“Water is life. We cannot live without water.” Dona Martina, a subsistence farmer in Ucuchi, Bolivia, approached Mano a Mano with this grim problem and a request: “A large reservoir would hold enough rain water to irrigate our fields once the dry season begins. You saw our ganas (motivation) when we worked together to build a school. We will work hard every day if you build a reservoir with us. Then we could feed our children and still have enough to sell some in the city.”

Mano a Mano’s water reservoir in Ucuchi, Bolivia.

Since Dona Martina and her neighbors made this request in 2005, our counterpart organization Mano a Mano Nuevo Mundo has constructed 9 reservoirs, plus 458 farm ponds and 42 surface wells. Each project gives farmers access to water for household use, domestic animals, and crop/garden irrigation.

Blanca Velasquez from Mano a Mano rides a swan boat on the Ucuchi Reservoir during a visit in September 2019. The Ucuchi Reservoir has become part of the San Isidro Ecotourism Park, which you can read more about here.

COVID-19 Created New Challenges for Water Projects in 2020

Bolivia’s early nationwide stay-at-home orders and restrictions on travel presented challenges throughout 2020. Fortunately, we completed a large 2019 Laguna Sulti reservoir expansion project in February 2020, before the pandemic halted much of our work.

The location of this reservoir on relatively flat land, surrounded by hundreds of small subsistence, family-owned farms, makes it an ideal choice for expansion to add new families and increase the amount of water available for current water association members. Once COVID restrictions were lightened, we returned to Laguna Sulti and completed an expansion of another section of this reservoir at then end of the year. Each expansion involved both deepening a selected section and increasing the levee wall height, to expand the water holding capacity by at least 50,000 cubic meters. Laguna Sulti farmers see the return of birds to their reservoir as a sign of the healing of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth).

Pink flamingos return to Laguna Sulti

Sadly, the city of Cochabamba and its surrounding farms are currently experiencing severe water shortages. Boris Rodriguez, our lead engineer, reports that the Angostura Reservoir, a major source of irrigation water for farmers who supply food to the city, is not at optimal levels, even though the region is in the midst of the rainy season. (Heavy rains in January have helped refill local reservoirs, but to varying degrees.) In contrast, Mano a Mano’s Laguna Sulti reservoir is already 80% filled with seasonal rain and mountain runoff. The contrast stands as a testimony to its strategic location and good design. We plan to deepen another section of this reservoir in 2021.

Mano a Mano’s Laguna Sulti reservoir is 80% full. Photo taken in January 2021.

Clean Drinking Water for Rural Communities

Safe drinking water is a scarce commodity throughout rural Bolivia. News of Mano a Mano’s upgraded capacity to drill deep wells (since 2019) traveled quickly throughout high Andean rural communities. We received well requests from 19 communities within about 3 months and drilled 4 before the pandemic arrived. As COVID restrictions lightened later in 2020, we re-initiated our deep well drilling projects, beginning in the community of Tajamar.

The community of Pucara came up next on the list. Along with its elected leaders, we selected the well site and began to drill. Soon the drill hit solid rock, the most difficult well-drilling challenge we have encountered so far. In response to this challenge, our engineer recommended drilling on land that was closer to the river where there was less rock, but community residents objected. That land could potentially be disputed as belonging to the next-door community. Pucarans worried about not having permanent access to this most valuable of all resources, if a dispute did result. Together with the leaders, we chose another site on legally recognized Pucara community land.

Drilling a deep water well in Pucara, Bolivia provides 600 people with clean drinking water.

Moving the drill from one site and re-assembling it on another created the next delay but one that assured the community that we would not abandon the project. When drilling began and we hit solid rock again, everyone was determined that, no matter what, Pucarans would reach the promise of clean drinking water. Mano a Mano purchased a different type of drill bit, one that would cut more slowly and thus took much longer to drill, but was less likely to break. Then, after several days of slow drilling through 90 meters of rock, success! Now, over 100 families (about 600 people) have clean drinking water, plus water for their domestic animals and family fruit and vegetable gardens.

No Time to Rest

Mano a Mano mechanics repairing a dump truck.

While the pandemic prevented travel into rural communities during much of the year, Mano a Mano Nuevo Mundo staff devoted much of their time to repairs and maintenance of the heavy machinery used to build reservoirs and roads. Their Cochabamba repair shop includes the space and basic tooling where its six mechanics spent much of 2020 making sure that machines are ready for their next assignments. Jimmy, our principal welder and machinist, has worked for Nuevo Mundo for ten years. His co-workers say that he “makes old things new”.

Repairing an excavator bucket section.

Thank You

Thanks to everyone who helped fund these projects; who donated tooling; who hauled, packed, and loaded tools into containers; and to all staff and volunteers in Minnesota and Bolivia that make these projects happen in spite of the challenges!