Over the 2009-10 school year, a group of Harvard students led by Gordon Bae contacted non-profit organizations such as Sustainable Bolivia and SimpleTek to learn more about sustainable clean water technologies. After researching a variety of technologies, ultraviolet water filters and chlorination were selected as low-cost tools with easy implementation.
Refresh Bolivia’s inaugural trip to Bolivia in Summer 2010 gave the group an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the unique exigencies of working in a developing country and we embarked on our journey to improve access to clean water in Bolivia. The group re-established ties with San Jose de la Banda B traveled to the site to test the local water for bacteria and scope out a location to install the filter. The students also struck new ground, establishing relationships with the town leader, or dirigente, of another community called Molle Molle. The group had originally planned to equip each family with a small chlorine dispenser, but observation of the village’s water supply system revealed that the town kept water communally in large tanks, so chlorinating these tanks would be the most efficient way to sanitize water.
Refresh Bolivia left Cochabamba in Summer 2010 feeling confident that chlorination and filtration would be sustainable solutions to cleaning water in public receptacles, but we knew that water could still be contaminated nearer to people’s homes, as they had no sanitary bathrooms. Over the following school year, we researched sustainable latrines and chose a model similar to the one developed by Dr. Peter Morgan for its simple one-chamber pit, which would facilitate fast construction, and the potential for human waste to be used as fertilizer, which could economically benefit families. The latrine also has a ventilation tube for releasing the smell of excrement.
Finding a Work Site
Refresh Bolivia arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia in August 2011 with a team of 7 Harvard students brimming with enthusiasm. The first step of our project was identifying a village that could benefit from latrines and would be responsible for maintaining the toilets after Refresh Bolivia’s departure. We settled on a village named Monte Olivos, which also was in contact with a group of responsible urban public health professionals called the Comisión Social. Monte Olivos is in the in the Zona Sur of Cochabamba near Kilómetro 9. The barrio houses about 40 families living on illegally purchased lotes with no infrastructural support from the Cochabamba municipal government, leading to poor access to electricity, little investment in schools, and no funding for sewage or water distribution systems. The Comisión Social helped us contact four families who were established and trusted community members of Monte Olivos. They also allotted land in the local Apoyo Escolar, a local after-school building children, for a bathroom.
A complementary preparation to building latrines was finding a professional to aid in construction. Although we had researched in the United States on bathroom design, Refresh Bolivia wanted a construction worker to provide engineering advice. Through contacts with Sustainable Bolivia, we met a water technologies specialist named Enrique. Because of our limited time and construction experience, he suggested we revise our initial design with brick walls to one with cheaper and lighter corrugated metal walls. We were highly invested in cultivating a feeling of private ownership in the bathrooms we helped construct in Monte Olivos. The families in Monte Olivos lacked the economic means to pay for the materials to build a bathroom, even if they were enthusiastic about having one. The men also had to work during the day, and could not afford to partake in the entire construction process. However, we did insist that all families that received bathrooms dig their own holes for waste, and that they help with the heavy lifting of the cement roof and floor on the final day of construction. The work requirement and support of the Comisión Social helped facilitate the sustainability of the latrines.
All materials were purchased in la Cancha, the huge open-air market of Cochabamba, or in construction materials stores on the road between la Cancha and Monte Olivos, so residents of Monte Olivos can easily obtain the materials for building. When we left, one man was working on building a latrine for his own house using some of Refresh Bolivia’s leftover concrete and iron and some of his own purchased sheet metal and nails. Ideally, despite the economic investment in materials needed to construct a bathroom, families in Monte Olivos will become convinced of the need for sanitary latrines. Monte Olivos was an especially attractive site for latrine construction because most men are construction workers, and could erect a bathroom of high quality on their own.
During our Summer 2012 trip to Cochabamba we expanded the latrine-building project and built our first cisterns. We chose to pursue this project because although the latrines help prevent the contamination of water by feces, the water is still scarce. Building a cistern allowed the families store water from the rainy season, saving 7 bolivianos a day to be used in investing in education or medicine. Buying water in larger quantities from water trucks for storage in cisterns has had positive economic incomes, as children and women are no longer obligated to stay at home to wait for water.
Reservoir and Latrines
During the summer of 2013 we expanded our latrine project and constructed a reservoir for the first time. The volunteers were split up into two groups and alternated projects each day at Nuqanchik and Maica. All of the materials for the projects were again purchased from La Cancha and Sacaba. The latrines were built in the same manner as they have been in the past with the help of Enrique. We also hired a new architect with the help of La Parroquia to lead the reservoir construction. The volunteers and leaders also checked up on the status of previous latrines and cisterns which had been constructed from 2010-2012 to ensure that they were still being sustained by their owners.
The volunteers worked weekdays at both worksites for two weeks and during the weekends they were able to experience cultural and educational aspects of the city. They were able to visit the UAINAS (school centers) and towns that benefit from the water technologies that Refresh Bolivia has been implementing for a few years now and they found it to be a very rewarding experience.