

The only road to Molinos: yearly flood damage caused by annual spring melt in the Andes mountains.

We sunk our teeth into the details of the design problem: researching, reading, and contrasting the costs and efficiencies of different design solutions to solve the problem of the arsenic-contaminated surface water supply. All the while realizing that this town’s accessibility to clean drinking water was a much bigger problem than just removing the arsenic. There was a much bigger social aspect to this problem than we had ever accounted for before visiting…

Lluta River

The Lluta River, downstream of Molinos.

During the school term, with the help of Engineers without Borders, we were given the opportunity to travel to Molinos to collect samples of the local sand and water; and to liaison with the villagers and politicians in nearby Arica, Chile. For me, this was the very first time that my education collided with real-life. Once in Molinos, living among the villagers, I experienced first-hand what water shortage (i.e., in a desert environment) was like. No water to clean my face, to bathe, to even brush my teeth! The sand and dryness of the desert environment made my skin itch and crack. I became dehydrated and no longer was able to sweat under the hot sun during our long, difficult days of hiking, digging and collecting samples. Wine was cheaper (by far) than water – which under any other circumstances would have been an undergraduate student’s dream come true. In the village, however, we were instant heroes. The children lined up to get our autographs, stunned by the “success” of three foreign women, and teeming with hope that they too would have an infinite supply of clean water. Their hopes, their dreams, their chances of moving out of Molinos to become successful were now firmly resting on our inexperienced and under-qualified shoulders.

Group shot of villagers and design team

The village children & the design team

In the nearby city of Arica, we met with local government officials who were cautious – understandably so given the numerous researchers who had promised action and never delivered. They were also skeptical that anything could be done. Change, as they explained, was slow at best. The villagers would need to be educated on how to maintain any kind of treatment system, and where would the money come from for maintenance over the long-term? All good questions that my (now almost five years of) education had not at all prepared me to answer. Water quality and supply issues, I was beginning to see, are whether we like it or not political and jurisdictional issues. Needless to say, we left deflated and discouraged. I can now look back and see that this was perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever received: the truth and the reality.

During the entire trip, I craved water… craving it, but starved of it. I was gone only for a total of 9 days -the first time. I dreamt about a long hot shower the entire flight home to Canada… but everything had changed. Upon returning home I realized I was now a different person, with different values, and a different outlook on my world – and the world. I could no longer leave the water running when I showered. I would turn the taps off to lather the shampoo or soap. Quenching my thirst with clean, fresh, cheap and readily available water took on a whole new level of gratification for me; and perhaps the worst part – I was now angry. Angry at the lack of action and seeming lack of caring by other people in my life: did they not know that water was a finite resource? Could they not see that it is, in fact, liquid gold? Of course, the answer is that no, they couldn’t…no more so than I did before I had gone on the journey to Molinos. There was water all around us, and by most world standards – clean water.

Water Reservoir

Molinos, Chile homesteads and water reservoir.

After completing our fourth year project, two of our team members (including me) returned to Chile for nearly 2 months in the summer of 2002. During this summer, not nearly enough got accomplished – the same old, same old for the villagers and people in this part of the world. There were too many obstacles, too much money was required, and there were not enough resources. These were obstacles that we could not overcome. I was frustrated, disappointed, and now armed with the truth about engineering: it is much more than design work!

After returning to Canada in the fall of 2002 I started my graduate studies, which focused on water quantity and water sourcing issues. I have never forgotten my experiences in Molinos, Chile and now, as a teacher, I use those experiences to teach my students. I suspect it was the impact of this experience that has even driven me to become a teacher: to enlighten my students. I teach water resource courses in 3rd and 4th year engineering design courses, and now, a significant portion of what the students hear and read and learn surrounds the socio-economic implications of their “proposed designs”. In a country that appears to take its precious water resources for granted, I feel obligated to teach people that it in fact is a one-time gift, and that like any gift, it can one day be taken away. I can’t tell you whether water is a basic human need, or a basic human right. I can tell you the answer is not an easy one. It is often argued that it is a right because without water, there is no life. But as usual, the debate is muddied by political, jurisdictional and even civil rights. I don’t know what the “right” answer is, but I know that everyone in this world deserves the chance to provide themselves with a clean and sustainable water supply. I can also tell you that I have opened this dialogue with my students and that their opinions and the passion behind their opinions give me hope for the future of places in our world like Molinos, Chile.

Written by Claus

April 24th, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in MVP

2 Responses to 'Experience: Water – Basic Human Need or Human Right?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Experience: Water – Basic Human Need or Human Right?'.

  1. Hello, Cool article. I’ve only found out about blogs within the last couple of weeks and I am totally addicted!! It’s blogs like this that are responsible! 🙂 I’ve been so inspired that I made the decision to make my own blog. I am in the process of doing some research for a post i’m writing and would like to enquire if I can link to your article? I think it may be of some interest to my viewers. Cheers! Keep up the good work. Melissa Suffield

  2. Hi Melissa, thanks for the comment and your kind words! Of course you can link to the article. I would even encourage you to do so! Links between blogs and between webpages are a very powerful thing!

    Cheers, Claus

    Claus

    8 Apr 10 at 8:25 am

Leave a Reply