Shared from the 3/8/2020 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin eEdition

Safe drinking water: ‘Something magical for our children’


Photo courtesy CLARK COLAHAN

María Tránsito Morán, past presidenta of Gualapuro community, Ecuador.


Courtesy photo

Workers make progress on a fresh water system.


Gualapuro is just five minutes from the Otavalo city limits, a city of 100,000, but it has never had clean drinking water.

This indigenous community of about 350 people has a natural spring at the bottom of a cliff, a water source that is the clearest and cleanest in the canton. Since it is below the community, however, it would require pumping to get it up to the homes.

So, instead of drinking pure, health-giving water, through countless generations the community has relied on the runoff from a swampy pasture near town. The water that came out of their faucets was notorious for the number of insects, lizards and other bugs it contained — not surprising, being unfiltered and given the not infrequent presence of dead cattle and sheep that they had to drag out of the swamp.

The resulting low quality of health was not helping their children grow up strong in body and mind. There was even a cholera outbreak.

María Tránsito Morán experienced this situation and is a survivor of the cholera. She has worked to get clean water for decades. She recently completed four years as presidenta of the community and says its history is sad. Early in our conversation she said she hasn’t always been a leader. As an indigenous girl, she was not sent to school and didn’t learn to read and write. Women were expected to stay home, cook, clean and take care of the children. Only years later, when she worked as a domestic maid, did she learn to speak Spanish.

She spoke with eloquent directness and deep feeling. She explained that the conditions she encountered when she married a man from the town spurred her into a long and unyielding battle for change that began long before her presidency. Even now her voice breaks and her eyes tear up when she describes the setbacks and broken promises from political leaders that she has endured.

Thirty-two years ago, a water pipe was built for the families of several communities including Gualapuro, supplying better drinking water, and it remains in use. But as part of the area’s, and the world’s, increasing urbanization, the community’s population, and its water needs, have increased. In the dry season the piped stream now reaches them only one or two days a week, as Gualapuro is at the bottom of the supply chain.

Politicians had over the years said “yes” to pleas for help, recognizing basic public health laws were being broken, but found there was no money in the budget. There were not enough voters in the small community to entitle them to priority in the list of requests. At last, a mayor of Otavalo and a council woman promised the city would pay for the needed water project, but only if Gualapuro paid to have the feasibility study done first. It would cost $10,000 and had to be completed in six weeks. It was a seemingly impossible solution.

María Tránsito took the mayor at his word. The 70-some families came up with $50 to $100 each. She donated most of her savings. They were still short, and she insists the mayor added the requirement she work on behalf of his reelection campaign. She refused to sell her vote and be manipulated, so her dreams seemed destined to collapse. Somehow, she scraped together the funds and paid for the study. After it was done, however, the mayor went back on his word and declined to finance the project.

Here enter two American expats who live nearby, Rockey (an engineer) and Elizabeth, teaming up with the Tandana Foundation. They had learned of the community’s difficulty getting clean water, and, after visiting and seeing the situation for themselves, determined to help. Along with German friends Gottfried and Lilo, they jumped in to head the fundraising campaign, making it possible to pay a team of project engineers and master masons to lead the work. With the funds raised, Tandana has coordinated the project, and the community has built a reservoir to capture the clean water and a second tank to store it.

The job is now 70% finished. Funding must still be found to pay for the distribution pipes to the families, the pumps and the water meters, but the mood is joyous.

Everyone, including Carina Morán, the newly elected community presidenta, agrees that a realistic date to inaugurate the new system is only three months away. María José Arellano, Tandana’s Ecuador program manager, hails the joint project as the triumph of unfailing persistence, immense amounts of work, savvy negotiation among stakeholders and community commitment to the common good. María Tránsito describes it as an accomplishment that comes too late for many of those who struggled to make it happen, but something that will change the lives of their children. She feels it is magical.

Barbara Coddington is a former director of Sheehan Art Gallery at Whitman College and former curator of the Museum of Art at WSU. She worked for 10 years to bring about the first exhibit of pieces by Native American women artists from the inland Northwest. Clark Colahan is a retired professor of Spanish and former Anderson Professor of Humanities at Whitman College.

Editor’s note:

Many boomers entering retirement have wondered what it would be like to join the Peace Corps, put a lifetime of skills to good use on behalf of others, and live temporarily in a completely new and radically different part of the world. Milton-Freewater’s Clark Colahan, and his wife Barbara Coddington, are doing just that, but in a highly personalized way that connects with the northeast corner of Oregon. One of Clark’s former students, Anna Taft, is now the founder and CEO of Tandana, a foundation that places volunteers in families in Highland Ecuador and the Dogon region of Mali in West Africa. With the foundation in northern Ecuador, the couple are using their knowledge of Spanish — Clark is a retired Spanish teacher — and Barbara’s long experience with the Confederated Tribes as a museum curator. They are living in a Kichwa indigenous community, where their assignment is to interview outstanding young people. The community is universally recognized as the best educated, most economically successful, and the best known artisans in the country’s weaving and embroidery tradition. This is one of a series of articles on their interviews.

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