I can hardly believe that this will be my last update to you from El Salvador … after three years and nine months in this country, I am so used to my life here that I find it difficult to imagine anything else. But although there is much work left to do in El Amatón, this will be left to the Rural Health and Sanitation Volunteer who will follow me, and most importantly, to the community itself. While I am sad at the prospect of leaving the community that has been my home for three and a half years, I am looking forward to taking the next steps in my life, and especially to reconnecting with all of YOU again!
Water System Infrastructure Project:
What a long and frustrating struggle this has been! As you all know, the Mayor & Co. completed construction on their water project last year, but the water remained off due to legal and technical problems (the Mayor does not have the land title, or permission, to the area where the well is drilled, and supposedly an incorrect pump was installed). As you also know, for the last year and a half I have been working with the community to solicit the necessary funds to install a solar-powered pumping system, in order to decrease electricity costs and make the project more sustainable. Since my last email in December, we actually managed to secure nearly $140,000.00 in funding for this project from some major donors -- the Spanish Association for International Cooperation, Rotary International, and the United Nations Development Program. This would have been enough for a 100% solar system – four pumping stations with solar panels at the well and three intermediate tanks, pumping water to the tank completely independently of the electrical grid. There would have even been money left over for watershed conservation efforts.
About three weeks ago, everything seemed to be coming together for the project to go forward. Since neither the Mayor nor the community had permission to the well drilled by the Mayor, the community proposed to drill a new well in a closer location, where the hydro-geological studies we did in 2006 showed an aquifer. The idea was to connect the new well, with the solar pumping system, to the existing tubing and tank. A delegation of community leaders went (with the engineers helping to design the project and people from the donating institutions) to inquire about obtaining permission to connect the new well to the Mayor´s system of tubing and tank. To our surprise, the Mayor gave a verbal OK, with a promise to elaborate a written permission for the following week. We were so excited! It seemed that at last, after years of struggling, El Amatón was going to have a truly sustainable water project.
It all started during the last week of March, when a commission named by the community went to the Mayor’s office, supposedly to pick up the Municipal Agreement that they had agreed to elaborate, ceding permission to use the existing tubing and tank with the new well. They came back empty-handed and discouraged: apparently, the Mayor had changed his mind because he feared that if a new well was drilled, his well (that is, the illegal, contaminated, and really far away well) would be left unused.
We fought the good fight. We made calls to the engineers at the UCA, the folks at Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Foreign Relations who were managing the Spanish Cooperation funds, and the Rotarians from the Santa Ana Club to try to talk to the Mayor again, without encouraging results. Melvin and Aroldo, representing the ADESCO, accompanied me to the UCA to meet with the engineers and the folks from the Ministry of Environment to try to formulate a solution. Finally, we had to admit that the solar panel project could not be done. We had no security to the current well, so we could not put the panels there. We couldn't drill another well because we had no tubing to connect it to. And due to the high altitude change between the water source and the tank, the system would have been technically complicated (with four pumping stations) and expensive if parts needed to be replaced quickly due to vandalism or sabotage (a not unlikely possibility given the Mayor's aversion to projects other than the ones he can claim credit for). I hung my head as Melvin, Aroldo, Ing. Villalta from the UCA, Ing. Zambrana from the Ministry of Environment, and I stood at the base of the water storage tank and the reality sunk in that the truly sustainable water project I had fought for with everything I had for the past three years and five months would not become a reality, at least not in El Amatón.
In the meeting with the community that followed, we explained the situation and discussed what would be the most appropriate use of the funds. Finally, the community decided to propose to the donors that part of the funds be transferred to a watershed conservation project, and the remainder (the majority, since watershed conservation is not a super-high budget activity) be distributed to other communities for solar-powered pumping systems where the people do not currently have access to potable water and solar pumping is a more feasible option.
As I rode back to San Salvador with the engineers (I had an appointment the next day in San Vicente for my final language interview and was planning to go and visit Silvia and Niña Dora, my host family from training), I reflected on the decisions made. I think they were the right ones. I am sure there are hundreds of communities in El Salvador that still do not have potable water, and some that do not have electricity either, where solar energy really is the only option. I sincerely hope that we can give the gift of water to these communities.
When we stopped at a gas station outside San Salvador, as Ing. Zambrana hopped out to fill up the tank, Ing. Villalta turned around and asked me, ''How do you feel? ''. I hardly knew how to respond – things had changed so fast I was still processing it all. The fate of three and a half years of my work had just been turned upside down. The day before the last meeting, I had been nearly hysterical with nervousness as I sat and talked with don Salomón and Aroldo about the few people in the community, the Mayor's puppets, who were actively working against the solar panel project. ''Why can't I just go home, tranquila, and not worry about this anymore?'' I sobbed. ''I've done everything I can to try to help you implement a good water project, I've put my heart and soul and all my resources into this fight. I've told myself I'm not going to worry about it, that's not going to do any good, and that now it is up to the community to unite if it wants this project. But then in two seconds I'm worried about it again.'' I sobbed as don Salomón tried to comfort me.
''It's because you feel love for the community,'' he said gently. ''When you feel love, you can't help but worry.'' I collected myself a little.
''I know, I know,'' I said. ''It's like it says in the Bible – we are all part of one body, and when one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. Honestly, in a few weeks I will be home in the U.S. and I will have all the clean water I want in my house. But there are so many good, good people here that don't deserve a bad water project. You deserve a well-thought out, sustainable project that will not tax your scarce resources so much. And it hurts me to know that you may not have it after so much effort.''
That was when we still had hope that maybe, just maybe the Mayor would be willing to reconsider. But now, knowing that the project could definitely not proceed, I felt strangely calm. It was a huge disappointment, of course, both for me and for the community I (mostly) love. But it was almost as if now, recognizing that the negative legal and technical factors were just too great, the pressure was off. We were done with this fight and it could not be won. We had to make the best of it and look for the best way to invest the money promised and try to improve El Amatón's water project in other ways.
