How We Work
Daniel Beams founded Agua Yaku in 2007 with the intention of meeting the most basic needs of rural families throughout Bolivia. After working for several years in a micro-credit program and traveling extensively around the country, he saw that in many communities even the most basic needs—adequate shelter, food, and clean water—were not being met. Daniel felt that focusing on water would be a great way to improve the health and livelihood of rural Bolivians and to show and share the love that Christ has for his Bolivian children.
Many people ask us why we focus specifically on clean water. Did you know that worldwide over 1,000,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from gastrointestinal diseases that are directly related to drinking contaminated water? Just the other day a local paper stated that in Bolivia alone, 40 children a day die from lack of access to safe drinking water. The real tragedy is that most these deaths are easily preventable by simply improving water quality, hygiene, and sanitation.
Agua Yaku has a two-pronged approach to providing clean safe drinking water: (1) drilling water wells to ensure access to an abundant local water source, and (2) providing point-of-use water filters to ensure access to clean safe drinking water regardless the source of the water. Where appropriate and possible, drilling water wells provides a source for clean water that is easily accessible a short distance from every household in a community. Often the government will drill centralized wells in the larger communities, but that often means that some families spend hours each day carrying water back home from the distant community pump. Agua Yaku’s philosophy is to drill more wells that are shorter distances from the homes where the water is needed. One of the major obstacles to drilling water wells in impoverished rural communities has been the prohibitive cost of drilling a private water well for each household. The cost of drilling water wells at a community level has traditionally be assumed by government agencies; however, these wells are too few and too far between to provide full coverage to all rural households. Wealthier ranchers and landowners can often afford the $3000 to $10,000 (USD) per well that many commercial well drillers charge, but rural small-holders and peasant farmers cannot afford to pay full price for a deep well when their average annual income might be no more than $500 (USD).
Agua Yaku has always strived to drill water wells in an economically efficient and culturally appropriate way so that all rural families can gain access to clean water. We ask families and communities to participate with us in the labor that it takes to complete a well. We also ask that they help cover the cost of materials—well casing, filter, hand pumps, storage tanks, etc.—which can be anywhere from $100 to $500 (USD) per well. A typical 30 meter well with a 2” casing and a hand pump installed, costs around $200 (USD) for materials. Agua Yaku generally pays for equipment maintenance, staff salaries, fuel, and other expenses. If a family cannot contribute cash to a well project, we will often take trade items such as artisan crafts or even livestock! Based on our project expense history, a typical well actually costs between $1500 and $2000 (USD) to complete. We rely on donations to help cover the subsidized operational expenses.
Daniel learned to drill wells from Terry Waller, a missionary from Texas who has been working in water development in Bolivia for many years. Terry developed a manual drilling technique that has become known as the “Baptist” drilling method around the world. This is a sludge-percussion method that utilizes a specialized steel bit which circulates water and lifts cuttings as it is pounded into the ground with an up-and-down action. The power is provided with either a team of “rowers” raising and lowering a rope, or with a small gasoline engine. Here is link to a PDF manual explaining the “Baptist” drilling method in detail: http://manualwelldrilling.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Manual_Well_Drilling_Manual.pdf.
Daniel used the Baptist drilling method for several years with good success. He did find some drawbacks to the technique, which led him to try different drilling methods. We will not go into complete detail here, suffice it to say the there are limitations to the depth and utility of drilling using the Baptist method. Also, the labor and time requirements to complete wells using this method can be restrictive. Daniel progressed from manual well drilling, to using several different small mechanized percussion and rotary rigs, and now to a larger trailer mounted mud-rotary rig. The primary reason for the progression to larger rigs is to drill deeper, wider boreholes, and to drill through harder rock strata. The larger rig allows Agua Yaku to drill in a greater variety of geological formations, drill more quickly, and with less manual labor than with the previous techniques. The increased cost of using gasoline motors and pumps is more than offset by the reduced cost of required labor. With our current rig, we can set casings of up to 6” and drill to depth of 120 meters. This capacity allows us to drill in areas that cannot be served using a manual drilling technique. We currently drill about 50 wells a year in rural communities throughout the eastern half of Bolivia.
