Thursday, July 29, 2010

El Porvenir - Sustainability Report

After leaving Blue Energy I headed back to the west half of Nicaragua, to the edge of a volcano where I had helped to design and install a community water pumping system over 3 years ago.The community, El Porvenir, is made up of 59 families from very mixed backgrounds. As Nicaraguan history has shown, this is a nation of very distinct ideological groups. The Contra War of the 70’s divided the country and led to immense amounts of bloodshed, mostly in the northern mountain region. El Porvenir is proof that organization can lead to peace, as the community is comprised of Contras, Sandinistas, past military advisors, and political officials. They have formed a communal cooperative and live mostly on the profits from bi-annual coffee harvests.Through connections with an NGO in Managua, they have achieved fair-trade organic, rustic shade grown coffee status. They export their coffee to another NGO and roaster based in Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh!) called Building New Hope. All hours worked by cooperative members are counted and then directly translate into an equivalent share of profits from sales.

Over three years ago as an undergraduate student I was looking for a senior design project that would have some MEANING and would be really VALUABLE to someone. Through connections with the service-learning office at Bucknell University I, and three other fellow students, designed a project to provide water to El Porvenir. At that time the cooperative’s only water source was a fresh-water well at the base of the volcano they are perched on, 1200 feet and 5 Km. below. The well, over 400 feet deep was fitted with a deep-well pump and powered by a diesel generator. The pump delivered the water to a steel water tank near the well, still at the bottom of the volcano. The cooperative also has three very large storage tanks up in their community, and catch rainwater whenever possible to satisfy all of their needs for water. In the approximately six-month “dry season” when rain was not consistent, they were forced to get water from the well at the bottom of the mountain. This meant they relied on their ancient Ford 500 diesel farm tractor to drive the 45 minute trip down the hill, fill up as many water jugs as possible, and then head back up the hill. Multiple trips were made every day to ensure that every person in the community was allowed at least two gallons of water every day. Six hours of work and 1,085 Córdoba (~$43 USD) was spent on gas and workers every day. It was not an easy life.

My team and I designed and installed a water pumping system that took water from the tank at the bottom of the mountain all 5 Km. up to the storage tanks in the community. The pump was run by an electric motor, with power from the same diesel generator already in use.

This summer I wanted to come back and see how everything was doing and, for the first time, speak with the men I had sweat with in construction over three years ago. Now I speak Spanish, and back in my university days all I could generate was a simple “hola”. To make the trip even more special, I was driven up the mountain by members of the Alumni Trip of the Bucknell Brigade, the service-learning trip at Bucknell that first exposed me to Nicaragua. We arrived at the top of the mountain after some slipping and sliding on the muddy trail uphill, and I immediately recognized a boy standing there watching these gringos drive up to their home. I asked him name, and he told me it was Alexander. I distinctly remembered him from a picture I have from my trip three years ago. The picture was of me chasing him around his school, much smaller, smiling ear-to-ear. He is the boy on the right. It was surreal to see him again, all grown up. I snapped a quick picture with him, and just kinda chuckled to myself. This world is crazy.

All in all I spent a week up in El Porvenir, sleeping in a hammock on the community center porch overlooking Nicaraguas valleys and volcanos, and waking up to the sunrise early in the morning(sometimes, haha). It was great to see people collecting water from the tanks at the top of the mountain, even though I was there during the rainy season and the pump was not being used. The galvanized steel pipe that entered the tank made the project very real. I was not involved in the installation of the pipeline, as that occurred well after the pump house construction which I worked on, so it was extremely satisfying seeing the project FINISHED.

I spent the days talking with people about the system, walking every inch of the pipeline, turning on the pumps and see the system work, and interviewing/auditing the water committee. All in all I am proud to say that the system looks to be pretty sustainable, overall. In terms of saving time and money to the community, the system is doing great. Before its installation I calculated that every home was receiving 10 gallons of water, and to provide these 10 gallons per house the cooperative was expending 3 hours of work and $542 Córdoba. Now that the system is installed I have calculated that each house is receiving at least 20 gallons. As a comparison to the previous system, to provide each 10 gallons per house, I calculated that the cooperative is expending about 15 minutes of work and $213 Córdoba. They are saving about 2 hours and 45 minutes of work as well as $329 Cordoba ($15 USD) for each 10 gallons of water they receive, and they have also at least doubled their water availability in the dry season. The system seems to be in good working condition and, in this first year of operation with many quick repairs and fixes, the cooperative handled all hurdles that came their way.

All in all, I feel extremely lucky to have been given the chance to go back and see, talk to, and get to know the people of El Porvenir. And I have to say, it was great to see how satisfied the whole community was with the project, and proud they were to finally have a constant water source year round.

I even had a chance to chow down on some forest iguana-doesn’t look as cute all skinned does it?

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