I’ve been writing in this series about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’m also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
The third of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Moosilauke, which was a gorgeous climb.
From the parking lot at the start of Beaver Brook Trail – which is also the Appalachian Trail for the section that I walked – the trail ascends rapidly. I passed this sign, which warns hikers: in the winter, or in the rain, climbing up past the Black Brook Cascades could be tricky (or, as the sign says, even “tragic”) … on a sunny day in May, for me, it was merely steep.
Beaver Brook Cascades are beautiful – and, of course, easier going up than down:
And at the top, well above tree-line, there’s an extensive, fragile, alpine field with lots of granite rubble and some spectacular views of other White Mountains:
This was one of my favorite climbs in the White Mountains – a strenuous ascent up through forest, featuring a long, early climb up next to rushing waterfalls, no bugs, and then a fabulous alpine area at the top. Simply fantastic!
I will be writing twice about the work we did in the community of San Rafael in 1985-86. It was a very important water project for me, because of the situation in that community, which was suffering an outbreak of cholera when I first visited. Important because of what I learned in designing and working to help build an innovative water system. And important because of where it led me, connections I made during that time that led me into a career in international development and social justice.
This first blog about San Rafael will describe the ferrocement water tank, unique for its time and the first of many that were built using the same design – in Ecuador, other parts of South America, even in Albania! Next time, I’ll write about the other main innovation that we introduced in the San Rafael system: the Cretan Sail windmill…
When we had built the water system in El Tambo earlier, we had used a standard design for the water tank and filters – reinforced concrete, with walls about 20cm thick. Here’s a photo of the filters at El Tambo: take a look at the thickness of the walls, same as the walls we built for the water tank:
By comparison, here’s an image of the water tank we built in San Rafael, just 2cm thick! In this photo, the wall had just been roughly plastered, and you can see how thin it was, in comparison:
But I’m getting ahead of myself here… let me start at the beginning:
When I joined Peace Corps, I was assigned to be Project Engineer at the Ecuadorean Institute of Sanitary Works (IEOS, the acronym in Spanish). There had been a hiccup in my recruitment at the beginning: since I was trained as a Mechanical Engineer, not a Civil Engineer, I didn’t technically qualify for the assignment to IEOS. They wanted people who could design and supervise construction of potable water systems; typical civil engineering stuff, according to the specifications.
Luckily, when I was on the phone with Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, talking about this obstacle, the Ecuador Country Director (Ned Benner) happened to be in town, and he happened to walk past the person just as we were talking about the problem. The recruiter put me on hold, and then casually leaned back and asked Benner about the issue.
I’m grateful to Benner, who apparently said something like “sure, send him along!”
Bless him. Because the engineering involved in simple, gravity-flow water systems is pretty straightforward. And not being a Civil Engineer made me see things a little bit differently, later.
For example, in my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteers I had built standard IEOS design reinforced-concrete water tanks with very thick walls, in Cochancay and El Tambo, like the one you can see in the photo, above.
Since water-storage tanks were the most expensive single item in these gravity-flow systems, and they seemed very over-designed – and unnecessarily expensive – to me (seeing things freshly, not being a Civil Engineer!), it all felt very wasteful. Could we build a tank with thinner walls? I had a suspicion that they might even be as much as 75% cheaper … which would mean that we could build more water systems with the same funding…
Sometime early in 1985, things came together. First, a small delegation of indigenous Cañari villager leaders came to visit the IEOS office from San Rafael, a village near the town of Cañar, led by Manuel Cungachi. They had obtained a small budget allocation from the Congress of Ecuador to build a potable-water system in their village, which was suffering from a cholera outbreak. And they wanted to know when we could get started! (Collective action works!)
My boss, the IEOS director for Cañar, sent me to visit San Rafael to see what we could do. I vividly recall the first afternoon when I walked into that community through the thick fog that rose up from the coast almost every afternoon. I came across a small group of villagers carrying two tiny coffins, walking towards me, out of the fog. Children, they told me, that had died from cholera due to the bad water sources in the village.
Earlier that year, world oil prices had collapsed, and since Ecuador was an oil-exporter (in fact, an OPEC member state) and much of the governmental budget was dependent on robust oil revenues, IEOS’s budget had been cut. And when I estimated the cost of a typical potable-water system, based on my rough surveying of the village that foggy day, the budget that San Rafael had obtained from the Congress wasn’t nearly enough. IEOS had no spare funds.
So, despite the obvious need, and despite the community having obtained some budget from the Congress, we didn’t have enough money to address the problem.