And there are other ways to address the problems we hoped to address through a new, legalized, cleaner well and the solar panels. In addition to preparing the inquiries to the donors about transfer of the funds to other projects, I spent quite a bit of time preparing detailed recommendations for the community and for the next Volunteer regarding what they can do to make the water project more sustainable. They can continue working with the Institute for Human Rights at the UCA to legalize the well. The IDHUCA can also help them to legalize the Water Committee that the community named to administer the project, and draw up statutes (with community participation) defining project norms and rules. This will help ensure that administration is left in the hands of honest people selected by the community through democratic process. They can count on the help of UCA engineers to train the Committee in system maintenance and administration. And perhaps the next Volunteer can focus on income generation projects to help make payment of the service of water more feasible for the families.
At first, I thought, ''What a shame. What a waste of a year and a half. The people of El Amatón are no better off than they were when we started designing the solar panel project. They are in exactly the same situation that they would have been in had I gone home at the end of my two years of service.'' But as I thought about it more, I found things to console me. For one thing, the Mayor has now turned on the water. Without the threat of another project being implemented, there is no doubt that the Mayor would have never turned on the water system before the 2009 elections. So people have gotten water a little bit sooner, although this is small consolation knowing the problems of the system.
No, I would say that looking back on the last year, what I am really glad about, what I take most pride in, is the filters project. The water from the Mayor's project may be expensive and contaminated, but at least people now have in their hands the infrastructure, and most importantly the knowledge, to protect their health giving adequate treatment to the water. And I suppose I should not underestimate the importance of the capacity-building that has taken place in the past year with community organizations: the ADESCO, the Health Committee, and the Agriculture Committee (many of whose members will hopefully compose part of the new Water Committee to administer the project). They have learned many skills, such as designing, soliciting, and managing projects, which will hopefully help the community to overcome any problems it should encounter in the future.
So my service is ending with a big disappointment in the area in which I have invested the most time and energy. But there have been other, modest successes:
Since my last email, the filters project has really come into its own. Numbers don´t tell everything, but sometimes I think I lose sight of the big picture when I am in the midst of delivering and installing the filters and training the families one by one. But as doing the monthly reports reports has helped me to see, we ARE having a substantial impact in the community: we´ve installed 73 filters installed, providing safe drinking water to 382 people. But numbers are just numbers. I think the smiling kids with glasses of clean water in the pictures say it best.
Much more than any number of filters installed, I´m most proud of the way the project has built the capacity of the Health Committee. They have learned so much and taken on so many new responsibilities: education of their fellow community members, monitoring, managing donations, preparing reports … all the skills they will need to keep carrying out projects to improve community health, little by little.
Since it is dry season, we have been on ¨break¨ from most agriculture-related projects. But the women from the home gardens project have been making their compost piles and plan to plant again this year. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Committee is gearing up to execute a project of vegetable cultivation on a commercial scale, with technical support from the Ministry of Agriculture and the financial support of my ever-generous church family at Wildwood Presbyterian (you guys are the best!). In a cooperative effort, they will cultivate about a half-acre in different vegetables for both home consumption and sale in the market. This will hopefully help boost their families’ incomes, since vegetables are much more profitable than the basic grains (corn and beans) they now cultivate. If the project goes well, the Committee hopes to expand the project, perhaps by soliciting a grant for construction of a rainwater catchment tank and installation of a drip irrigation system, in order to allow them to cultivate vegetables year-round.
One ag project that has been active in the dry season is the improved chicken raising project. During the rainy season, it´s not the greatest idea to be raising tiny chicks because they are so vulnerable to the wet and the cold. But the dry season is perfect time to incubate new chicks, and the women fired up the incubator again in January. Most people in the project (and many others) signed up for a slot to brings eggs to incubate and increase their flocks.
Niña Yolanda pulls out the bottom tray of the incubator to show the chicks hatching
After over a year of waiting, a library project from Rotary International that I had been working on with about 10 other Volunteers finally came to fruition in March. With much hassle and the payment of a couple bribes (I’m serious) we received two shipping containers of beautiful books to start or expand libraries in 11 rural schools, and I gave a training on library organization and reading promotion.
Fellow PCVs Barbara, Chip, and I with a Ministry of Education employee
sorting the books to make sets for each school
When I first joined Peace Corps and arrived in El Amatón, I imagined that I would leave everything perfect in the community: a sustainable water system, the entire area forested, all the lands with soil and water conservation practices and diversified agriculture, everyone participating in keeping a clean, healthy community, no trash in sight. I've found that community development is a much messier process than I ever imagined, and the biggest obstacle is not getting funds. It's motivating everyone to work together for the true good of the community. So there is a lot of work left to do. I am leaving the next Volunteer, and most importantly the community, a lot of challenges still to be overcome.
So I didn't save the world. Not even close. I didn't even dramatically change the lives of the people of one community. But I have learned a few things along the way that should serve me well as I work with communities in the future. Community members have obtained skills and knowledge that will serve them well in their efforts toward sustainable development. I have made some wonderful, wonderful friends. And even if their lives are not dramatically different, I hope that the lives of the people of El Amatón are a little bit better because I have been there. And I guess that for now, that will have to do.
Tommorrow I head to Guatemala and southern Mexico for two and a half weeks, then I’ll be back in Wisconsin and Illinois for about a month and a half. I’d love to see as many of you as possible before I head east to Cornell. There, I’ll work as a lab and field assistant in some organic agriculture studies from mid-June until August, when I start classes in my grad program.
Con amor desde El Salvador one more time,