Don Pancho and his wife, Doña Lucinda, their six daughters, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandson wait excitedly for the students to arrive, the dinner table set with plates of chicken and rice. Such a feast, but the day is special. When finally an SUV rounds the last turn on the dusty, bumpy mountain trail that leads to Don Pancho’s farm in La Garrucha, Guatemala, a shout goes out. "Arriba, arriba!" The Marquette students are finally here.
Water for La Garrucha
By Joni Moths Mueller Photography By Kat Berger
Men run from every direction to greet them, and for the first time the students realize how important the job they've undertaken is to this Mayan community. Although only one student speaks fluent Spanish, they and the Guatemalans trade greetings — maybe not expressing what they want to say with 100-percent accuracy, but nobody seems to care. The students are here; the project is off the ground.
What brought Marquette and La Garrucha together is a story about preparing engineers for the world. It all began at the start of the fall semester with this assignment: Design a system to bring clean water to the homes of 170 families living in the mountain highlands of Guatemala. It must be affordable to build and simple to maintain. It should take advantage of the region's natural resources and be constructed of materials available locally. Design it to withstand the elements, especially the seven- or eight-month rainy season that may be punctuated with hurricanes and the three or four months of drought that follow. And keep in mind that families will depend on this system for the next 20 years to bring clean, healthy water into their homes to cook, wash clothes, bathe, water animals and irrigate crops.
The students accepted the challenge. Led by teacher Mike Paddock, an engineer with CH2MHILL in Milwaukee who happens to have an uncommon passion for Guatemala, they embarked on what one student describes as "a real exercise in real engineering." It took them to La Garrucha twice, the first time to evaluate the current water resource and nearby alternatives, take water samples and assess the health of families in the community. On the second trip the engineering class presented a concrete proposal for change.
Imagine this invitation on the first day of class: "Sign your waiver form and return it to me next week. Make sure you have Hepatitis A and Typhoid protection, and that your tetanus is up to date. We'll be at 5,000-foot elevation so malaria isn't a concern."
La Garrucha's need matched the College of Engineering's desire to offer a challenging water project as an elective. Dr. Daniel Zitomer, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, submitted a proposal for funding to People, Prosperity and the Planet, a contest funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to engage college students in developing sustainable solutions to technology needs in developing countries. Marquette's proposal won one of this year's 50 grants. With that news, Paddock sends out a quick e-mail to announce the class and five truly outstanding civil engineering students respond: Amy Mikus, John "Jack" Berg, Alicia Wantoch, Mark Von Dollen and Adrianna Stanley.
One-sixth of the world lacks clean drinking water, Paddock tells the class, which makes bringing clean water to developing countries such as Guatemala a top target of the United Nations. In the United States, water usage hovers around 150 gallons per person per day. In a refugee camp, the UN suggests 1.5 gallons per person per day. "We will aim for 30 to 40 gallons per person per day," he says.
Paddock offers to talk to parents who are uneasy about their son or daughter traveling to Central America. Mikus warns Paddock to expect a call from her mom and tells him later, "I don't know what you said, but you talked your way into another pair of hands for this project."Mikus is ready to go.
Von Dollen quickly applies for a passport. He isn't sure whether he'll be able to join the class on the first trip to Guatemala in October, but he plans to be ready for the follow-up trip in January. "I realized I’ve been waiting to do something like this since freshman year," he says. "Service is such an important part of the Marquette experience. I’d hoped to make the time and commitment to follow through on something like this."
Von Dollen’s luck holds; his passport arrives the week the class is set to leave. "I took two years of Spanish in high school because it was required. I didn’t realize how much I should’ve been paying attention," Von Dollen admits.
He’s eager to get to La Garrucha — all the students are. It’s time to take the project to the next level.
Two years ago Paddock joined a group of Marquette engineering students and PAVA, a nongovernmental Guatemalan organization that works on development projects with local communities, in building a 67-foot bridge across the Motagua River to connect the villages of Panchaj and La Garrucha. For the first time La Garrucha’s school teacher could cross the river during the rainy season to reach his students and school house. A bond was built then between Marquette and La Garrucha, and out of it, enough trust that Don Pancho asked for help with another project. This one touches on something crucial to the health and well-being of his family and his neighbors’ families, who are often sickened by the water coming from the only usable spring.
The spring was tapped 20 years ago when La Garrucha’s population was a fraction of what it is today. On most days the water runs out by midmorning, and the villagers know the water is a mixed blessing. The concrete spring box that once protected the water has deteriorated over time. Now surface runoff loaded with everything from foliage to animal droppings flows into the spring. The water makes people sick, especially the very young and the very old. Last year, five of 25 newborns died from water-related causes.
Others have tried to solve this problem. In 1997 after an extensive search of the area, the families of La Garrucha sold chickens and corn and purchased the rights to a distant spring. In 2004 they hired a Guatemalan firm to design a water system. The plan for conducting the water from the Xecoxol Spring to La Garrucha, a distance of 6.5 kilometers, was expensive, costing one million quetzals, or about $120,000.
