Nary a Drop to Drink, UUSC In Ecuador

Water Issues in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 2010

A Visit with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Water, water everywhere, but nary a drop to drink.

      The Rime of the Ancient Mariner-Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Guayaquil, Ecuador. I first heard the name when I was living on a boat in the early seventies. My husband and I dreamt of sailing across the Pacific to the Marquesas with a stop at the Galapagos. Most people bound for the Galapagos then took a boat from Guayaquil, the coastal port closest to the islands. We never completed that trip but the name stuck in my mind.

Drinking Water

Today, Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador with a growing population of over three million. The city’s infrastructure is being challenged by the in-migration of people no longer able to support their families on the land and needing work. The old pipes in city core are in need of repair, and water supply and sewer service are inadequate in the new neighborhoods. In the late 1990s, Ecapag, the city’s waterworks provider, was unable to finance the construction. A massive influx of money was needed for the upgrades.

Not that Ecuador lacks for water. Rain falls in abundance in the hills and mountains of the interior and the Guayas River flows rapidly to the sea past the shacks perched on sticks over the delta’s mudflats. In a small village, women walk to the river and fill their buckets, but in a large city, not only are the distances daunting but the water is not fit to drink, polluted by mining and agricultural run-off.

The World Health Organization has determined that a person needs about 6.5 gallons of water a day to stay alive, 13.2 gallons for human dignity and 26 to 32 for optimal health. I tried to imagine myself carrying a five gallon bucket of water on my head just one mile, and don’t even ask how I got that bucket up there. And what if that polluted water is the only choice for poor city dwellers?

I joined a delegation of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) to learn more about the looming global clean water crisis. UUSC supports organizations that have a high likelihood of success in order to create models for the many other human rights groups struggling with the same issues. Guaranteeing global access to safe, sufficient, affordable water for daily human needs, the human right to water, is one of their priorities.

While preparing for the UUSC JustJourneys trip, I learned that the Guayaquil water supply and sewer system were being managed by an international corporation. I wondered why on earth Guayaquil privatized their system. I had heard of the problems in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the international corporation, Bechtel, managed the water system and was charging $20 for water to people with incomes of $70 a month. Corporations are not in business to benefit the people they serve. Surely that experience should have discouraged prudent planners in Guayaquil.

Over fifty years ago, the World Bank was created for just such a situation. Alas, the major lenders are now controlled by entities with different values. Due to the influence of the US and global water corporations the World Bank no longer lends to public entities without the guarantee of eventual privatization.

While the injustice of the situation was obvious, the municipality was not in a position to argue. They put the work out to bid. There were no responses. From the lenders standpoint, Guayaquil was not a good risk. The country was politically unstable and the municipal government was blatantly corrupt. The managers reduced their demands. Still no response. On the third attempt, when the requirements were so weak that the contract promised to be lucrative for very little cost to the company, the one bid from Bechtel ended the search. This was the same Bechtel whose water managers in Cochabamba shut off the water to people who could not pay their bills. In that city, the people organized and marched in the streets and demanded their right to water. They won, which only added caution to the bidders for the Guayaquil concession.

Guasmo Sur Drainage Ditch

The managers knew all this but what could they do when there was only one bid?

In 2001, the Bechtel subsidiary, Interagua, picked up a thirty year contract to provide potable water and sewer services to Guayaquil. They were to build the needed infrastructure with borrowed funds and repay the loans with what they charged for the services, as the municipality would have done had they been able to borrow the capital themselves. By 2005, Interagua was behind in their construction, but their billing was current as the services that had been anticipated. Bills for phantom water delivery were common and people forced to use outhouses were still charged a fee for sewer services.

Children of Guasmo Sur

In that year an outbreak of hepatitis A infected over 150 children in Guasmo Sur, a poor neighborhood of Guayaquil. When the parents traced the source of infection to the water delivered by Interagua, they mobilized. On my recent visit with the UUSC delegation, I witnessed the outcome. Though not perfect, it is a demonstration of what a well-organized populace can achieve.

The primary UUSC partner in Guayaquil is El Movimiento Mi Cometa (My Kite Movement), a community organization that promotes organizing to ensure human and civil rights. It was named for the kite contest during which the parents helping their kids fly the kites realized they needed a more formal entity to meet the needs of their children. They cut their organizing teeth demanding public services enjoyed in other parts of the city, like paved streets and they were already protesting the unfair water bills when the hepatitis outbreak occurred. Small victories and ongoing leadership development prepared them for their next struggle for clean water.

Children’s Mural

We visited the large and colorful building occupied by Mi Cometa where young adults were directing all the activities. We met their parenting class, heard their music students perform, and enjoyed the children’s artwork that adorned the walls. One of the women who had received a microloan sold me several beaded key chains that I took home for friends. Our simple but healthy lunch was prepared by their graduate cooks. Over the delicious meal, I chatted with two of the young leaders and I was impressed by their poise and confidence. A few of the old-timers including Cesar Ramirez Cardenas, founder of Mi Cometa, hung in the background, beaming at their protégés.