While water well drilling provides much needed clean water to many parched regions of Bolivia, it is not the solution for all the water needs of the country. It is too cost prohibitive for us (or other agencies) to drill enough wells to meet the true demand for clean water in Bolivia. Well drilling is not even possible in many regions of Bolivia because ground water is too deep, or rigs cannot efficiently drill through the thick rock layers. When this is the case, water must be collected from surface sources such as springs, streams, rivers, lakes and rain water. In mountainous regions of Bolivia, water is captured almost exclusively from surface sources. Today, most mountain communities in Bolivia have some sort of government funded water catchment and distribution system. I am amazed at the ingenuity of the design of some of these systems that capture distant water sources and transport it many kilometers into parched communities. The problem with these distribution systems is that the volume of water is often not sufficient for the needs of the population and it is not treated chemically to ensure safe consumption. Even though many rural communities have new water distribution systems, most residents in communities we visit tell us that the volume of water is not sufficient for their needs, especially in the dry season, and that it is contaminated. For these reasons, many families collect rain water in barrels from roof gutters, or they carry water home in buckets directly from rivers, shallow hand-dug wells, and other surface sources. In fact, as we understand it, Santa Cruz is the only city in Bolivia that sufficiently treats its water at a level that makes it safe for direct consumption. So perhaps, 8 million of the 10 million people living in Bolivia do not have access to safe clean drinking water. This brings us to the second prong of Agua Yaku’s approach, providing point-of-use water filters that will ensure everyone has safe drinking water regardless of the water source.
We have tried several point-of-use water filtration techniques over the years. Two previous methods we used were SODIS (solar water disinfection) and bio-sand filtration. SODIS is a simple inexpensive method that uses solar radiation and 2-liter plastic soda bottles to disinfect water, making it safe to drink. Bio-sand filters use sand, gravel, and a biological layer to physically remove contaminants from water. Each of these methods have been heavily promoted around the world with varying degrees of success. While we had some success using these methods, we felt the short-comings outweighed the benefits. In a future paper we will discuss these techniques at more length. In 2013, Agua Yaku began promoting a relatively new filter technology that utilizes “hollow-fiber membranes.” These porous micro-tubes physically remove contaminants. They have a pore size of either 0.1-microns or 0.02-microns. The 0.1-micron size removes essentially 100% of bacteria and larger biological contaminants. The 0.02-micron filter, additionally, removes viruses. We have decided to primarily distribute 0.1-micron filters because of several factors: (1) they are less expensive, (2) they have a much better flow rate, (3) they do not clog as easily, and (4) viruses are not a sufficient enough threat to warrant the additional cost and user disadvantages that come with using the 0.02-micron filters.
To date, we have distributed approximately 2000 hollow fiber membrane filters in Bolivia. We have primarily been using Sawyer brand filters. These small plastic filters can either be attached directly to a faucet, or in the case that a home does not have a piped in water source, they can be used in combination with a bucket to make a gravity filtration system. A Sawyer gravity filtration system can filter about ½-liter/minute or 30 liters/hour (more than sufficient for average household consumption). These filters can be easily backwashed when they become clogged with sediment, and they will last for many years if properly maintained. Our current cost to have them delivered here in Bolivia is $50 (USD) per filter.
In partnership with Vitchelo, Daniel made a trip to China in 2016 to begin setting up direct the manufacture of a new hollow-fiber membrane filter called AquaSiv. We are still on target to bring to market, and to our ministry, this new filter in 2018. Manufactured in China, the AquaSiv filter will work similarly to the Sawyer filter. It will remove 100% of bacteria, parasites, and other disease-causing pathogens that cause the epidemic problems with diarrhea and gastrointestinal diseases. We are manufacturing our own filter to bring the cost down and to improve ease-of-use so that even the poorest and least educated families can gain access to clean water and improved health.
