The Remarkable Story of Guatemala's Newest Water Infrastructure

After traveling nearly 2,000 miles by plane from Chicago to Guatemala City, then two hours by car over darkened roads to the city Sololá, members from the Wisconsin Water for the World Committee (WWWc) and I were looking out the window of our small hotel. There, we were surprised to see a large volcano, Volcán San Pedro.

There are no volcanoes in the Midwest where we call home. But our homes do have something many around the world unfortunately lack: access to clean drinking water. That is why in the next day we would be traveling two final miles through a deep ravine and around a mountain, to the small village of Chinimaya, where we would begin work installing Guatemala’s newest water system.

It was a week-long experience I will never forget.

Guatemala is home to more than 14 million people, the most populous country in Central America.

Solving a global issue, 100 homes at a time

It’s easy to forget in our modern American lives that there are 780 million people on earth that do not have access to safe drinking water. More than three times that many, 2.5 billion people (or a third of the population of the world) do not have access to adequate sanitation. Chinimaya is one such village in Central America that lacked these basic services.

Guatemala photo

Chinimaya is a rural community of approximately 500 people. The vast majority of their dwellings are made of simple adobe brick and corrugated metal roofs. The economy is largely agricultural. They spend much of their days tending their fields and obtaining water from area springs, rivers or lakes.

But over the past several years communities around Sololá have been collaborating with the WWWc and other organizations to improve their basic water services. So, after a series of other related projects in the area, our group has arrived ready to help continue a project that involves bringing water from a nearby mountain spring into the homes of 100 Chinimayans.

From mountain spring to tap

In Chinimaya, the water system was designed to make use of a plentiful resource: gravity. The system is an all gravity-fed system supplied by water collected from a mountain spring. Then it uses two pressure zones (an upper pressure zone and a lower pressure zone) to maintain acceptable water pressure at taps at peoples’ homes. With water pressure between 35 and 100 pounds per square inch, the system follows the same standards we use in the United States.

Water from the spring was distributed to 100 Chinimayan homes using a gravity-fed system with an upper pressure zone and a lower pressure zone. Each zone has its own 2,500-gallon water tank.

Upon arriving in Chinimaya, we set to work putting together all 100 water meter assemblies, assembling all 100 water taps (and associated galvanized piping to connect to the meters), flushing all 36 individual water service lines that went to each home in the upper zone, and then helped local masons finish constructing the upper tank.

Four days later the upper tank was finished, filled with water and ready to serve the upper pressure zone system. The following week, the lower tank, which served the remaining 64 homes in the lower pressure zone, was completed. Each home was connected to the new water system with a water meter and an external hose faucet, similar to the hose faucets we have outside our houses in the United States.

This makes for another parallel to water systems in the United States: all water delivered to homes in Chinimaya is metered. Each property owner will get regularly billed for the amount of water they use.

More than merely tracking costs, the purpose of the meters to make residents aware of the value of water — that water delivered to their homes has a cost, is not unlimited and should not be wasted.

Guatemala photo
Our first task in Chinimaya? Put together 100 water meter assemblies.
Guatemala picture
The upper pressure zone and lower pressure zone were each served by their own 2,500 gallon tank, which stored the mountain spring water and provided water pressure for residents. Here, masons from Agua Para La Salud, who have assisted the WWWc’s work in the area since 2007, assemble the reinforcing steel for the upper tank.
Guatemala photo
The ferro-cement tanks were constructed using layers of concrete, placed on top of each other after the previously applied layer cures over several hours. Three layers are used both inside and on the outside of the tanks. The local masons made it look much easier than it is.
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While constructing the upper tank, work stopped for the "blessing of the new water source" by a Mayan priest. The priest prayed in the native language Kaqchikel (catch-e-kell); then spoke to our Spanish translator in Spanish — who translated into English for school students in a Wisconsin school who were watching via real-time video feed.
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Here I am installing a water meter. Much like in the United States, water in Chinimaya is metered.
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In Chinimaya, the water system is managed by a group of elected citizens called the Water Committee. Here, a member of the Water Committee makes the first draw of water for the upper zone.

Bringing water into the classroom

Most of our group was busy throughout the week constructing the upper tank and installing water taps for the 36 homes in the upper pressure zone, however, three of our group were able to spend time with community school children.

With minimal water available to them, many Chinimayan children do not have basic hygiene skills that kids in the United States grow up with every day. So we visited the village school and taught the elementary-aged children the basics of hygiene, including hand washing and tooth brushing.

While we were there, we used internet technology to directly communicate to several elementary and secondary schools in Wisconsin. Students from each country were able to communicate in real time and ask each other questions about what it’s like living and growing up in their countries. It was a real eye-opener for the students in Wisconsin.

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Students in Chinimaya speak to students in several Wisconsin schools about what it’s like to live in Guatemala.

Celebrating a precious commodity

After completing the upper tank, there was a short ceremony and celebration lunch with the Water Committee and their families. At the ceremony, I was honored to say a few words to the group on behalf of the Wisconsin Section of the American Water Works Association and our WWWc members. I told them we couldn’t wait to tell our friends, families and colleagues what wonderful, hard-working and hospitable friends we had made in Guatemala. But I also stressed that safe water is a precious commodity, and that if they take care of their water supply and water system, it will serve Chinimaya for decades to come.

Now, back in the United States, something new happens every time I pour myself a glass of water. As my glass fills, I’m quickly transported those 2,000 miles, through the ravine and around the mountain, back among my friends in Chinimaya. I take a long drink and remember the words I shared with the Water Committee. Because whether you live in the U.S. or Guatemala, they can’t be said enough: Water truly is a precious commodity.

Guatemala photo
The Chinimaya Water Committee and their families with the WWWc team.

To learn more about the WWWc efforts, visit their website.

About the Author

Patrick Planton

Patrick Planton, PE, is the current Chair of the Wisconsin Section of the American Water Works Association and SEH project manager who has led many award-winning water projects. Pat is passionate about solving the world’s drinking water challenges. Pat also serves on the Board of Directors for SEH’s Design|Build subsidiary. Contact Patrick

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