Sewer Line Work

Most of Guasmo Sur, where Mi Cometa is located, does have water service, though the sewer construction is way behind schedule. While we were visiting, we passed a workman at the street corner installing what looked like a junction for a sewer outflow and down one alley a backhoe was digging along the road. I can only hope both were part of the overdue sewer project.

In this neighborhood, the average monthly income is $180 and water bill is $8-15. Members of Mi Cometa were vigorously protesting their unjust and inaccurate water bills when they discovered their Interagua supplied water was the source of the hepatitis outbreak. Interagua was clearly not living up to the contract agreements. Something more was needed.

Mi Cometa Musicians

Through Mi Cometa, UUSC supported the formation of a new group, The Citizens Public Services Observatory (OCSP), or Citizen Observers. It now has over forty member organizations from other neighborhoods with similar problems. OCSP began to pressure decision makers to deal with the problems they were encountering. One of those under pressure was Ecapag, responsible for overseeing the Interagua concession.

We had an appointment with Sr. Jose Luis Santos, the Director of Community Relations for Ecapag. When our group of fourteen arrived, he may not have been expecting so many of us. Minions rushed in and out of the reception area until our three leaders were asked to meet with him first. After he was reassured that we were not there to cause a ruckus, he agreed to meet with us all.

Ecapag was the area’s provider of water and sewer services until privatization. Sr. Santos was an engineer, after all, and the meeting was deadly boring. As he droned on in the warm room presenting maps, charts, graphs and numbers, he said nothing about the people who needed water they were not receiving.

After the hepatitis outbreak, Ecapag fined Interagua for failing to meet one of the few construction benchmarks, measured by the number of sewer hook ups promised but not delivered. When he told us the fine will be taken in additional hookups rather than cash, I did see a hint of pride crack his stoic face. Ecapag managers had reasoned that while Interagua could well afford a fine, it would have little impact on the problem whereas more hookups would be measurable progress.

UUSC Meeting with Sr. Santos of Ecapag

What he did not say was that contaminants can enter corroded pipes and pollute the water flowing to the customers. Neither did he mention that customers often had such low water pressure they were forced to use suction pumps to pull enough water into their storage tanks for use. And when outhouses saturate the soil and pipes for water delivery get old or break as the unstable soil settles, one of results can be a hepatitis outbreak.

The projections of when pipes would be laid and services started, some years in the future, did not include how the people would cope until then. I wondered if Sr. Santos had ever had to drink unfiltered water, or bathe his children in a chemical soup.

One evening, a tall man with distinguished curly grey hair in a white guayaba, formal wear for a hot evening, joined us for dinner. He was introduced as Cesar Agusto Parada, the legal advisor and president of OCSP. After an excellent meal, Sr. Parada gave us some history on how the current process was negotiated for resolving the disputed cases. A visit by the ombudsman from the World Bank, alarmed by the unrest among Interagua customers organized by OCSP, encouraged Interagua to cooperate in finding a better solution to the complaints. It was long and difficult process filled with frustration and setbacks. OCSP used the clause they were responsible for including in the new constitution guaranteeing the right to water for all citizens to push the negotiations to a close. The process was in place and the meetings with rate payers had just recently begun.

Observatorio, Client, C. Clements at Interagua

Sr. Parada mentioned the table where a representative of Interagua joined him, the complainant and Raquel Rodriguez, an OCSP Observatorio, who took notes. It sounded amazing to me that they had managed to move the process to the point where they felt it was working for the people. Bills for people in extreme poverty have been forgiven. Those who do not qualify have at least had their fines removed and bills reduced. They have only begun to resolve the 3500 cases, but at least there is movement.

To our surprise, the next morning we learned that we would be welcome to see the process in action. I don’t know how I got the idea that the table was in a large board room with glass-walls because it was the size of a kitchen table so small the four of them sat knee to knee. The middle-aged man who had brought his bill seemed shy when we arrived but more likely he was a bit intimidated when fourteen people squeezed past him into the tiny room at the rear of the Interagua offices. The young woman in a smart dark blue suit who represented Interagua explained the process from her perspective. Interagua did have a process for contesting the bills but few people used it. It was designed for the convenience of the corporation, not the people. She was pleased they had been able to work out a way to resolve the problems and she answered our questions. Sr. Parada said a few words and we trooped out.

Security was tight at the Interagua building and when I went outside to video our group leaving. The guard rushed up to ask if I had permission. An Observatorio came to my rescue, but he and I eyed each other until the delegation filed out the door on cue.

Women of Malvinas with Water Bills

There are still complaints to be resolved. When we visited Malvinas, another poor neighborhood, the women knew we were looking into the water issues so they brought their bills to show us. We sat in the steamy front room of the two bedroom cement block house built by Mi Cometa and owned by an Observatorio. When we brought out our cameras, the women held up their bills for us to include in their photos, so we did. In that barrio, the people had water but were being billed incorrectly. Maybe it was the meters, maybe not. All they knew was that their consumption had not changed but their bills had increased dramatically. They still had no sewers. Outhouses in their tiny backyards served temporarily and a pipe from the house across the sidewalk took the grey water from sinks and showers to the street. From the gutters, if there were any, the waste flowed into ditches and then to the river.

