Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Soul Journal: Water in El Tablon, pt.II

Throughout El Salvador there are skeletal remains of a water project that was once carried out by the government. I don't know much about it, but it was called the ANDA project, and every now and then one can find a pipe or an old pumping station with ANDA still visible on it. For the people in the countryside, ANDA was a failure- too many pipes lay on top of the ground and needed constant maintenance; pumping station were needed to get the water up the mountain; pumping stations needed generators because there was no running electricity, generators were often scavenged by people who needed the parts for their own use; and government commitments tend to change over the life of a long-term project of that sort.

So, the big government project failed and (see my last blog) the local well project failed. What next? El Tablon eventually installed some large water containment units, which they fill with rain water that they collect during the rainy season.

On our last visit, we met with a team from El Tablon and other communities, who work on water issues. They told us that the government has re-started the water project and they were somewhat hopeful that running water might be available for El Tablon in the near future. (We also discovered that electricity might be arriving there soon, but all projects had been put on hold until after the presidential elections.) We heard that it is very expensive to hook up to the water pipes. It costs a family more than an average yearly salary to hook up individually, so only a few families were able to participate on those terms. But, if they were able to put together cooperative groups who would share the costs, they could involve more people.

The committee's greater concern, however, were the ongoing costs, even they are fairly minimal. (These are realistic folks who are quite willing to work hard and pay for their own utilities, but the jobless rate and the competition among so many poor people whose skill sets are essentially identical makes it hard to generate reliable, ongoing income for budgeting.) We heard the same kind of concern regarding electricity when we talked with a group at the Health Clinic in El Tablon. They were in favor of getting very expensive (and not terribly reliable) solar panels for the Clinic, instead of hooking up fairly inexpensively to the electrical grid when it is brought in. The point is: These folks expressed more anxiety about small, ongoing costs than one-time large costs.

WHY? Why would minimal ongoing costs be a greater concern than a whopping one time cost?

In the end, we discovered that the fear they have is not really economical. It is relational. They know that there is a church, an NGO, a charity, or someone out there that would eventually donate the one-time large cost of hooking up to water or purchasing and installing solar panels. What is not so certain, to them, is if they get connected to a pipe or a grid, can they rely on others to help them meet their small monthly bills? In other words, there is more one-time, large donor possibility out there than long-term, ongoing support.

What we heard in their worries was an awareness of the difference between a generous handout and a reliable hand-in-hand relationship. The former is great and thank God for it. But it is the latter that really helps communities thrive.

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