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Turning on the Tap in Xonca, Guatemala


Written by Eryn Austin-Bergen and Ingrid Delgado for Hope Notes Is 31
Updated by Sarah Harrington

When you run the tap in the morning, do you ever wonder if the water is safe? We all need access to water for drinking, cooking, cleaning—you name it! Imagine not being able to wash your clothes, your dishes, or your hands. But around the world, 1 in 10 people lack access to safe water. 

That’s where clean water projects come in. Whether it’s digging new wells, capping springs, installing pipelines, or one of the many other types of clean water solutions, these water projects free communities from the dangers of unsafe drinking water. They save time and lives. But what actually happens before you can turn on the tap? Here’s a look at one community’s journey through a water project!

Waiting for Water

The community of Xonca is nestled in the mountainous and pine-forested valleys of north-western Guatemala. When Xonca was first established, its predominantly Indigenous population never imagined their community would grow so fast, or so big. As it expanded from one district to two, then three and four, the water spring they’d bought to support just 15 households wasn’t nearly enough. One district’s households were never even connected to the spring. For years, they were forced to walk to communal water sources in neighbouring communities and carry their water home. This consumed hours every day and was physically exhausting—water is heavy! To make matters worse, transporting and storing the water in open containers increased its chances of being contaminated with parasites.  

Xonca's water source before the water project was implemented ran through the hillsides, gathering debris and breeding larvae.

Recurring illnesses were common and devastating in the community. With their drinking water contaminated by animal waste, run-off debris, or breeding larvae, it’s no wonder families in Xonca struggled to stay healthy! Seeing this struggle, Xonca community leaders strove to bring water to their people. They contacted several charities to ask for support, but every time, they were turned down. The vast scope and expense of the project was too much, they were told. They even appealed to their local municipality for help, but the mayor always said no.

Xonca began a partnership with Food for the Hungry (FH) in 2009. Knowing their pressing need for water, Canadian partners from Vernon Alliance Church in British Columbia were ready to be the ones to say “Yes!” and help make clean water at home a reality for every family in Xonca. With full funding in place, it was finally time to put a plan into action to pipe water from an additional spring to each of the 203 households in the fourth district.

Members of the water committee surveying their water source.

Getting the Job Done

FH Guatemala and Xonca leaders put together an aggressive plan to get the job done as quickly as possible. FH and the community contracted an expert to oversee all the moving pieces of the project. They brought in Diego Ramirez Cobo, a member of Engineers Without Borders who had more than 23 years experience working with water systems. His expertise was a real game changer, leading to key tweaks in the plan that created a strong design and cut project costs. 

It was tricky work to lay piping in these steep hills.

When the plan, funding, and supplies were all in place, the community threw their full energy into the project. Men and women alike volunteered hours of unpaid labour to carry heavy building materials for the catchment tank from the delivery trucks to the actual construction site—a gruelling 20 minute walk up treacherously steep hills. Led by Diego, they cleared the pipeline area, manually dug the ditches to lay the water pipes, and helped install the piping network. To get all this accomplished and still keep up with their own responsibilities at home and at work, the community organized rotating, eight hour shifts every day. The shifts started at 3 AM and didn’t wrap up until 11 AM! In addition to all these sacrifices, the households waiting for water contributed their own money to support the project. Their voluntary contributions are an example to us all and a strong sign that when their graduation from FH programming comes in 2023, they’ll be ready.

A massive distribution tank collects spring water from the mountain. Xonca families can be proud of the expert system they built together.

More Help Arrives

When the municipality saw what was happening in Xonca, the mayor decided to get on board. After years of saying no, the municipality showed up with free construction materials! This contribution had a powerful knock-on effect. It allowed FH Canada and Vernon Alliance to invest not only in building the catchment, distribution, and chlorination system, but also to purchase pipes for the pipeline running from the catchment to the distribution tank. These pipes were initially going to be bought with community money. With these funds freed up, the community was able to invest their money to set up the distribution network to bring water directly to homes. Initially, this network was scheduled in a “Phase 2” of the project to be executed much further down the road. No one imagined it could get done so soon!

To date, 109 people from Vernon Alliance Church have visited Xonca.

Turning on the Tap

The community of Xonca persevered through years of being told “no.” Because of their determination, enthusiasm, hard work, and sacrifice, the water project was completed within budget, ahead of schedule, and extended beyond the scope of the original plan. Within just five months, the community constructed the catchment and distribution tanks, together with the chlorination system and distribution network. To ensure the sustainability of this precious resource, they set up a water committee responsible for maintenance and oversight.

“We all have worked and spent some money for transportation and spent time. The community, too. When we started carrying the rocks and sand, I saw that they were sweating and I ask them: ‘Do you know why they are doing this?’ [They answered] “This is for us, not for anyone else,” said Gasper, President and legal representative of the Xonca Water Committee.

The water committee will make sure their new system keeps flowing for years to come.

The families in Xonca sacrificed time, sweat equity, and hard-earned money to ensure they not only had a communal source of water, but that each individual home could have clean, flowing water right out of their own taps. This will save significant time and back-breaking labour as well as improve family health.

“I am very happy because we now have water!" Jacinta, a community member, exclaimed. "For a long time, we did not have water and it was difficult going to the well to collect it. Now that I have water in my home... Thank you for helping us and for your support. May God bless you because water is very important for us. Thank you!”
Jacinta expresses her thanks.

Lives Changed

Tomas and Juana have lived in Xonca for 18 years. They have never had water in their home. Since Tomas works weekdays, Juana collects all the water they need for drinking, cooking, handwashing, bathing, and washing dishes. Every day, two or three times a day, she carries plastic containers to a distant water source to gather water. On laundry days, she hauls their clothes down to the river and either waits for them to dry there or carries them home soaking and heavy. When it rains, they collect runoff from their roof which becomes easily contaminated, breeding larvae as it sits uncovered. All the families in Sector 4 shared their story—until now. Thanks to the joint effort between FH, their Canadian partners, the municipality, and the people of Xonca, Juana no longer trudges long distances to collect water. Today, clean water flows from the tap in their home!

Tomas, Juana, and their two children, Cecilia and Jacinto.

Tomas and Juana are just one example of the lives that have been changed with Xonca’s clean water project. Behind every sip of clean water is another story, including one of a young girl who no longer has to travel before school every day just to fetch water, leaving her more time to focus on her studies and fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. 

That’s the power of clean water! 

Passionate about bringing clean water to children and their families? Give here to help more communities tap into life’s most precious resource.

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Food for the Hungry: Turning on the Tap in Xonca, Guatemala
Turning on the Tap in Xonca, Guatemala
Xonca's journey of clean water
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Food for the Hungry
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