Friday, May 17, 2013

Water for every household

We stop climbing and catch our breath under some trees, sheltered from the blazing May sun. I turn to look down the dusty, steep path. A panorama of rolling blue-green mountains opens up below the coffee fields we’d just come through. Tiny buildings, far down in the valley, mark the town of La Unión, and further up the mountain, the village of La Cuesta, from where we’d started our hike.

Unión MicroFinanza staff, a water engineer, and a group from Lakeshore Fellowship Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, are following representatives from La Cuesta’s water committee to see the village’s water source: a stream that begins in a small forest, high on the mountain. We are going to test the quality and amount of water flowing from the source. Our shared hope is that this source will be able to continually feed into a water tank and provide consistent, running water to the homes in La Cuesta.

Clean water is an essential resource: it affects health, education and economic stability. When a person becomes sick with a water-borne illness, they must spend money on medicine that could otherwise have gone toward food or school supplies. A person who is ill loses work opportunities and cannot earn money to pay for medicine, further impacting their economic situation. A child who falls ill must be cared for, resulting in the same lost opportunities.

Members of Lakeshore Fellowship Church learn how
women in La Cuesta wash clothes.
Currently, more than 40 homes in the village get their water from narrow, rubber hoses, meant to hold electrical wires rather than water. Houses often share access to a single hose, further limiting resource availability. Hoses often break or disconnect from the source (the mountain stream), and the people we surveyed said they typically only have water for three days in a week.  Because there is no way to regulate the flow of water coming through these hoses, some houses receive all the water, and it is used up before it reaches the others.

This inconsistent, insufficient supply of water is what each family must use to bathe, wash dishes and clothes, flush waste, and water gardens. Think about all the ways you use water every day. Think about how your daily life would change if you didn’t have a dishwasher, wash machine, or flushing toilet. Then imagine that for four days out of a week, you had to use water that you’d collected ahead of time in plastic pails.

In the town of La Unión, in the valley below La Cuesta, large water tanks regulate water during the dry season. Water is turned off during the day to save it for use in the evening or following day. When water is off, families can use a reserve of water they collected in a pila – a large cement basin that serves as a washing station and place to store water. However, few families in La Cuesta have pilas. So, they must collect water in plastic bins or hike up a mountain to get water when it doesn’t come through the hose system.

La Cuesta's water committee meets with leaders in
San Carlos to learn about their water system.
La Cuesta’s water committee is made up of men and women from the community who will be involved in this improvement project on all levels. They are forming a plan for the community to provide the labor needed to build the tank and piping system, and they will write rules for community meetings and household use of the water. During Lakeshore’s time in La Unión, we joined the committee on an informational visit to San Carlos, where a water system was inaugurated last year. San Carlos community leaders explained their water regulations and gave advice to the newly-formed La Cuesta committee. As they learned about San Carlos’s water project, the members of La Cuesta radiated enthusiasm for how their own project would become a reality.

We’ve only just begun this project, and there is much work to be done by all the partners involved. But these first steps have sparked excitement on all sides to continue forward and establish access to this essential resource for each family in La Cuesta.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Harvest is over, but the learning continues

Coffee has been off the trees for barely a month and already we are thinking about next harvest. May and June is the time to prepare coffee fields, including pruning, stumping, fertilizing, and targeting plant diseases such as coffee leaf rust. Due to the leaf rust plague, it is particularly critical this year that coffee plants receive sufficient nutrition to fight the fungus and produce new leaves and fruit.

UMF field officers attend a Honduran
coffee institute training.
UMF's field officers have been receiving and giving trainings about coffee field recovery from leaf rust. They identify plants that have died – these must be taken out and new ones planted. If a plant is still living (even if it has no leaves), a farmer can prune or stump the plant and hope for new growth. If the plant has multiple trunks and some leaves remaining, cutting down just one of the trunks allows the plant to continue producing leaves and fruit at the same time as new growth occurs.

Gilberto shows a farmer how to cut back a 
coffee plant that was affected by leaf rust.
Martir, Pedro and Gilberto have been visiting coffee fields in La Unión to analyze plants and recommend what actions the farmer should take. The appropriate action is important, since each of these repairs comes with a different expectation as to when the tree will next bear fruit, and therefore become profitable for the farmer.

Even after coffee harvest and processing, UMF's beneficio continues to serve as a training center for farmers and visitors. Recently, third-grade students from La Unión's bilingual Abundant Life school spent a morning at the beneficio. They learned about how we process and dry coffee, how we collect and reuse water, and how we treat coffee wastewater and pulp (using microorganisms and red worms) to turn it from a pollutant into organic fertilizer. Below are photos from their visit:

Martir shows the students how the 
coffee de-pulping machine works.
The students see how microorganisms grow.
Gilberto shows the students how red worms break down coffee pulp into soil.
The students learn how to treat coffee wastewater to keep it from polluting waterways.