Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador


A few days ago I began a new journey here: writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 47 more posts.

The second of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Field, which is just south of Mt Tom. (My hike up Mt Tom was described in the first post of this series.)  I went up both Tom and Field on 10 May 2016, leaving from Crawford Depot, as you can see on the map:

Slide2The hike over from Mt Tom was pleasant and not too steep.  But I got very nervous as I went, because of the increasing amounts of snow and packed ice on the path.  Unexpected for mid-May!

I had planned to continue on to Mt Willey, another 1.4 mi from Field, but once I was on top of Field, it felt more prudent to give myself as much time as possible to get back down to Crawford Notch; walking along the ice was bad enough, but descending steeply was going to be a challenge.

So I will get up Mt Willey on another hike!


Neither of these photos show the ice, sadly, but the descent turned out to be every bit as challenging as feared: I broke my walking pole, and wrenched my shoulder hanging on to a tree when my feet came out from underneath me.  It’s still sore as I write this.

I made sure to prepare better for the next few climbs, until I was 100% sure that the snow and ice was gone.


In my last post, I mentioned that I joined the Peace Corps on Valentine’s Day, 1984, when I flew from Boston to Miami to begin two years of service in Ecuador.   I described Peace Corps training briefly in the last post…

Once I arrived at my posting, in Azogues, capital of Cañar province, I began to oversee the construction of two water projects – in Cochancay (in the lowland area of Cañar province, near La Troncal), and El Tambo, in the highlands.  I was very lucky that I was the only gringo in the province (at least for my first year), and the only Project Engineer other than the provincial head.  So I had a lot to do, lots of responsibility.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I wrote about El Tambo two years ago – the tragic story of Noemi Ávarez Quillay, who had died in 2014 while trying to reach the United States.  She had lived near El Tambo.  I was very disturbed to read that,“…in Noemi’s hometown there are clues about the forces at work in her story.  In the district of El Tambo in Cañar province, her maternal grandparents, Mr. Quillay, 57, and María Jesús Guamán, 59, live in an adobe home with no running water…”  Either the water system we built hadn’t lasted, or Noemi lived “in the district” but outside the area served by the system…

But back in 1984, one of the most interesting parts of this project, for me, was that the water source was far away from town (8.8km): a spectacular lake (Culebrillas) with a remote Incan ruin on its banks.  The work crew started by building the captation weir near the lake; they had diverted the Culebrillas river while they built the weir.  From there they worked back down towards town, digging a 1m trench, laying and gluing the PVC pipes, and then covering it all up again.

For many weeks I visited the work site by driving up near the lake and walking several kilometers; later, as they approached El Tambo, it was easier to walk up from town.  I vividly recall wondering at the spectacular beauty of the Andes mountains, that I was hiking in such amazing landscape, and “working”!

We built a simple treatment plant, with a chlorination hut, two slow sand filters, a 100m3 (26,000 gal) water storage tank, over 8km of tubing in the town itself, and 356 household connections.

Here are a few photos of the El Tambo project:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


While technically similar (gravity-flow), the Cochancay project was quite different, mainly because it was on the coast while El Tambo was in the highlands.  In those days at least, the culture of coastal Ecuador was very Caribbean, exuberant and loud, extroverted and busy.  El Tambo was primarily indigenous, introverted and sombre.  Stereotypes, of course, but that’s how it felt.

The captation for the Cochancay system was in the jungle, a few kilometers the road from town.  No scenic hiking in the Andes for me on this project!  Driving to Cochancay was always a bit scary, as we dropped down from 2500m above sea level almost to sea level, and there was almost always heavy fog on the way down.  I saw more than one terrible accident on that road (which was the main highway between Cuenca and Guayaquil).

Here again we built a simple treatment plant, with a chlorination hut, two slow sand filters, a 100m3 water storage tank, over 7km of tubing in the town itself, and 361 household connections.  These two projects were of very similar sizes; one difference was that here in Cochancay, with a much warmer climate, the system was designed to provide 50% more water per person than in El Tambo, up high in the cooler mountains.

Here are a few photos of the Cochancay project:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here I’ve written about helping to bring potable water to two rural communities – and, in fact, in 1990 only 62% of rural Ecuadoreans had access to improved water sources.  So the work we were doing in El Tambo and Cochancay was urgent and important.

But one common thread of these posts will be how much things have changed – mostly for the better – since I began this journey.  In this sense, then, the world has changed: by 2010, nearly 90% of Ecuadoreans living in rural areas had access to improved water sources.

More on that theme – how much the world has changed – in future posts!

But first, what did I learn from El Tambo and Cochancay?  Many things – about the importance of community organization.  About how important it was to charge a nominal fee for water, and increasing marginal costs for more use, to encourage conservation.  And I learned a lot of Cañari Spanish!

But from an engineering point of view, I was also learning.  As a “mechanical” engineer, this was really the first time I had built such large concrete structures, and the two 100m3 tanks we built in El Tambo and Cochancay seemed way over-designed.

In my next post, covering my hike up Flume Mountain, I will tell the story of the water system we built in San Rafael – a village across the valley from El Tambo, affected by water-born typhoid, where we built Ecuador’s first ferrocement water tank.  A 70% reduction in cost when compared with the reinforced concrete tanks we built in El Tambo and Conchancay.  And we designed and built a Cretan Sail windmill to pump water for the system.

Stay tuned!


Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey

A few weeks ago I climbed Mt Tom, one of 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Since moving to New England in the late 1970s, I have climbed many of these peaks, but in the coming months I’ll climb all 48.  May take me a year or two? … we’ll see.

