STORY by ALYSSA LARENZIE
PHOTO STORY by JEREMIAH STANLEY
Cranking and whining, the machine delves deeper, looking for water.
Sitting on the highest hill in El Modelo, the contraption has drilled 60 feet so far.
But there’s no water yet.
And even when there is—it won’t be enough and it won’t be free.
With 300 families in El Modelo and the number constantly growing, the well will not be enough to sustain the whole town.
The poor village in Guatemala is built on free land from the government. Now, the government-funded well project towers on the hill, reminding everyone that they need the help.
In Guatemala, not everyone even gets the privilege of having well water piped into their homes. Like class, water is stratified. The richest few can drink bottled water, while some of the poorest drink from puddles.
Saul Sandoval sees the inequality in his developing country. The owner of El Peton bottled-water plant knows that only a rich minority can afford to drink the water his crew spends time purifying.
“For us, this is a business, but there are also people that don’t have the capacity to buy a jug, to buy bags, to buy a bottle,” he says. “They have to make little divots by the river to drink water.”
Many people in the country don’t understand the importance of clean water, says Astrid Aldana, a nutritionist at Hospital Regional de Zacapa.
Aldana lives in Estanzuela, a middle-class town outside of Zacapa. She pays 25 quetzales, a little more than $3, per month for plumbing that is turned on most days from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aldana also keeps a reserve of water in her pila (a large stone sink used for washing) for the days the running water service is broken.
Working at the hospital in a poor region of the country, she sees how the lack of access to clean water has affected the health of so many poor villagers, especially in the rural areas where plumbing is very uncommon.
“Our parents taught us to wash our hands before we eat, after we go to the bathroom, and they don’t know that,” Aldana says.
She says the best solution to the problem is simply education, such as teaching people to bleach or boil their water or not to throw garbage near their water source.
Until then, villagers will probably continue to walk five or six hours to the hospital to get help for children who are so dehydrated they don’t even cry anymore.
Standing at the bottom of the hill, Efrian Gonzalez calls up to the mothers.
The women of the nearly 70 families who live in the unnamed community near Gualán file down the narrow, dirt paths on the steep hill for a meeting.
For the first time ever, Gonzalez, the community leader, holds up a large plastic bottle labeled “Mebendazole 100 mg.” He explains to the mothers and many of their children as they gather around his porch, that the medicine should be started tomorrow. It will get rid of the pests that may be in their stomachs—and more likely in their children’s stomachs.
They got the pills yesterday from a local social worker, who knows that the parasites plague many of the people in this village.
About 100 feet from Gonzalez’ porch, a black well-water tank serves the people of the village. But this isn’t what brings the parasites.
The rain causes the problem. When the long, dirt road is muddy from too much rain, the truck that delivers clean well water from the city can’t pass.
That’s when the villagers turn to their wells—holes dug near the creek to hold rain water. Each family has their own. These river divots, which look like mere puddles, become contaminated from animal and human feces, which often carry parasites.
The parasites cause diarrhea and consume the food a person eats, both of which cause malnutrition. A big belly and small arms are a dead giveaway, Aldana said. Children are the most susceptible.
Luis Alberto Padilla knows this happens when he can’t do his job. An employee of the government of Gualán, he delivers the well water to more than 200 villagers.
“My job is important because there’s no water here, and I bring the water,” Padilla says.
When he can’t drive down the muddy road, the people will turn back to the unclean creek water. The parasite pills can only help them get rid of parasites, not prevent them.
Aldana says the pills help the body expel the parasites, but the living conditions in villages like this one keep the cycle going.
“If you continue to drink contaminated water,” she says, “you’re just going to get the parasites back.”
The people drink rain water that falls down the hill into their “wells.” Rain water often is polluted from nearby city smog. The people throw garbage by the river. They wash clothes, people and animals in the river. They don’t keep their own water clean, Aldana says.
In the village near Gualán, the big bellies—a sign of parasites—protrude from many young children. Berto Ramirez Celvin is 2 years old and unable to walk because his legs are too skinny and his belly too big. “He was born this way,” his father says, holding up his scrawny arms.
After the visit to this home, Gonzalez calls a community meeting for parasite pills.
“We wish there were a better way,” he says.
The Garden of Eden
The village of La Puerta lies tucked in the valley of brilliant green hills. A long row of houses line an abandoned railroad track. At the entrance, a bridge, which was recently provided by the government, crosses the trickling river.
