Two machete-wielding guides lead the way. Two more position themselves in the back. The route between San Andres and the ojo de agua (the community’s water source) starts at the edge of the riverbank community, beyond the scattering of stick-built homes and into the thick of the forested Indigenous territory.
Following an initial muddy ascent, we navigate through jungle overgrowth and vine curtains, across fallen fruits on the forest floor, under and over downed trees, stumbling through lush vegetation, slipping on riverbed stones, and altogether feeling small swathed in the green walls that surround us. We alternate between carrying an extra 10 pounds of mud on our rubber boots and washing them clean as we criss-cross the stream of water we loosely follow, defying its direction of flow as it reaches instead for the Rio Coco.
While much of the pipe that connects the water source to the community’s water tank has been buried (a feat that is difficult to comprehend considering the landscape), lengths of pipe, all but camouflaged by the lush surroundings, also run above ground, supported in some places by moss-covered concrete bases, and in others by the crook of a well-placed tree branch.
In a particularly vulnerable section, a repair is obvious, the pipe sagging between supports. Alternating red plastic wrap and a woven textile provide a strategic cummerbund around the pipe’s circumference – an attempt to stop the bleeding caused by Hurricane Iota’s wrath last year. Strands of metal wires slung around the pipe and a nearby low-hanging branch twist together to provide a makeshift supplemental sling support. There is no lack of resourcefulness here.
A lot of mud, a little machete-trail blazing, and a fair amount of pipe-following later, we reach the water source. It is by way of a seemingly simple concrete structure that water flows from the stream we have been following through a pre-filter of rocks and pebbles (to reduce the sediment) before moving into the water main – the at-times cobbled together pipe we have also been following upstream.
The team collects samples and performs water quality tests. The results of which will be read in time. We head back. Again, we follow the leader. We listen for monkeys. We chew on sugar cane. We soak in the stories of the seemingly fearless – stories of fights witnessed between yellow beards and anacondas, stories of heroic wild boar hunts, and of wild adventures in the wild. And we all laugh.
Until we’re not laughing anymore. While the tests for heavy metal contamination of the water source come back clear, tests for bacterial contamination are less so. A subsequent visit to the community water tank – the storage receptable for the water piped down from the source – reveals that it is only operating at half-capacity. Water to individual homes originates at tank level which means that the water supply reaching the community is limited by its performance.
In short, though the water source is abundant, at the home level, sometimes there is water; sometimes there is not. And when there is water, consumption without consequence is a gamble.
But, there is also a good news story. The water source here is healthy. With sustainable water management practices and community engagement, overcoming the bad news is possible.
Later this month, with the support of the Bishop Croteau Development Foundation, our partners at EOS International will return to the BOSAWAS to initiate the process of improving the community’s water system. Installation of and continuous management of a chlorinator will make the water safe to drink, and repairs to the tank and pipe and valves will make the system less vulnerable. The community water committee will be engaged in order to prioritize needs and re-establish responsibility for the system.
The water systems of seven communities along the Rio Coco are being evaluated, and plans to establish a Circuit Rider – a water system technician – local to the area to provide ongoing support and water committee capacity-building are underway.
And so, reaching the goal of safe sustainable water systems in the BOSAWAS begins now with one community’s water.