Three Rotary alums build on their friendship
Afnan Agramont Akiyama had been working all day, but the water wasn’t coming. It was 2009, and the recent college graduate had been hired by a nongovernmental organization to help install water pumps in rural regions of his native Bolivia — areas where getting water had required a long, arduous trek to a river for some families. The work had been going well, but in one community, the pump Agramont Akiyama and his team had just installed wasn’t working.
He thought about calling it quits for the day. But when the water finally started flowing, he was glad they had kept trying. “Right after we finished, we were surrounded by people with buckets,” he recalls.
Ten years later, Agramont Akiyama is still working to provide clean water and effective sanitation and hygiene to Bolivians. With the help of a Rotary-funded scholarship, he obtained a master’s degree in water management at what is now the Nether-lands’ IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Agramont Akiyama teaches water management at Universidad Católica Boliviana San Pablo in La Paz and is a member of the Rotary Club of La Paz-Sopocachi.
And the connections he made in Delft have led to an ambitious project in Bolivia. Last year, he and two fellow IHE alumni brought solar latrines to more than 60 families there, with plans for 112 more.
Initiated in 2011, Rotary’s partnership with IHE Delft has resulted in more than 100 students receiving scholarships to study water management and governance, urban water and sanitation, or water science and engineering. The goal: “to educate people in water and sanitation with the objective to link them to Rotary WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] activities,” says Henk-Jaap Kloosterman, a member of the Rotary Club of Voorburg-Vliet, The Netherlands, and host area coordinator for the scholarship program. “We’ve had seven cohorts of students graduate and return to their own countries, where many of them work in the water sector. They leverage the skills they’ve learned in Delft in a professional environment and in Rotary projects.”
The Bolivia latrines project, however, is special: “This is the first example where students on their own initiative started something and took it from inception to final delivery,” Kloosterman says.
For the eco-latrines initiative, Agramont Akiyama recruited two fellow IHE alumni, Scott Taggart of Canada and Mariel Cabero Ugalde of Bolivia. They focused on five communities in Bolivia’s Comanche municipality — where, though only 50 miles from La Paz, there is no wastewater treatment.
The three alumni brought different strengths to the project: Agramont Akiyama and Cabero Ugalde were in the water management track at IHE, while Taggart studied sanitary engineering. “The three of us have different backgrounds. Mariel is very good at training programs. Scott is a more technical person, with good insights for the design,” Agramont Akiyama says.
“Students on their own initiative started something and took it from inception to final delivery.”
The Bolivian government had brought water to the Comanche region but had no sewage system to deal with human waste. “They had what we would call outhouses, but the waste wasn’t sealed, so it could infiltrate the groundwater,” says Taggart, who designs wastewater and drinking water systems at Suez Water Technologies and Solutions in Ontario. “Some of them didn’t have doors, and they didn’t have any way for you to clean yourself after using the facilities.”
Supported by a $68,000 global grant — obtained by the Rotary clubs of Voorburg-Vliet and La Paz-Sopocachi, with support from the Rotary clubs of Delft and Sneek in the Netherlands and Cloppenburg-Quakenbrück in Germany, and from Districts 6920 (Georgia, USA) and 1850 (Germany) — and in cooperation with the Universidad Católica Boliviana San Pablo, Engineers Without Borders Bolivia, and CEDESBOL, a local farming association, the project was broken down into several phases. First, Agramont Akiyama and Cabero Ugalde coordinated local workshops to discuss residents’ water and sanitation concerns with them. “We didn’t want to tell people what to do, but to have a more reflective process in which we shared ideas and discussed different elements of water and sanitation in their communities,” says Agramont Akiyama.
Once they had assessed the community’s needs and developed a plan for eco-latrines, on-site training sessions taught local families how to build the latrines, which were based on an Engineers Without Borders design. “Our latrines used some of the water service built by the government,” Taggart explains. “So each latrine had a functioning sink and a shower, and then we ran [solar] coils on top of the roof so they could have warm showers. And then there’s a toilet in there and a fecal containment chamber where the waste collects. This chamber has a section with a clear plate over it so that solar radiation can enter and ‘cook’ it for two years, drying it and inactivating all the human pathogens. By that time, it’s soil, so it can be spread on the ground without causing any health issues.”
The families building the latrines showed a great deal of dedication to the project. “For one family, it was a two-hour walk to get the materials to their home,” Taggart says. “These latrines are made from bricks and concrete, so it’s a fair bit of work if you have to bring that on a two-hour walk.” That kind of commitment ensures that the latrines will be well maintained: “If you build something yourself, it has more value to you. They built this and they know everything about it, so if something needs repairing, they remember how they built it in the first place.”
Some families adapted the latrine blueprints for their own needs, such as obtaining hot water to wash clothes. “In other words, they started to play with the design, and we considered this great, because they took total ownership of the project,” Agramont Akiyama says.
In the second phase of the project, supported by Rotary clubs in Canada, an additional 112 eco-latrines will be constructed. In the meantime, Rotary will remain visible in Comanche. “Most things in the village are made from earthen bricks,” says Taggart. “Our latrines are also earth-toned — except for the doors, which are bright Rotary blue.”
— ANNE FORD
• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.