Though many villages face a number of obstacles to obtain water, La Puerta is a self-sustaining exception.
Pedro Elvin Trujillo, the community leader, lives only a few houses away from the river. But his family, like most, gets its water from a contraption that funnels rain water off the roof into a large bucket. A faucet looms over the bucket, but Trujillo quietly turns the knob and watches nothing come out. A couple of years ago, their village had plumbing, he says, but now only the first village of three sharing a water source uses all the available water. La Puerta is the third in line.
There’s no shortage of water in La Puerta, though. When it doesn’t rain, Trujillo’s family takes smaller buckets down to the river for water.
There hasn’t been any sickness, he says. The people are used to the water, so they don’t need to boil it.
Families who don’t have large cisterns like Trujillo’s family use only the river water. And the river provides an infinite supply of water for drinking, laundry, bathing, cooking, dishes and everything else.
Amali Chacon lives only one house away from the gated entrance down to the river. The Chacons get their water downstream from the bridge, where many women do laundry. They’ve never had any problems with shortage or sickness using the river water. Other villages aren’t lucky enough to have so many resources naturally available, Chacon says.
“In a way we’re poor,” she says, “but in a way we’re rich.”
The Model City
Two signs sit on the roadside by the entrance to El Modelo. One advertises “Vista Hermosa”—a nice neighborhood with plumbing, electricity and private land. The other advertises the government’s charity work for El Modelo—“the model city.”
Surrounded by water towers from nicer villages and barely hidden from the view of the city of Zacapa, the residents of El Modelo await the arrival of their own water from the well being built.
El Modelo represents many modern-day villages, which are so close to modern conveniences, yet so far from obtaining them. Getting a constant supply of water has been a struggle for the people living on the arid land.
In this village, the government provides a free 18-by-20-meter plot of land to each family to build whatever dwelling they can afford. Most families make houses of sticks, garbage bags and cardboard.
Each house has maybe one or two 10-gallon barrels sitting in the mud out front. Every other day—unless it rains—a water truck drives through the dirt roads selling a barrel full of water for 5Q—about 65 cents. A barrel provides water for all domestic purposes and lasts about two days.
The water comes from the Vista Hermosa neighborhood tower. Many of the families struggle to muster the 5Q to pay the truck driver.
The owner of the neighborhood does provide free water for the school. Mynor Galindo, a teacher in El Modelo, says the drivers used to charge 10Q, but nobody could afford it.
“The number one problem here is the water,” he says.
Most of the families leave their water outside without covering the barrel, so rain mixes with the well water, Galindo says. Many just use rain because they can’t afford anything more.
Near the entrance of the village, Estela Arasely Ramos owns a little store that offers 8 ounce bags of purified water for 1Q. Only visitors to the village buy the clean water, she says. Everyone in El Modelo buys the truck’s water, which Ramos says smells like fish. As long as her family has the money, she says they think it’s important to drink the purified water.
Elvira Gutierrez drinks only rain water. That’s all she can provide for her family—herself and four children. The water truck never drives up the hill to her house, and she never walks to meet it. Even if she did, Gutierrez can’t afford the barrel to carry the water and doesn’t have the strength to carry it back to her house.
About 50 feet behind her house sits a slightly nicer village called La Nopalera. From outside her house, she can see the beautiful white, concrete Catholic church behind a barbed-wire fence.
The people in that village get plumbing for 5Q per meter. The private owner of their well asked that they don’t give water to people in El Modelo. But sometimes, a woman in that village gives Gutierrez water in exchange for services, like washing clothes or selling food.
Sometimes, Gutierrez doesn’t get paid at all. She often goes weeks with no plans to obtain water—only hope for rain.
She is excited about the completion of the well, which is being built less than 50 feet away. The noise from the machine lasts from sun up to sun down every day, but she thinks only of the well making her life so much easier.
Majali Ramos lives much farther from the well. Wearing a gray shirt with an American flag and the words “Freedom will stand,” Ramos talks about spending eight days in August without water, except small pitchers from neighbors. On those sunny days, it didn’t rain, and she couldn’t afford the water from the truck.
She worries the well could make her life worse because she will have to pay a monthly rate of 25Q no matter how much water she uses.
But Ramos isn’t worried about having water this cloudy day in El Modelo.
She looks up at the sky and says, “Somehow, God gives us rain.”