Up high in the beautiful, lush mountains of Guatemala live the Kaqchikel; an ethnic subgroup of the Mayas. Shadowed by the active and still smoldering volcano El Fuego, these proud, joyful and resourceful people live their lives in and around a tiny village called Xepatán. Here they grow their beans and corn, make their tortillas, and raise their cattle and families.
The water that the people of Xepatán use to sustain themselves comes from the aquifer underneath the ground. If you walk around the small community you will see dozens of wells, which can drop as deep as eighteen meters straight into the mountainside. The people here use their water prudently for drinking, washing, cooking, cleaning, and to tend to their crops; all the things water is used for in the many rural communities across Latin America.
People here, usually women since the men have to work the fields, hoist the water out of their well one-bucket at a time, a painstakingly slow and labor-intensive daily routine. There used to be a pump and crude piping system here in Xepatán. Like in many other rural communities the government has, once upon a time, stepped in and placed a big, expensive high-tech pump close to the municipal building. This was a long time ago though and ever since that pump broke the people have gone back to the old tried-and-tested way of hoisting buckets with a rope, and sometimes a pulley; one at a time.
There is a need in Xepatán for pumps that are easy to install, understand and maintain. Like in so many other places, as soon as the agency setting up the pump has left, it is up to the people themselves to make sure it keeps running indefinitely so their children too can enjoy the benefits of clean running water. A pump here therefore needs to be low-tech, not fancy or expensive. It needs to be able to be fixed using nothing more than manual labor, a machete, a hammer, and maybe some miscellaneous materials such as wood, duct tape or rope.
That is why we were so excited to come to Xepatán and see the work of Demotech in the field. At first it proved to be a bit of a logistical nightmare though to get to this remote community in time to meet with Bram and Reinder; the two men behind Demotech. We were sure we could not make it by riding our bicycles so we parked those at a fantastically hospitable American named Will and his family, living in the tiny town of La Venta, in Oaxaca, Mexico. We – Michiel, Siska, and myself – then took a series of busses, rickshaws and taxis over a two-day period, driving through some of the beautiful and mountainous countryside of midwestern Guatemala, to finally be welcomed into town after the sun had already set on our second day of traveling.
Demotech, among other things, makes rope pumps. These are pumps made out of nothing more than the materials that are available in pretty much every remote, rural community around the world. The frame of the pump is made out of wood, held together by pieces of wire and the occasional tin cap taken from an oil drum. It utilizes bicycle spokes, old worn out car tires, and other pieces of scrap in its design, and when set up, will provide easy access to water from a well for generations to come. The material cost of such a pump… less than 10 US dollars.
Rather than flying in, setting up several pumps, shaking hands, and leaving town; the two men from Demotech take the time and have the inspiring commitment to get to know the communities they visit. They talk to the people in town, organize meetings, get people excited, and make sure they know everyone and everyone knows them.
Walking around Xepatán with Bram he is greeted by everybody and in return greets each and every one back, by name. The men are deeply involved with the villagers as we soon discover when we follow Bram going to the house of blind 80-year old Dolores and her daughter Martina. Dolores has to walk up a dangerous slope several times every day to get to her well or to go to her toilet. Bram and Reinder decided this was an accident waiting to happen, especially when the rainy season will turn that dusty slope into a hazardous slip-and-slide, so they collected some old car tires, took a couple of shovels, and invited us to help make Dolores a proper staircase complete with a banister for her to hold onto.
It are things like these that have made the people in Xepatán volunteer what little spare time they have to help out Demotech. They come, after tending to their fields, to learn about building their own rope pump; skills that can at some point potentially lead to them setting up their own pump-building-and-maintaining company. Margarito, Miguel Angel, Victoriano and Macario were all busy putting together the pieces of a new pump when we arrived that Tuesday evening late after dark. They stayed until even later that night, looking forward to another early morning of working their fields.
During our visit, local farmer Filiberto Urrea became the first person in his town to have a working rope pump attached to his well. When we went to speak to him we saw the pride in his eyes as he demonstrated how he, and his wife, first had to hoist buckets of water out of his well but now can easily have running water by simply using his working pump. The time saved every day by not having to hoist buckets of water out of a well can now instead be spent on other, more productive affairs; such as tending to their crops, getting them to market in neighboring Patzún, and climbing that ladder out of poverty.
After meeting with Filiberto we walked further through the village; talking to numerous inquisitive people we met during our stroll and playing football with some children while others raced their bicycles up and down the mountain. We met with María Saturnina while she was working to mend the fence around her house. María is a widow living with her only daughter and she does not have a well. She has to make the roundtrip to a hole of brackish water a bit out of town twenty (!) times each day to fetch water for use in her modest household. She then has to walk even further to do her washing in a small stream situated in between green trees and garbage piles outside of Xepatán; it is hard work for this frail old woman and her young daughter. María wants a well to make her daily burden a little lighter, but without her husband she just does not have the strength, or the money, to turn even this modest dream into a reality.
We also met Ana María as she was doing her washing-up using the water she had fetched from her mother’s home roughly fifteen minutes walking down the road. She makes this trip three or four times each day; thus spending up to two hours each day just getting water.
Lastly we met Irma Yolanda and her large family who are relatively fortunate to have a well on their property. Being the only one in the family who speaks Spanish besides Kaqchikel, she told us that the well was made over thirty years ago and has continuously provided water for washing and drinking ever since; more buckets than she can count are hoisted up from it each and every day. As we talk to her and she tells her story we see the children of the household taking water out of the well using a rope and a flimsy wooden pulley. It’s hard work and Irma and her family are interested in getting one of the Demotech rope pumps ever since they heard that Filiberto has one on his property.