The Sacred Valley is full of paradoxes. Stunning vertical landscapes. Tourism and a hippy mecca. Andean Waldorf schools. And grinding poverty…
I first meet up with Sandra and Sandy: two good natured, down-to-earth Canadians who are volunteering in Peru. Sandra with Kuasay Wasi Clinic (http://kausaywasi.org/) and Sandy with DESEA, Desarrollo en Accion (www.deseaperu.org), Green Empowerment’s new partner in implementing a project to improve health through household water filters. With the exciting news from the Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, the project finally has the resources to really get off the ground. I am in the Sacred Valley to see the team of DESEA, meet the communities and work out the logistics of the new grant.
Ricardinia, the newly-hired field manager, took us out to the communities: Totora, Accha Pampa and Chaipa. While at about 4000 meters (13,000 feet) themselves, they were nestled in valleys with the surrounding peaks towering at the aching heights of 5000 meters (16,400ft). Ricardinia grew up a day’s walk from the closest road, in some hidden village in these sacred hills. She left for high school and trained to be a teacher. She heard the radio ad for the DESEA field manager and was hired on. She is a huge asset as she is the main cultural and linguistic bridge to the poor communities.
In Totora we met Gregorio, the filter workshop manager, who was the young mayor of this adobe village. He was dressed in western clothes and spoke in fluent Spanish with a Quechua accent that made round words sound like triangles. He had attended the CAWST (www.cawst.org) training as is a devotee of the biosand filters that he builds everyday. We caught him with a bundle of wire mess as he was heading to Pampallacta to repair the school’s filter.
When they saw Sandra arrive in Totora, a group of women gathered for a “clinic” (not a building, but an event). They squatted on the ground and unwrapped their bundles of brightly woven cloth to reveal children that needed a nurse’s eye.
We met a woman and her baby that had lost a dangerous amount of weight from diarrhea. She had taken her to the Kuasay Wasi clinic where she was given a dehydration solution. By the time I met the baby, she had gained back some weight and looked like she would survive, but it drove home the point that simple hygiene and clean water are the most important things we can do to save children’s lives.
These communities speak almost no Spanish. They maintain the poetic Quechua language and traditions alive. Everyday clothes look like a celebration, with dozens of buttons on the wrists arranged like pearls on an evening gown, and big flat round hats covered with ornate red cloth that dangled over the edge.
And yet, illiteracy, isolation, discrimination and malnutrition have taken their toll. Sandra describes meeting a woman who could not remember how many of her children had died; was it 5 or 6? I hear stories of a toddler eating paint, excessive alcohol and spouse abuse. I don’t see this kind of malnutrition where I live in Cajamarca, where rural people have few resources, but plenty of food, although both areas show signs of protein deficiency, with a diet based on rice and potatoes.
In Totora and Accha Pampa, we walk into the tiny dark kitchens, covered in soot, to see the filters. Ricardinia translates from Quechua. The people we met said they used the filters daily and even said that they had noticed an improvement in health of the children. They understand that the filters clean. The filters are made in one of the project communities out of local materials. The concrete structure is filled with sand and gravel which effectively remove pathogens.
Ricardina, Gregorio and the team say that everyone wants a filter. But once they have it, there are some (perhaps 15%) who don’t use it. Do they want it just because it’s a new thing to have in their home? It’s modern and different? Daily habits run deep too, thousands of years deep. And introducing some new-fangled things into those daily patterns is a hard thing to do. Even when you know it’s good for you. I know I should floss every day, but I don’t. It seems that here, the filter use and health education is not a secondary complement of filter installation, but needs to be at the core of the program.
We surveyed the existing water sources. In Totora, there is “agua entubada” (piped, but not potable, water) that just comes from an open river, above which the animals graze… Kids drink from water that comes from an open sink hole near the school. Other communities have gravity-fed water systems that deliver spring water to some of the houses, but not to others.
Sandy has a kit to test for total coliforms and fecal coliforms, which are indicators of unsafe drinking water. The streams have lots of fecal coliforms, the sealed water spring water distribution systems are clean and the filtered water is clean. However, this has shown several of the systems are not working properly and need to be fixed (the sand was not fine enough and the water passes too quickly). This monitoring tool helps them adjust the filter fabrication.
The complex social and cultural environment will pose plenty of challenges, but also makes the need for the health and water program all the more evident. With the support of Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, 150 filters will be built and installed. Most importantly, workshops on health and hygiene will be integrated into the program and health promoters trained from the communities. Something so simple can save a life. After spending time with the DESEA team and going to the communities, I am optimistic that this partnership has what it takes.