Peeling the Onion: the thousand layers to an Engineering problem

Ari-tau is a village in province of Nueva Vizcaya. Located in the north of the Philippines, it is in the middle of the island of Luzon, the most populous island in the country. Far from the golden sand beaches, the scenery is instead painted with rice terraces sitting on the wavy green mountains. Ari-tau hosts a GK community since 8 years ago, which consists of 34 families and awaits 20 upcoming ones.

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Our morning view

Just like in Metro Manila, the community here is extremely welcoming. Greeting us already in the bus station with the typical Filipino merienda – afternoon snack where people sit together and talk. The warm welcome continues with a community meeting, where they introduce us in front of all the families and we have the chance to talk to them explaining our purpose for a few minutes. The project increasingly becomes more real, the warmth of the people taking us in, and the impact of living the lack of access to water with our own eyes builds up the energy inside each of us to do the best we can during our time here.

 

However, as we soon notice, things aren’t as simple as it seems. We kick-off the first day with a 6am trek to the top of the mountain with the community members. We want to take samples of the water from the source and observe the piping from the houses to the spring. As we chat with the locals while we climb up the mountain, we learn about a hundred new layers of complication added to the problem, which we were completely unaware of before. Starting from the fact that the local spring is shared by a variety of stakeholders. It doesn’t take us long to realise how this problem might be more about Politics than Engineering.

How do 34 families share a trickle of water coming from one pipe? As we keep the conversation going with the community, they explain how the pipe travels in order all along the village, from house to house from 8am until the evening every other day, allowing 20 minutes for each family to fill up their buckets of water. All they can get in these 20 minutes is the 2-day water supply they can use to shower, wash clothes and dishes, cook, and flush the toilet. 20 minutes of muddy water when it rains or 20 minutes of non-constant water flow when it doesn’t. They also get drinking water from a community-shared tap which they pay per litre of water to the Aritao Rural Water and Sewage Association (ARWASA). This additional water source seems like good news, until we discover that, since the past year, the water supply from this point has also been unreliable, unable to meet the demands of all the families on a regular basis.

 

In our revealing trek to the mountain, we also learn about the deep water well drilling project that was started some years ago. After manually digging 18 meters deep, the project stopped due to various issues, such as not finding water where it was expected, undergoing accidents with the local foremen or experimenting difficulties with the contract with the local government. Taking us for professional highly-respected engineers from London, the local engineers are keen on us working on restarting the deep water well drilling project and raising the necessary funds for it.

We came all the way to the Philippines to work on a low-cost filtration system (i.e. biosand filtration[1]) based on a local spring. Grasping the water situation in GK Ari-tau, we know that we need to completely redefine the scope of our project. However, we also know that we should step away from the deep water well drilling project. Because we don’t have experience with it and we are unwilling to use the reputation of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) or University College London (UCL) to get funds for such project.

The early morning trek has come to an end. Yet, instead of coming back with bottles filled with water samples, we return with our brains confused and overwhelmed with the explanations, opinions and suggestions of everybody we talk to. Layers keep growing in the problem definition, confusing and overwhelming our minds, but also instigating in us an addiction to understand and learn more about the water situation.

 

[1] Biosand filtration is a water treatment system based on a concrete or water container with sand and gravel inside. It removes pathogens and other elements from water to make it drinkable.

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