On their last day in Tingo Pucara, a cluster of engineers squatted around the exposed nub of a six-inch PVC pipe. One dangled a flashlight into the opening to illuminate the hollow. The vertical PVC tube joined perpendicularly into the grid of subterranean water pipes that crisscrossed the Andean village four feet below ground. Over the past week, we had hooked up a pump and electricity, checked the containment tank, and installed shut-off valves and water meters at each of the 26 homes that were to receive water. But today, several houses showed unnaturally low water pressure, and three houses were receiving no flow at all. Complicating things, the village was celebrating a wedding. Except for one reluctant guide, we were working on our own.
Tingo is a small village in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, and the site of an ongoing engineering project from the Pittsburgh chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The engineers’ visit in February marked the unofficial inauguration of the water system, in construction since 2010, which is when I arrived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer and became the liaison between the village and U.S.-based engineers. Kinks would continue to be worked out over the following months, but in early February 2012, water finally flowed through pipes and from spigots outside of each house.
By almost every measure, the Tingo Water Project is a success: it exemplifies the kind of partnership between local government, nonprofits, and local community that aid groups aspire to – its results so consummate, that the project won the prestigious Premier Project 2012 Award from EWB’s national chapter. The Tingo Project is, in short, the type of success story that development groups cite to justify their existence.
Six months later, I am back in the U.S. I remember Ecuador with some nostalgia, but wonder if the picture isn’t a little more complicated then I thought. Some things I’m still sure of: Beneficiaries of the water system will see a real improvement in their quality of life, and my role in realizing that fact is something I am enormously proud of.
Dogging those certainties, however, are some doubts: The engineers I worked with were smart, selfless, dedicated people who gave up hours and money to work for people they typically never met. But they only ever saw part of the big picture, because the problem of getting water to poor people, treated as an engineering problem, is equally a problem of resource allocation, national policy, and local politics. Treated as a design problem — a question of building things – the Tingo water system received a long and arduous, but ultimately facile, solution. The ground is broken, the ribbon eventually cut, the mission accomplished. Then the cycle – local needs seek outside aid – repeats itself.
Ribbon cutting, photo by Mark Barlow
One video on the Inside Out website explains how to make a homemade glue from flour, sugar and water. Another shows the best way to plaster paper portraits onto outside walls. The website suggests finding approved locations for the exhibits, but doesn’t seem to insist on it; the mission of Inside Out, which prints and ships oversized, black and white photographic portraits, is rooted in activist public art, and its m.o. is akin to writing graffiti, only tamer.