Empowering Change: How a Clemson University Student Organization is Bringing Clean Water to the Ecuadorian Amazon

Empowering Change: How a Clemson University Student Organization is Bringing Clean Water to the Ecuadorian Amazon
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Empowering Change: How a Clemson University Student Organization is Bringing Clean Water to the Ecuadorian Amazon

 A testimony by Tristan Veal

Access to safe drinking water is a vital component to living a healthy life but for 2.2 billion people they do not have access to it (World Health Organization, WHO).  Seeing this problem firsthand dramatically shifted my world view. When on a family trip to Iquitos, Peru, I saw people drinking water from and children playing in a river that was littered with trash and human waste from floating outhouses. I was appalled that people were living in these conditions and since that day I have decided to work on a path to help people that face similar challenges. 

Living with emergency. Design for an adaptive settlement in Belén, Iquitos.  | Archistart

1. Iquitos, Peru (Picture by Archistart)

The first step I took was acquiring an environmental engineering degree from Clemson University to learn how to design water treatment systems. While at Clemson I joined an organization called “Clemson Engineers for Developing Communities” (CEDC).  CEDC is a student led organization that works with communities to develop sustainable solutions that improve the quality of life for developing communities. CEDC has accomplished many goals. For example, CEDC designed the only chlorinated water system in central Haiti and installed a wastewater treatment system for a school to prevent the spread of deadly diseases like cholera. CEDC was the place I knew I could make an impact while in college. 

Two years ago, my story intertwined with a remote community in the Ecuadorian Amazon named Mandari Panga. Mandari Panga was founded in the 1950s by a couple striving to provide a better natural environment for their family and escape from the oil companies that exploit this area of the country. The community has strong cultural ties to the Amazon Jungle and relies on it to survive. To share the natural beauty and their knowledge of the jungle, an ecotourism lodge was created which provides community members jobs and brings revenue for community investments. This lodge is the foundation of my relationship and CEDC’s involvement with Mandari Panga. While on a study abroad trip with The College of Charleston led by my father Dr. William Veal, we traveled to Mandari Panga to study environmental sustainability and water chemistry in the jungle. 

During our visit at Mandari Panga, I spoke with the president of Mandari Panga to learn about problems that the community faces and his goals for the community. The president emphasized that they wanted to improve their community’s education, but it was a struggle for the kids due to water borne sickness resulting in missing days in school. The Ecuadorian government places teachers from cities into Mandari Panga, but the teachers often do not return after their first year because the living situation is rudimentary and unhealthy. The president believes that if the teachers can be provided with healthier living conditions and the water for the students is clean, then Mandari Panga can get the education they deserve and desire. Unhealthy living conditions that affect Mandari Panga are no medical care, no trash disposal, no proper human waste disposal, no safe drinking water, and no safe hygiene practices. Drinking water that is contaminated with human waste can be a vector of many diseases that compound the problems the community faces. To address Mandari Panga’s problems CEDC and I have committed to work with the community to create a safe drinking water supply using local resources to facilitate sustainable education and increase health and economic development. 

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Figure 2. Tristan Veal (center right) speaking with the President of the Community (left) along with Dr. Veal (left center) and wilderness guide (right)

During the project development, we needed to complete a data collection trip to determine parameters for our design and confirm our suspicions of human waste contamination in the community center’s water source. In November 2023, I completed a return trip to Mandari Panga to complete a land survey and biological contamination test. The results of the water tests were shocking. The water was contaminated with fecal coliforms and had total coliforms over 1000 times higher than the safe number for drinking water! The community center’s main water source was so contaminated that it has a 95% chance of making someone sick from drinking it. 

A person standing in the middle of a forest

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Figure 3. Pool of water that serves as the community center and school’s main water source.

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Two plastic bags with green liquid

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Figure 4. Fecal and Total Coliform Tests with safety scale for reference

To show the community the dangers of drinking from their current water source we presented our tests to the president and other community leaders during a community meeting. This moment was very shocking to them because everyone relies on that source of water. The community then invited us to join their community meeting where the president, vice president, and others stated the importance of our work. From that moment we had a community buy in for our project, and they committed to helping us build the system. 

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Figure 5. Tristan Veal and Dr. Veal in the community meeting.

In the next days, we interviewed 18 people of all ages in the community to get a sense of what their water and sanitation hygiene (WASH) habits were. What we discovered in the interviews correlated exactly to our water testing results. Each person we interviewed drank from an unimproved water source meaning the water had no type of treatment to make it safer to drink. Each person interviewed stated that they did not have a healthy latrine and used the jungle. This can cause contamination due to the runoff of rainwater flushing the waste into the water source. Also, we determined if people washed their babies, they would use the same source of water they drank from. This was occurring at the individual houses of people and the community center. When asking the children how often they missed school from stomach related issues or fever, all of them stated they missed a minimum of 3-5 days of school in the past 3 months from these symptoms. This confirmed what the president had said to me a year prior that many kids were missing school because of stomach issues and now we had physical evidence and stories from people as to the reason. It was an important moment in our project to understand the community’s WASH habits and to gather evidence proving our original suspicions. 

The last questions we asked in our interviews were to gauge the community’s perspective on our project. All the community members stated that a clean system or source for drinking water was important. The goal of the community was to provide a sanitary environment for the children to attend school and learn. The community realized and agreed that a minga should be formed to help collaborate on the construction of a clean water source and a sanitary latrine for the school and community center. A minga is a community sponsored and agreed upon decision to work together and combine resources for a collective goal. The established minga with assist our engineers in the construction, maintenance, WASH education, water testing and other necessary items related to this project. Through the interviews, the community was informed of the intentions of the project and how CEDC could help in the future.

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Figure 6. Tristan interviewing kids ages 13-15 about their WASH habits

The current plan is to implement our design in August of 2024. We will build a spring capture system that collects water directly from an underground spring to eliminate contamination. Then it will be filtered and disinfected with chlorine before being stored in a small water tower.  From the storage tanks on the tower, clean water can be delivered to handwashing and drinking stations around the community center.  Using local materials is a crucial aspect to our project’s success because imported components can be too expensive and difficult for the community to replace. Mandari Panga unfortunately does not have sufficient funds to purchase the materials for this project. I have started a GoFundMe page for the community and all proceeds will go directly into the construction materials for this project. If you have made it this far into the blog, you know the situation of the community and what it would mean to them if you donated. Every donation helps this community in need. https://gofund.me/d0603fd4

Thank you for spending the time to read my story. It is important to me that all people get access to safe drinking water and that includes the people of Mandari Panga. There are many communities like Mandari Panga and Iquitos that need help. Awareness is the first step but vision with action is how you change the world…

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