Jason Selwitz has served with Green Empowerment since 2007. He is the Director of Service Learning/Program Manager and lived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1998–2000. He earned his Master’s in Regenerative Studies from Cal Poly Pomona with focus on the nexus between water and energy issues. Over the last three years, he has spent much time working with AsoFenix and the communities of the Cerro San Geronimo region of central Nicaragua. Jason can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
From 2004 through 2009, the Phoenix Association (AsoFenix) and Green Empowerment teamed with four rural farming communities in the municipality of Teustepe in the Department of Boaco, Nicaragua to install solar powered community clean water drinking systems in each village. The villages of Candelaria (completed in 2004 for 240 people), Potreritos (completed in 2006 for 500 people), Bramadero (completed in 2007 for 240 people), and Sonzapote (completed in 2009 for 480 people) now have water from each system’s main tank fed via gravity directly to each household. Each household had to construct a latrine to be allowed to receive water plumbed to their home. All four communities formed their own water committee to manage the operations and monthly maintenance tariff that they alone (not AsoFenix) collected from each household.
Since late 2008, AsoFenix and Green Empowerment have begun to work with a fifth nearby village, El Jocote, on organizing and preparing the community to operate and maintain a community water delivery system — slated for installation by late 2010/early 2011 through the generous support of one of Portland’s Jewish congregations, Havurah Shalom. It is important to realize that the five villages (including El Jocote) encircle a prominent hill named Cerro San Geronimo, and “as the crow flies,” the villages are all within one to three miles distance of one another. The Cerro San Geronimo region exists within a dry tropical forest zone where rains usually fall between May and the end of November of each year. During these months, many of the households collect rainwater off their roof to augment needs and reduce stress on the community water system.
Since the end of the 2008 rainy season, whether due to an El Niño/La Niña cycle or the progression of climate change, there have been no significant, sustained rains in the Cerro San Geronimo region. As a result of the lack of the rain to recharge groundwater supplies, the water level in Bramadero has dropped about 10m. In the past, during the height of the rainy season, the 40m well in Bramadero was often flush with ground level. However, at present, families in Bramadero must ration water from the well, rely on smaller hand dug family wells, and in addition, are resorting back to hiking the two-mile distance (one-way) to El Jocote to fetch water, sometimes more than once per day. The extended drought has alerted the local people, AsoFenix, and Green Empowerment to the immediate and emerging necessity to manage the micro-watersheds of Cerro San Geronimo differently. The people of Candelaria, Potreritos, and Sonzapote know all too well from the recent past what it is like to subsist on distant, non-potable and/or limited water supplies and do not want to see the levels of water in their wells drop as the well water in Bramadero has.
Deforestation and soil compaction are environmental issues in the region due to demand for firewood and unsustainable pasturing/agricultural practices. In the Cerro San Geronimo region, large landowners lease forested land to tenant farmers so they can grow their beans, corn, and millet. As the tenant farmers clear the land for firewood and to grow their crops for a couple of seasons, the large landowners eventually have a piece of land that they have cleared for free to run their cattle. When the cattle move in, the tenant farmers are moved and are forced to seek out other lands to lease and clear to grow their crops. As this cycle continues, so does deforestation and erosion, and correspondingly the ability of water to infiltrate and be captured in the soil is thereby greatly reduced. At the same time, dehydration, water-borne illness, lack of sanitation/hygiene, and poor nutrition (from a lack of fruits and vegetables) are all prevalent realities. In order to alleviate these human issues and provide for improved means of water security through rainwater capture when it does rain, more community consultations and work sessions, land use surveys and watershed assessments, hydro-geological studies, training workshops, erosion control practices, firewood reduction initiatives, land use changes, reforestation campaigns, weather monitoring, and economic incentives need to be adopted. This entire cycle of projects, from community involvement through reforestation efforts, could establish a model for replication in dry tropical forest communities with similar issues.
To begin the process of regeneration, in January 2009, a team of Portland residents and students from Portland State University’s Environmental and Business programs traveled to the Cerro San Geronimo region with AsoFenix and Green Empowerment. While there, the Portland team installed one solar powered drip irrigation system to water tomatoes, watermelon, and squash; installed one prototype wind turbine; studied micro-hydro and solar water pumping systems; helped install two household solar systems; planted fruit and forest tree species; and learned about shade grown coffee and farmer cooperatives.
In 2010, a second team of Portland residents and students from Portland State University’s Environmental and Business programs focused their efforts in the villages of Bramadero and El Jocote to conduct a land use survey and watershed assessment of the two neighboring communities/micro-watersheds, as well as, install a weather station in each community. Through the process, the Portland team tried to answer the question of why El Jocote, a community within only two miles of Bramadero, appears to have more abundant surface and groundwater resources than Bramadero. The answer may lie in part to: 1) the placement of the wells in relation to the local hydro-geology; 2) El Jocote residents’ philosophy of “water is life and trees help capture and store water”; and/or 3) their related practice of leaving more forest cover in the riparian zones of drainages that have naturally occurring springs, hand dug wells, and retention dams/infiltration basins called “pilas.” The differences between Bramadero and El Jocote’s “water security” practices were stark, yet El Jocote’s still has room for improvement.
Through the help of students and supporters in Portland, we are beginning to understand the complex relationships between human activity, culture, hydro-geology, land use, forest cover, soil quality, water practices and demand, and rainfall. We realize the health of the Cerro San Geronimo watersheds, the people of the region, and the climate are interdependent and we see an opportunity to develop and implement a model for water security and an improved standard of living. This model will integrate environmental monitoring, rainwater harvesting training workshops, interviews regarding traditional ecological knowledge, compiling rainwater harvesting research from around the world, further hydro-geological study, reforestation activities, and action. Through this comprehensive approach, the Cerro San Geronimo region, and other dry forested regions in the world, can adopt and replicate sustainable practices to secure needed water resources.