We do not simple hand out “free” water filters. When we visit rural communities, we convoke a community meeting that includes local authorities, health workers, teachers, pastors, civic leaders, and as many heads-of-family as possible to explain the benefits of using water filters in their community and homes. First, we talk about the sources of water in their community and the importance of drinking clean treated water (boiled/filtered/disinfected). We demonstrate the use of the bucket/gravity filter system, explaining the ease of use, and the efficiency with which it removes contaminants. As a general practice we place free filters in schools, health posts, churches, and other communal buildings so that everyone in the community has free access to a filter and can try one out for themselves. We encourage children (and adults) to bring empty 2-liter bottles to school and/or the other institutions to filter their drinking water for later home use. We also sell filters directly to families at a subsided cost, usually between $15 and $30 (USD) depending on the economic means and prosperity of the community ($15 amounts to the value of two full days wages in many rural communities). We do not simple give filters away to families for several reasons: (1) we do not have the financial resources to give a filter to each family, and (2) we feel that families will value, care for, and use the filters more consistently if they have personally invested in the purchase. Like the water wells, if a family does not have cash on hand but desperately wants a filter, we will trade a filter for artesian crafts considered of equal value. We have traded water filters for woven cloth, bags, baskets, ceramic pots, jewelry, and even honey.
Our long-term goal is to get the true retail price for a filter down to the level where people can afford to purchase their own water filters in the open market. This is the only way we can get filters to every family in Bolivia in a way that does not depend on donations from other nations or create dependency on outside help.
Access to clean water is obviously important, but we also want to emphasize the importance of good hygiene (through hand washing) and sanitation. Studies collected by the World Health Organization show that access to clean drinking water can reduce diarrhea by 19%, simple hand-washing with soap can reduce diarrhea by 47%, and proper sanitation (which means using outhouses or toilets rather than defecating out in the open) can reduce diarrhea by 36%. These three interventions combined can reduce the incidence of diarrheal disease by up to 90%. Even simple tasks like washing your hands after you go to the bathroom or before you eat is difficult to teach and practice in households that do not have running water. To this end, we have designed the “Clean Water Station,” a simple steel tripod stand that provides a place for water filtration and hand washing with a device commonly known as a “tippy tap.” The tippy tap is a foot-operated hands-free hand washing station. With this simple solution and bit of training and encouragement families will see dramatic improvements in their health and well-being.
We install Clean Water Stations, along with the filters, free of charge in schools and health posts whenever we visit communities. Children love to use the tippy tap. They treat it more like a game than a chore. The combination of both appropriate technology and education will help change poor habits and will lead to better health and well-being for every resident of poor rural communities.
For about $75 you can give a “Clean Water Station” (which includes both a water filter and a tippy tap hand washing jug) to community or family in Bolivia. Please join us in our efforts to provide clean water, and bring renewed health and hope, to families in need.
A word on where we work: We focus on rural Bolivian communities that do not have access to clean water (which is pretty much every rural community in Bolivia). The scope of our well drilling program is focused on arid regions that do not have access to any water at all during the driest months of the year, and in areas where our drilling equipment works most efficiently and we can find good ground water within 120 meters of the surface. We focus our water filter program on communities where we cannot drill wells, but where they have access to surface water, both in the Andes mountains and the tropical rain forests. To date we have primarily worked in eastern and southern Bolivia in the departments of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Beni, Chuquisaca and Tarija. We usually enter communities where we have an invitation from a local pastor, missionary or other community leader. We always look for opportunities to share our Christian faith and to connect with local churches so that we can help them meet the physical needs of everyone in their communities, Christians and non-Christians alike. Sometimes we just see in a need in an area we are passing through and stop by to meet local leaders and share with them how we can help bring clean water and improved health to their community. We also respond to emergency and disaster relief situations. In 2014 we distributed over 700 filters to families in Beni who were stranded in flooded communities for over two months.
If you would like to donate to our ministry, please click on the donate button and follow the instructions in the link. We love working here in Bolivia and certainly feel God’s guidance in all we do, but we cannot do it without partners like you backing us up with prayers and financial support. Thank you to everyone who is already supporting us! We look forward to seeing who else will soon be joining us in supporting God’s work here in Bolivia.