Where’s the Water Source? Why the Obvious Solution Isn’t Always the One That Works

Global Challenges, Local Solutions (4)

Getting safe, drinkable water to rural communities is more challenging than you think. In a previous article, I debunked the myths that boiling water was a safe solution and argued that household filters are not a strong enough replacement. Now, let’s discuss one of the major challenges for designing an effective system that delivers piped treated water to households: choosing the best water source.

Climate change, regional conflicts, and industrial and commercial activities put many traditional water sources of small communities (and even larger communities as we saw in Flint, Michigan) at a significant risk for contamination. Therefore, when we are searching for a water source for a new water system, the solution is often not the source the community has historically used, rather what source the communities can currently access in a sustainable, equitable, and financially viable way. And that water source…. is not always easy to find.

Take communities along the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo for example. While there is an abundance of water from the Baram River, it is not the best water source for the community, even though it is only hundreds of feet away.

Baram River, Malaysian Borneo.

First, the Borneo forests are heavily affected by industrial timber harvesting to the extent that water flowing in the river has high runoff of clay and silt throughout the year (you can actually see it in satellite imagery of the region)! Historically the river only had such high runoff during the rainy season – not year-round. Treating this water means we would have to use sophisticated methods such as coagulation and flocculation (the process of removing solid particles from water through mixing and chemical catalyzers), vast sedimentation tanks (expanded water pools that allow suspended particles in water to settle at the bottom of the pool), or roughing filters (sand based filters that remove some larger particles from water without dropping its flow rates significantly). Coagulation or flocculation are not cost effective or even plausible for small remote communities.

Second, the high level of agricultural activities in the region expose the river to potentially harmful levels of pesticides. A study by Yale University suggests that almost half of Borneo’s lowland forests have vanished now due to palm oil plantations. Unfortunately, such activities are still on the rise, meaning that increasing agricultural runoff threatens the river’s water well into the future.

However, risk factors are not limited to immediately-visible problems like high turbidity and industrial agriculture. The Chachi indigenous community of Jeyambi, in northern Ecuador, is built on a horseshoe in the clear-running Zapallo River, and several spring-fed creeks flow into the Zapallo within a few hundred feet of the community. However, despite the abundance of water, none of these sources provide sustainable water access: illegal gold mining upstream contaminates the Zapallo’s waters with heavy metals and petroleum products, the expanding agricultural frontier of neighboring communities threatens to deforest the land surrounding the neighboring springs, and a failure-prone electrical grid would make solar or gasoline-powered pumping from any of these sources to the hilltop community unsustainably expensive.

In consultation with the community and local Chachi leadership, GE and our partners opted to use an elevated stream located five kilometers from Jeyambi in the protected forest reserve of the neighboring Chachi community of Tsejpi. While gaining access to this stream required a significant extra expense and effort from the community to install additional pipelines, the benefits in water quality and reliability more than justified the investment.

María Roxi de la Cruz Cimarrón, resident and mother from Jeyambi explained, “My whole life, when you needed water for the bathroom, for the kitchen, when you needed to bathe, for anything, you went down to the river. Everybody had to go down to the river…but women, and girls, really had the brunt of the task, because we use most of the water – cooking, cleaning, other tasks around the house. Now that we’ve got the water system, things have really changed – it’s a dream come true, and we made it happen with our own hard work.” (Photos: Gustavo Huera Cuases)

The water source impacts the options for water distribution. Water sources located below the elevation of the community (like wells) prohibit gravity fed systems, the simplest and our preferred option for a distribution system. But Green Empowerment is ultimately technology agnostic, we believe in using the most appropriate technology given the cross-section of local geography, resources available, and social political factors. When necessary we employ solutions like ram pumps, solar water pumps, and conventional grid connected water pumps. However, using pumps requires additional financial investment and ongoing maintenance and operational costs. For this and other maintenance challenges Green Empowerment’s network of local partner organizations and technicians are a critical resource for community management committees.

From contamination caused by agriculture and industry, to unreliable water flow from degraded watersheds, to the elevation of a water source, many factors can tip the scale and make the most obvious water source a less desirable one. Stay tuned for my next article where I will discuss our combined approach of considering technical/environmental factors in tandem with local social and political perspectives in order to choose the best water source.

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