So that’s a new journey.  Along with a brief description of each of these climbs, I’ll also reflect a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 48 posts.

Mt Tom is 4051 ft tall (1235 m), and I got to the top (a solo hike) on 10 May 2016, leaving from Crawford Depot:


There isn’t much of a view from Tom’s top, as it’s surrounded by short pine trees, but near the summit you can look over towards the “Presidential Range” – Mt Washington, the tallest of the 48, can be seen clearly, still with snow on May 10, 2016.


The Presidential Range, From The Top Of Mt Tom

And here is the summit of Mt Tom – not the most spectacular!  Well below the tree line, so no real view.


Mt Tom Summit

An easy and enjoyable start to this project, with few other hikers.  So I had a nice, solitary walk for the most part…

However, as I neared the top, I found myself on snow and then ice that had been packed by climbers over the winter.  I had brought my Yak-Trax on the trip, thinking that there might be some risk of snow, but it was quite warm at the trailhead, with no snow visible, so I left them behind, in the car.  Big mistake!  Because as I walked from Mt Tom over to my second 48-footer – Mt Field – I ran into much more snow and ice and the trail became steeper.  The few other hikers I saw had brought along micro-spikes, and used them.  I felt a bit nervous on the ice.

I will write about getting to the top of Mt Field, and down, soon.  For now I’ll just say that the descent was very tricky!


Another new journey began on Valentine’s Day, 1984, when I flew from Boston to Miami to begin two years of Peace Corps service.  That was an emotional day, because I was leaving Jean behind in Boston.  Little did I know that, in 2016 we would celebrate 31 years of marriage!  But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit…

Omnibus 44 gathered that day at the Everglades Hotel (demolished in 2005), for training and assessment before flying to Quito a few days later.  I made two long-lasting friendships that week (this means you, Chris, and Kenny!).  And, in retrospect, it was the beginning of a new career, because in my second year as a Volunteer a large international NGO came to town, and that led to a long and happy career in the NGO world.  More on that in future posts!

Having studied mechanical engineering, when I signed up to volunteer I was assigned to the Instituto Ecuadoreano de Obras Sanitarias (IEOS) as a project engineer.  There were several different groups of soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteers gathering that day in Miami, forming Omnibus 44: agriculture, disability (vision-impaired), water, etc.  Some in our water group were going to be “water promoters” – focused on working with communities, organising projects.  Others, like me, would be “water engineers”, working  as project heads, designing and overseeing project implementation.  Despite having studied mechanical engineering, I was assigned as a water engineer because the technical skills required weren’t very specialised… Chris, who would spend his two years in Guaranda, was a “promotor de agua”; Kenny, a fellow engineer, would be assigned to Cayambe, north of Quito.

So after five days in Miami, we flew to Quito and stayed there for about a month, focused mainly on language training.  Each of us lived during that month with an Ecuadorean family – I lived with the “Familia Larrea”, not too far from the training center.

Omnibus 44’s different groups (agriculture, disability, water, etc.) then split for two months of technical training.  We moved outside Quito, and then farther afield to Riobamba, continuing (less intensive) language training.  Here’s the water group, future engineers and promoters, in a photo taken at the Ecuadorean Cooperative Institute (ICE) training centre, outside of Quito.  Our technical trainer, and one of our Spanish instructors (Laura) are also in the photo…

ICE - 1984

Water Volunteers, Peace Corps Ecuador Omnibus 44, April 1984.

After three months of training we went to our assigned sites – for me, Azogues, capital of Cañar province.

Azogues wasn’t too isolated geographically, being fairly close to Cuenca, but (for my first year, at least) I was the only PC Volunteer assigned there; I had heard some rumours that, because the Province of Cañar was quite leftist in its politics, earlier Volunteers had a hard time.  So I guess I was a bit of a guinea pig (a “cui”!)

I was very lucky to be assigned to Azogues, and to IEOS Cañar.  Being the only Volunteer in the province for the first year, and the only project engineer (apart from “L”, the “Jefe Provincial“) I had nothing to do but work, which is what I did: on my very first day in the IEOS office, the “Jefe Provincial” told me that there were two communities ready and waiting for a water project to begin, materials were in the office, so he didn’t want to see me until the water systems were built!  What a great opportunity – just out of graduate school, and I had responsibility for two significant water projects.

Being fairly isolated in Azogues, I wasn’t distracted by socialising with other Volunteers, unlike (for example) some of my fellow PCVs closer to Quito, who got together a lot.  This helped me learn Spanish – nobody to speak English with except Jean, who telephoned the IEOS office every two weeks!

Another reason I was lucky was that, after a year, an international NGO arrived in Azogues. There was absolutely no missing the arrival of Annuska (Plan Cañar’s first Field Director) and her white Land Cruiser – Plan International opened a Field Office!

But first, I had a couple of water systems to get built that first year in Azogues.  In my next post, covering my hike up Mt Field, I will also describe what it was like helping bring potable water to El Tambo and Cochancay.  Stay tuned!


Liked Amber Robinson’s take on recent tragic events at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Let’s honor Harambe by making it impossible for children to enter gorilla enclosures.  And, in particular, let’s address the threats that these majestic living beings face in their natural habitats:

Rather than ranting about bad parenting, respect Harambe’s memory by doing something productive. Recycling your mobile phone through PhoneCycle so that it can be re-used, reducing the need for mining of new materials. You can also donate directly to charities working with endangered gorillas – Gorilla doctors and the World Wildlife Fund.”