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Small Rotary club in Ecuador’s Andes delivers big on water project

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High in the Andes, an indigenous community had been waiting more than a decade for clean drinking water.

They had worked with a regional water agency on a plan, but didn't have the funding to put it into effect – until they met a new Rotary club willing to apply for their first global grant.

The village of Cochapamba lies in the shadow of Ecuador's highest peak, Chimborazo, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Quito. Residents had to journey an hour to bathe or wash their clothes. They would draw a small weekly allotment of water for drinking from an irrigation basin meant for crops — and risk getting sick from the untreated water.

Villagers had formed a water board and worked with the regional water agency to design a system for pulling water down from a mountain catchment and treating it. But their plan couldn't be implemented without more funding. Meanwhile, some of the residents who occasionally came into Guaranda, a town about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away, got to know members of the Rotary Club of Guaranda, Bolivar, which had just chartered in 2019.

"We have been dealing with this problem for many years. We had a project ready, but nobody could help us," says Doroteo Santillan, a Cochapamba resident interviewed by the station GuarandaTV in a video made by the club. "But then we found the Rotary club ... and they helped us access the water."

"My wife saw how the women had to carry water on their backs and started thinking, 'How could we help?'" says Alfonso Camacho, service chair for the Guaranda club.

The new club had never applied for a global grant from The Rotary Foundation. But its members got lots of advice from others in Rotary, found a partner, and worked with people in Cochapamba on the system that now provides safe drinking water to 133 families.

Camacho's wife, Virginia Soto, is the club's treasurer. She and officials from the regional water agency met with the Cochapamba water board and others from the community. They told her about the water system plan that had been made but not carried out. Because Cochapamba already had a water board, it could provide liaisons, create a financial system, and set up a fee to cover maintenance.

"We like to help people, so we said, 'We can do it,'" Camacho recalls.

Under the new system, water from the mountain source is treated and channeled into a series of tanks before it's distributed to homes. The club worked closely with the community and engineers from the water agency, and the system was completed in June 2022.

We like to help people, so we said, 'We can do it,

The club used its US$50,000 grant for equipment, supplies, and project management expenses. The water agency designed and oversaw the technical aspects and provided other expertise, topographical mapping, and equipment and supplies such as water meters and valves.

Participating families provided the physical labor through a collective arrangement that benefits the community. Residents worked in shifts to dig the many trenches for plastic PVC pipes and often had to bring rock, sand, and other materials up the mountainside by donkey.

The water source is the same one that feeds the irrigation reservoir. Water flows downhill through the pipes to a reinforced concrete tank, where it is chlorinated. Pipes then carry the water to two distribution stations on nearby hills, where more pipes branch out to individual homes.

The grant project is remarkable for a new club. "We are a young club. We didn't know anything," Camacho says. "We didn't even know how to navigate My Rotary and the grant system."

"But we asked a lot of questions, worked together with the community, and [Past District Governor Juan] Prinz made connections for us," he adds. "When one is determined enough to do something, you can do it."

Prinz, a past governor of District 4400 who died in 2021, had provided considerable help to the Guaranda club. He had urged Camacho and Soto to form the club, and his club, the Rotary Club of Quito-Valle Interoceánico, Pichincha, served as its sponsor. Later, Prinz and fellow club member Odd Hanssen connected the Guaranda club with its international partner, the Rotary Club of Velbert/Rhld., Germany. Prinz and Hanssen had met members of the German club during a 2020 project fair that was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Juan Gregori y Ribes, a member of the German club, recalls how his club wanted to sponsor a global grant project in Ecuador but hadn't found anything suitable. "Through Prinz, we got information to contact the Guaranda club. They had prepared the project very well," he says. "We were able to join the application, and with very good Rotarian cooperation, it was implemented successfully."

The project is sustainable as well. Cochapamba employs an engineer who works with the water agency, and every three weeks, Camacho and the engineer check on the system and visit families to discuss their health and hygiene and recommend ways to conserve water.

Cochapamba residents have reported fewer illnesses now that they have treated water. And with laundry no longer being washed in the river, the pollution from detergent has been eliminated.

The small Rotary Club of Guaranda is not done yet. It plans to build a similar water system in Kilitawa, Ecuador, that will help 150 families — using its second approved global grant.