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Learning Water’s True Value in Guatemala

Having grown up in Oregon and lived in Wisconsin for most of my adult life, accessing clean drinking water has always been as simple as turning on the tap. The same is not true in many areas of Guatemala. In the village of Tzay (pronounced “sigh”), where I spent the second week of March, residents get water from their municipal system for just 30 minutes a day. A second system—a well drilled expressly for Tzay—delivers water only once a week.


Until recently, residents of Tzay, Guatemala had running water in their homes for just 30 minutes a day.

The week before I started as the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s new communications coordinator, my husband Pat and I traveled to Tzay with the group Wisconsin Water for the World. An all-volunteer committee within the Wisconsin section of the American Water Works Association, Water for the World strives to provide safe drinking water to developing nations. In Guatemala, it has partnered for 10 years with Agua Para La Salud (Water for Health). The organization is run by Lynn Roberts, an American who has lived in Guatemala since the mid-1990s.

Working with engineers and community leaders, Agua Para La Salud surveys locations where new drinking water systems can be installed, drafts the design plans, and recruits local masons, interpreters, and others to the project. Another critical part of the process is assembling a water committee in each village, which is tasked with watching over the system and learning to maintain it.

For its part, Water for the World raises the money for each project, reviews and finalizes the design plan, and recruits “ambassadors” to help with the system’s final implementation in Guatemala.

That’s where Pat and I came in. To be sure, most of the work had been done by the village and Agua Para La Salud before our group from Wisconsin (and one person from Florida) arrived. But witnessing the residents’ pride in their new system and their excitement at finally having reliable water was a deeply moving experience that I won’t forget.


The Water for the World team with Lynn Roberts (back row, far left) and Cristobal (kneeling, second from left), one of the Guatemalan masons on the project.

Too remote to appear in Google maps, Tzay is located in the department of Sololá (akin to a U.S. state) in Guatemala’s midwestern highlands. Nearly all residents of Tzay and Sololá are indigenous Maya, and many wear traditional clothing and speak the local Mayan dialect, Kaqchikel, rather than Spanish.

In Tzay, most people farm tiny plots of maize, vegetables, and other crops, often on steep slopes and with few or no chemicals (one farmer proudly handed us sweet peas, noting in English that they were organic). Their homes are made of cement blocks, with corrugated roofs and packed, dirt floors. They have electric lighting, but still cook with wood. They also have no plumbing, and, until recently, only intermittent running water.

Central to each family’s compound is a large, outdoor sink with two compartments, called a pila, where drinking water is collected and dishes are washed. As part of the project, each family was getting a new pila fronted by a concrete pad to reduce water damage to the earthen floor. I spent two days in Tzay helping build rebar frames for reinforcing these concrete pads. Other Wisconsin volunteers, meanwhile, assembled water meters for each of the village’s 50 homes.


Alan (left), a volunteer from Florida, works with my husband Pat (middle) and I to build a rebar frame used to reinforce concrete.

Another key improvement is that each house now has a seepage pit for sending wastewater from the pila underground rather than letting it run off the surface. Although dug with shovels, these pits were astoundingly symmetrical and smooth. The only exception was the divots cut into the walls—footholds for the digger to climb out of the 10- to 15-foot-deep holes.

As for the system itself, it’s composed of a concrete cistern that captures water from a spring below Tzay, and a pump that pushes the spring water uphill to a second collection tank above the village. From there, the water is gravity-fed to a faucet and pila in each home through a system of buried, PVC pipes.

When we arrived, most of the trenches had been dug and villagers were laying and burying the pipe. Local masons were also putting the finishing layers of concrete on the two collection tanks. They patiently taught Pat the tricky skill of adding a new, thin coating of cement to the tanks’ vertical walls.

Masons mix cement to for the upper tank behind them.

Masons mix cement for the upper tank behind them.

After the rebar frames for the pila pads were built, we helped pour and smooth the concrete pads in some homes. But the most critical task was wiring the pump to the local electricity source. This was done by Roger Field, a plant manager at the Kenosha, Wisconsin water utility who is a former electrician. He’s been on every Water for the World trip except for one, his donated expertise saving each project thousands of dollars.

The crowning event of Tzay’s efforts was to be the switching on of the pump and the filling of the upper tank. After this crucial test was delayed by a planned power outage across Sololá on Thursday—our second-to-last day there—we spent a fitful night of sleep back at our hotel.

A homemade firework is lit in celebration as the upper tank begins to fill with water.

A homemade firework is lit in celebration as the upper tank begins to fill with water.

Waiting by the upper tank on Friday morning, our first signal that the pump had started was the boom of a homemade firework from below. Then broad smiles broke out everywhere as the upper tank began to fill. We took turns with the masons, engineers, and villagers climbing atop the tank to watch the water pouring in. Soon afterward, festive music began blaring from the village center, accompanied by the crackles, pops, and booms of dozens-more fireworks.

After about an hour, we walked down into Tzay and were promptly invited onstage for a ceremony. Feeling completely undeserving, I watched as the community sang Guatemala’s lengthy national anthem, girls and boys shyly performed a traditional water dance, and school kids sang a song about hygiene taught to them by some of our team.

Lynn then stepped forward to congratulate Tzay on its accomplishment in Spanish, followed by water committee members and other officials, who addressed the crowd in Kaqchikel.


A young resident of Tzay fills a jug with water from a newly flowing faucet during a ceremony celebrating the village’s new water system.

Each of us was presented with a framed diploma commemorating our participation. Then, after a ribbon cutting centered on a freshly flowing spigot and a hasty lunch, we loaded into our van.

There are many other memories I could share, but among the most touching was the farewell—the warm hugs, handshakes, smiles, and waves as we left. The villagers were clearly grateful for the help we gave them, but I think they gave me much more. It’s one thing to have intellectual knowledge of the value of water and the growing global water crisis. It’s quite another to feel the preciousness of water.

Thanks to the people of Tzay, I now have that second understanding. And it’s profoundly different.