But, happily, an international NGO had just arrived in town! Plan International was establishing a Field Office in Azogues and, since there were so few foreigners in town – just me and a newly-arrived Peace Corps Volunteer now working as a “water promoter” in the IEOS office (David Wright) – it was hard to miss the arrival of Plan’s new Field Director, Annuska Heldring.
A charismatic, dedicated, and hilarious Dutch woman, Annuska drove around town in a brand new, shiny white Toyota Land Cruiser, creating quite a buzz in the quiet provincial atmosphere in Azogues. (More about Plan, and Annuska, will come in future posts in this series…) She wanted to get a program going quickly, and had decided that potable water was going to be one of the focuses of Plan Cañar. And I needed to find funding for San Rafael…
Things were coming together.
I arranged to visit San Rafael with Annuska one weekend, and she was struck by how the people there were organized and dynamic, and by the obvious need. Under Annuska’s leadership, Plan became enthusiastic about putting some funding into the project.
But even with Plan’s support we still didn’t have enough money to make things happen in San Rafael.
So I came up with the idea of trying out some innovations to get the cost down. I knew that US AID, in Quito, had a fund for innovative water projects, so I sent a proposal to Herb Caudill, who headed up the US AID water program.
There was no source of water above the village, which meant that water would have to be pumped – normally a very expensive proposition. I had read about a simple water-turbine design called a “Cretan Sail” windmill, so I thought I could design and build one to pump water from a well above the village; building a windmill was a job for a Mechanical Engineer! More on that part of the San Rafael project in the next blog!
The other major expense would be, of course, the water-storage tank. As I mentioned earlier, the 20cm thick walls of the tanks in Cochancay and El Tambo seemed way over-designed to me, from a Mechanical Engineer’s point of view. Wastefully so… and certainly not affordable for San Rafael.
Then I remembered that I had heard of boats had been build from concrete, using a technology called I vaguely recalled, “ferrocement.” I began to sketch out what that kind of tank might look like. But I had almost no access to technical information there in Azogues in those pre-internet days. What to do?
So I asked my girlfriend, soon to be wife, Jean, who lived in Massachusetts, to buy me a copy of Roark’s stress tables (which I had used when I worked at Boeing a few years earlier – here’s a current version to give you an idea) so I could start to calculate how much reinforcement a water tank would need. And Jean also paid a visit to the engineering library at my university and found a couple of articles about ferrocement (from the “Journal of Ferrocement” no less!) Jean mailed the book and the articles to me, and I went to work.
The idea with ferrocement seemed to be that, instead of concentrating the steel reinforcement in thick rebar, requiring thick walls to cover it and distribute tensile loads to it, in ferrocement you distributed the reinforcement more evenly, using chicken-wire and steel wire instead of rebar. You needed the same amount of steel in total to handle tensile loads in the concrete, but since the reinforcement was distributed more evenly, the concrete covering could be thinner. Or so I hoped…
With Roark’s stress tables, and hints from the articles Jean had sent me, I came up with a basic idea for San Rafael’s water project:
- We would dig a well by hand, and line it with simple concrete rings that we would pour at the site;
- On top of the well, we would build a Cretan Sail windmill to pump the water. By some incredible luck, there was a weather station in the town of Cañar, so I had records of the wind there: there was a lot of wind in that area, little doubt that a windmill would be feasible, if I could get one built. More on that in the next post!;
- Given the population of San Rafael, the water system needed a storage tank of at least 50m3. We would build it of ferrocement. And to keep costs down even further, we would reuse materials as much as possible. For example, one article in the “Journal of Ferrocement” described how the author had used tubing around the tank formwork to create a ribbed surface, easy to plaster. To keep costs down, I’d use the tubing that would later be used for the household connections for that purpose. And, to cover the tank, I would use roofing tin, which we would first use for the tank’s formwork.
To my delight, Herb Caudill of US AID in Quito quickly approved an innovation grant, so we had enough money to build the system!
Looking back, it seems amazing that funding for the water system in San Rafael came together – from the Ecuadorean Congress (thanks to effective collective action by San Rafael’s leaders), from Plan International (thanks to Annuska), and finally from US AID (thanks to Herb Caudill).
One final stroke of luck was still to come: when I showed my initial design for the ferrocement water tank to the Provincial Head of IEOS, he told me it would never hold water. I should forget about it!
Since I was a Mechanical Engineer, and he was an experienced Civil Engineer (and my boss!), this made me very nervous. Who was I to say that the tank wouldn’t collapse, if an experienced Civil Engineer was so sure I was heading towards disaster?