Isla Santay Disembarkation

On another day, we climbed into a very long and heavy canoe, life jackets secured and sunscreen applied, to cruise the riverbanks. Our guide for the day brought to our attention the outfall pipes that emptied into the river, the other end of the sewer ditches. There was nothing to stop the backflow if the river rose and with so many houses built on the flat river delta, the results would be not only disgusting but tragic.

Trash, oil slicks, factory waste and other detritus underlined the issues in the harbor. Some of the city water supply is taken from a tributary upstream from the port, but the agricultural pollution begins above that and the water still has to be treated before use. The sewer plants only partially treat the sewage that is collected, and the effluent is discharged into the river. Another treatment plant is in the planning stages but the managers have been assured the river can accommodate the discharge in its current state.

Visit to Isla Santay

Our canoe nosed into the mud of Isla Santay, perched across from the city. One of the Observatorios lived in the community and was helping the people protect their land as development encroached. Houses on stilts were connected by plank walkways for when the rains came. I measured with my eye how high the river would have to rise to reach them, at least ten feet. Rows of open containers waited for the rains under the drip line of the tin roofs. Meanwhile, the people hauled their drinking water across the river from the port and washed clothes and bodies in the polluted water.

Mi Cometa Staff

We shared our final dinner for this UUSC JustJourney with several members of Mi Cometa and OCSP. In the cavernous over-air conditioned mirrored meeting room, I sat next to Sra. Sofia Espin, the former congresswoman for the National Assembly of Ecuador who was a critical player in the constitutional reform. She had been unable to speak at our opening dinner. We were told of her impressive accomplishments earlier and I imagined a much older woman when I heard she was responsible for the inclusion of the human right to water in the new constitution. I felt a bit intimidated when I learned she would be seated next to me. When she arrived, she was much younger than I expected after such a distinguished biography. We were able to converse by swapping our language facilities and she was quite charming and humble for such a mover and shaker. She works for the Ministry of Communication and her current project is to establish free Internet access for everyone by means of Internet Cafes. She felt that an informed citizenry is one that will be better citizens.

While water is abundant in Ecuador, it is not always at the right place when needed. After leaving Guayaquil, I read in the Quito paper that the government was negotiating with Peru and Columbia to buy power. Most of the electricity in Ecuador is from hydropower and the water behind the dams was at such low levels that rolling blackouts were scheduled for Guayaquil and Quito. A week later, I was in the Amazon jungle and experienced the return of the rains. Three days into my birding trip, the skies opened just as we returned to the lodge for lunch. We took the afternoon off because the birds also hunker down in the heavy rain that pounded the roofs all afternoon and through the night.

Boardwalk on Isla Santay Before the Rain

When I returned to Quito, I read in the newspaper that the dams were full and the power had returned. The drought was over. Those plank walkways on the island would be in use and the houses on the mud flats would be surrounded by water. The ditches in Guasmo Sur would be overflowing and the outhouses built on that low lying land? I didn’t want to even think about that.

The system worked out with Interagua by Mi Cometa and the Citizen Observers is not perfect, but it empowers the people to take control of their own lives. We heard other evidence of that from our visit to Mi Cometa. The young leaders created a caravan that toured the country when the elements of the new constitution were being considered. They roused their peers to engage in the process, and the outcome, thanks to progressive leaders, is promising. Mi Cometa was active in ensuring that the Human Right to Water is enshrined in the constitution and now it is up to the suppliers to figure out how to deliver accessible, affordable and safe water to every citizen. While the implementation will take some time and must be monitored closely, the tools are in place for citizens to bring a case for noncompliance. The possibilities have global implications that UUSC will work to leverage.

I was basking in the justice of this work when I returned home. A friend and I were walking, and she told me about a charitable project she had just discovered. A well-intentioned man had collected hundreds of pairs of shoes and distributed them to Kenyan children who suffered from diseases transmitted through the soil. Shoes would keep them healthy and she was excited about his work.

I was immediately angry, and she was totally flummoxed at my response. When I thought it through, I realized the source of my anger. What happened when the shoes wore out? What then? I’ve been reading Wangari Maathai’s book, The Challenge for Africa, a New Vision, in which she says that in Africa, the people are so used to outsiders rescuing them, they expect to be rescued. When the children need shoes, they wait for someone to give them some. Her premise is that the people need to be engaged in the development process so that when the donors leave, which they all do, the people will be able to take over dealing with whatever issues arise.

Mi Cometa Parents and Activists

That is exactly what we witnessed in Guayaquil. The people have successfully dealt with something many communities in the near future will have to confront as water scarcity becomes a critical issue. They are building leaders and processes they can use for whatever arises. When the problems change, which they will, they are ready to confront them.


For more information on UUSC and global water issues use the links below:

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee: Several links to their work on water issues

JustJourneys:unique travel experiences with UUSC

Food and Water Watch: “Bechtel Profits from Dirty Water in Guayaquil, Ecuador” Nov. 2007 and other information on water and what you can do to change the situation.

UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:, the human right to water