"Impossible,"Paddock says. "The only chance La Garrucha has of getting a water system is this class."
Conducting the water from the Xecoxol Spring would be difficult. Not only would pipe have to be dug into rocky mountainsides, the pipeline would have to cross a river. Closer to La Garrucha is a lagoon that has never been tapped for water because it’s unclean. A second spring nearby, the Motagua Spring, offers a small amount of water and could be wrapped into a system to serve a section of the community.
"This community clearly knows they want something better," Paddock tells the students. "Our job is to see if there is another way that’s more economical that will enable them to get water."
In 1996 Guatemala signed a peace accord to end a 20-year civil war. Since then some cities have grown and modernized. But away from the cities, up in the mountains, the traditional Mayan culture remains nearly untouched. Women wear the traditional traje, a long skirt and colorful, embroidered blouse. The men wear Western-style hats and carry machetes. La Garrucha’s families are subsistence farmers who grow what they need to eat and trade for anything else. Their homes are simple with mud floors and open-pit latrines. They wash dishes and clothes in a pila, a large outdoor sink, and cook over a fire.
Don Pancho’s house is the central gathering place, and it offers one unusual modern convenience, a public-address system pointed out onto the mountain valley. This is how news is sent throughout La Garrucha, and it isn’t long before neighbors find reasons to walk by. Many have never seen a U.S. student before.
"I was a little surprised by how happy everyone was to see us," Wantoch admits later. Even though no one spoke English, we were always able to communicate and have fun. They were so protective of us."
Don Pancho’s daughters and sons grab hold of every opportunity to be near the students, especially Mikus and Wantoch. Seeing young women do what is considered men’s work is intriguing, but so is how the students have fun. One evening, after the girls watch the students play a game of rummy, they grab the deck of cards and hold their hands up in a sign to ask Wantoch, "How do you deal?" Wantoch shows them to sort and stack the cards with all the numbered sides facing down, and how to match pairs and face cards. Giggling, they grab the deck and deal four cards each and make up their own game as they go along.
Living with Don Pancho’s family and walking the mountain trails gives the students a better sense of the challenges to building a water system. The men La Garrucha named to solve the village’s water problem, El Comité del Agua, are efficient guides. Swinging his machete heavily through a dark curtain of branches and vines, Rolando Vielman Marroquin, the president of the Water Committee, hacks paths through the dense forest to open trails. Four or five members of the Water Committee stay with the students at all times, helping them along the steep mountain trails and handing them across rivers to potential sites for a water system. The October trip is a quick fact-finding visit, just five days, but in that time the students get the data they need.
"I won’t be so nervous when we go back," Wantoch says later. "Now I see the project in a whole new way, and I’ll apply that in January."
Mikus was 11 years old when the community purchased the spring and rights to lay a pipeline. "It’s so incredibly important to them, and they want to be involved," she says. "We need the information that only they can give us — they are a valuable part of this project."
Back on campus the students study the options — lagoon or springs. They test water samples for toxicants and find a high level of fecal coliforms. Cleaning the existing spring box and distribution tank offers a short-term fix at that site. They build a slow sand filter at Marquette’s lab and test it at Milwaukee’s Linnwood Water Treatment Plant. With the help of Dan Welk, the plant manager, they tweak the filter so that it’s ready to take to Guatemala. The filter will be installed on the site of the Xecoxol Spring to see whether this simple purification system can improve the water quality. Stanley drafts a topographic map and marks where the class thinks pipelines could run.
"The coolest part is that we’re actually helping people," Stanley says. "Given this great skill set by the university and through this class by Mike, it’s neat to think about what I can do to give back."
Berg agrees: "Mike has inspired us to use our engineering knowledge in service and given us confidence to put our knowledge to good use."
To accomplish everything in time for the next visit to La Garrucha, they divide into teams and plan two distribution lines. They break for Christmas with plans to meet at Marquette at 3 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 3, and set out for the important trip back to Guatemala.
The students call themselves Compañeros del Comité, companions of the committee, to reflect their respect for the village officials and the fact that their proposal is based on joined efforts of Marquette and the people of La Garrucha. They propose two options. One is to use the lagoon. It involves some maintenance challenges, including use of a siphon and pump, both of which are complex technology for this community to understand and maintain. The second option is to develop the Xecoxol Spring. Here, too, La Garrucha will have to tackle challenges, including embedding a long pipeline. Both options would cost nearly the same to implement.
Berg says working on this project has been a lesson in understanding the difference between American and third-world engineering. "We have the tools to make projects happen efficiently, but we have to adhere to strict codes and a demanding public. In Guatemala," Berg says, "the tools and supplies are not nearly as advanced, yet the codes are looser and the public is more appreciative than demanding."
The students’ proposals are now in the hands of El Comité del Agua. "Guatemalans believe in building consensus and won’t make a decision until there is 100-percent agreement," Paddock says.
In the meantime the students entered their water system solution in the final competition for funding from the People, Prosperity and the Planet Project. The EPA awards 10 projects with grants of up to $75,000. The prize money would nearly cover the cost of a water system for La Garrucha. The students and Paddock wait and hope.