So I spent many weekend days pouring over my calculations, and decided to go ahead; to give him credit, my boss didn’t stop me. And then, just at the right time, IEOS employees nation-wide went on strike for several weeks, and the Provincial Head of IEOS had to stay home; I was in charge of the office, sort of! During those weeks, in his absence, we built the tank!
The first step was to pour the floor. We dug out an area near where the windmill would be placed, and placed rocks as a foundation, with a network of drainage pipes underneath. After pouring an initial layer of concrete, we put chicken wire down, extending it well beyond where the walls would later be erected. The idea was that the chicken wire for the walls would tie in to the wire in the floor, making the whole structure, essentially, one piece, one structure, one ferrocement shell.
Here are some images of the floor being prepared:
Next we prepared the walls, and this is where things got tricky. Because I was so nervous about the tank failing, I became fixated on the placement of its walls: any deviation from perfectly round would create tensile stresses that would break the tank when it filled with water. The challenge was that the masons involved, very capable IEOS veterans, were used to traditional construction methods, which were very forgiving. That was an advantage of the thick-walled tanks – they were easy to build. Costly, but with wide margins of safety for placing the steel reinforcement, the formwork, etc.
I hadn’t thought of that. My insistence on the formwork being placed exactly as designed, and the chicken wire and reinforcing wire being located exactly where I had specified, was hard for the masons to comply with.
I was so nervous that, during the preparation and construction of the tank walls I visited San Rafael very frequently, and asked the masons to make many, minute adjustments. I’m sure they grumbled when I wasn’t there! Surely they viewed me with some resentment, a silly gringo obsessed with meaningless details.
Here are some images of the preparation of the walls:
I vividly recall driving up to the construction site the day after we had begun to fill the tank for the first time. Although all my many, many calculations had led me to believe that the tank would easily survive being filled with water, my head echoed with the doubts of every Civil Engineer I had spoken with. So you can imagine my relief, and joy, when I arrived the next morning and saw this:
Seeing that tank full of water, and holding firm, was a big moment for me.
I mentioned earlier that my plan was to reuse the tin roofing sheets we had used for the tank formwork, using them to cover the tank. But I was so excited at how well the tank was holding water that I started thinking that I might be able to design a ferrocement top for the tank, too.
So as the walls cured, I spent a few weeks designing a cupola, which would sit on top of the tank walls. This was risky, because the tank walls were not initially designed to hold the weight of a ferrocement cupola… but my calculations indicated that it was possible. And we had enough money for this.
I chose a particular section of a sphere for the cupola, and later, when I saw tanks built from the same design, I could easily recognise my handiwork from that particular spherical section!
Placement of the formwork for the cupola was, if anything, even trickier than it had been for the walls. That’s because, if the walls had failed, it would have destroyed the tank; but if the cupola fell and somebody was on top, or inside the tank, they could easily be killed.
Here are some images of the cupola: during construction, and when it was completed:
At the time I estimated that the water-storage tank in San Rafael saved about 2/3rds of the cost of a standard, IEOS-style reinforced concrete tank. As the months passed, and as the tank continued to perform perfectly, IEOS Engineers came to visit it – including the head of construction for IEOS headquarters in Quito, Napoleon Duque. Here is Ing Duque on top of the tank!:
Duque later told me that he had build a ferrocement tank, using my design, near Quito, close to a similarly-sized standard tank. A medium-sized earthquake had struck the area, destroying the traditional tank; the ferrocement tank, being light and resilient, merely floated along with the earthquake without the slightest problem. And before I left Azogues, we built two more tanks of different capacities: 10m3 and 20m3, I think.
In my final weeks as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I wrote an instruction manual for constructing tanks of this type, of various capacities. Later that manual was greatly improved by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Kenny Stevens, and many tanks were built using that document.
One was even built in Albania, in the early 1990’s, where Annuska Heldring became Plan’s Country Director there!
Years later, I visited Plan in Cañar when I was Regional Director for South America. We were celebrating the five year anniversary of the establishment of Plan’s office in Azogues.
Of course, I paid a visit to San Rafael, and our water tank was functioning perfectly. At the ceremony for Plan Cañar, my old boss from IEOS was in attendance. He told me that he had left IEOS, and had now focused his work building ferrocement tanks! I didn’t remind him of his initial scepticism. Instead, I felt happy that our work in San Rafael was echoing into the future, helping make the limited resources available for building water projects in Ecuador go a bit further.