Surrendering control, improving outcomes: Learning an engineering of accompaniment

By Riley Mulhern, the technical WASH advisor for a Bolivian NGO and Mennonite Central Committee volunteer addressing issues of contamination and water quality in rural indigenous communities in Oruro, Bolivia. This article was originally published in Engineering for Change on July 23, 2017. 

The meeting was held in the most impressive government building in town, in an upper room looking over the main plaza. Several different government researchers in a row stood and began reciting numbers from their slides packed edge to edge with data. The audience, many rural and indigenous community members and leaders, listened attentively, confused.

The numbers were water quality data from a government inspection of the waters of the Bolivian altiplano, a vulnerable watershed known by the acronym TDPS—Titicaca, Desaguadero, Poopó, and Salar de Coipasa. The watershed is endorheic: a closed system without an outlet to the sea, its high plains cupped like a bowl below the peaks of the East and West Cordilleras of the Andes. At an elevation above 12,000 feet, these mountain plains were once fruitful agricultural lands and productive fisheries. But ongoing drought, centuries of mining, and poor water management have left it dusty and barren. Streams of acidic mining waste crisscross the perimeter. The once vast Lake Poopó has been converted to a few inches of muddy water seeping across an expanse of salt. A water crisis with no end in sight.

Many rural communities in the altiplano have organized and denounced large-scale mining activities for the degradation of their water and fields. Community pressures and concerns for future water security in the region thus motivated the TDPS inspection and the event was held to present initial results to the public. Maps and spreadsheets flew across the screen, the presenters announcing pH, conductivity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen levels in rapid monotone.

A large part of my job, since moving to Bolivia, has been trying to define what exactly my job is. It became clearer during the question and answer session of the TDPS presentation a few months ago.

“We need clearer explanations!” one frustrated man stood and said into the microphone. “What is pH? We don’t understand this.” Almost simultaneously, a coworker from the small environmental justice NGO I work with turned to me and asked, “What do they mean when they say ‘conductivity’?”

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A local, grassroots environmental advocacy group holds an organizational meeting in the Bolivian altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

My wife and I arrived in Bolivia’s cold and dry high plains with an MBA and an Environmental Engineering Master’s, but without a job description. The idea was to surrender the oft-espoused justifications for international development work based on results and predefined metrics in favor of a posture of accompaniment. Our inspiration drew itself from the liberation theology thinking laid out by Latin American priests Oscar Romero and Gustavo Gutierrez. We set out to prioritize basic proximity and relationships with the poor, without an outside plan; to take a back seat in effecting change, to observe and yield our service to local efforts along the way.

Easier said than done. A stance of accompaniment may seem woefully inefficient to many engineers, even frivolous in its lack of direction. There have been times I have felt so myself, seemingly wasting months at a time by all standards of productivity I have learned, trying to discern how to best be of use. Building meaningful relationships of trust through which change can be creatively and collaboratively built is a task of patience anywhere, let alone across enormous cultural gaps. In attempting to ameliorate situations of pressing poverty and acute suffering, the slow work of relationships may at times seem merely ancillary or altogether unimportant.

But that impulse could not be more wrong. Too many foreigners come to Bolivia with too many ideas for projects to help the water crisis. I’ve seen projects and proposals for rainwater harvesting, reverse osmosis, solar distillation and others.  Their work seems urgent, but they leave the essential reality unchanged. The poor don’t just want someone to come drop off a piece of hardware. They want someone who comes as their friend, who asks what they are doing to improve their lives and the lives of their children, and who will walk with them in that work. The campesinos in the TDPS meeting would tell you that they are working to organize and make their voice heard. They’d say that they are not satisfied with the government’s half-hearted inspections and reports. They are moving the agenda of their local leaders for more just water services and environmental controls. As Father Gutierrez writes, “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help.”[i]

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A community installs gutters for a rainwater harvesting project. Photo by Riley Mulhern

The problem remains not in the lack of foreign projects, but in the gaps in local agency seen at the TDPS inspection event. How can these communities become fully engaged and capable owners of their own water resources if “pH” remains coded knowledge belonging solely to the government and foreign engineers? A recently published study looked at 13 communities in an active mining region of the altiplano and found that almost all were characterized by “a perception that they and/or their livestock have suffered ill health due to water contamination.” Yet they had little to no education or training on water issues and no autonomy in decision making despite some level of local social organization.[ii] In this context, rainwater tanks, although not unhelpful, still hang like black, plastic ornaments on the status quo as long as Bolivians are merely manpower for foreign ideas and not owners of the processes of change.

On a recent visit to a remote agricultural cooperative, I was handed a brochure that proudly read: Dueños de nuestro propio desarrollo. Owners of our own development. I was struck by the slogan since it is so rarely so. Too often, the poor lack freedoms even in the processes meant to improve their lives. When engineers and technical experts are expected to design, fix, and solve, to take care of the issue from a distance, not enter into it, it is too easy to monopolize and justify foreign or expert ownership. But the end doesn’t always justify the means in development. Even the smallest locally owned steps of change are better than sweeping efforts that neglect these freedoms. Engineers need to learn to accompany change, not control it. The question is how.

My coworkers and the communities we work with would say that the answer lies in helping people understand what pH and electrical conductivity mean, why dissolved oxygen is important and reported as a percentage, and the risks of fecal coliforms or heavy metals in drinking water. That is, whatever the field—earthquake-resistant building design or the principles of latrine construction, website development or data management, micro-irrigation or urban gardening—the answer should inherently include a transfer of knowledge. Knowledge enables the poor to enter the privileged spaces of decision makers with power in their hands.

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A dust storm rises over the altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

This is more than “teaching a man to fish,” which still smacks of an outside savior parachuting in with a new idea. The Bolivian director of a local environmental advocacy network that we work with put it this way: “We need alternatives: proposals that emerge from the communities themselves. Someone from the outside can come and say, ‘Do this,’ but it will never happen.” Refocusing on knowledge transfer is not a license to define what knowledge needs to be transferred. Rather, what we may call an “engineering of accompaniment,” waits to understand where the gaps in agency are and collaboratively define what knowledge is required.

The longer I simply accompany this water crisis and the efforts to address it, the more I find I am asked to lead training sessions on water quality and treatment for groups of students or organizations. Despite often feeling deeply inadequate to receive these requests, I have come to realize that they reveal the self-defined needs of the people around me. Thus, my job description has slowly come into focus: to help Bolivian men and women tighten their own grip on change.

Those of us who are drawn to engineering as a response to poverty generally want to be doers, not teachers. The emerging field of “engineering for developing communities” attracts more and more eager, concerned engineering students every year. Many of them want to be the ones to design new technologies for the developing world, or build houses, hospitals or water systems. But such attention to the problems of poverty without the involvement of the poor is precisely what lures us into accumulating ownership and control. We must disabuse ourselves of this sense of ownership and reach toward accompaniment if we are to dig in to where change really occurs, where people are owners of their own development and our projects do not simply decorate the underlying injustices.

A good place to start is in the preposition. We should not aspire to engineer anything for anyone in communities confronting poverty. We need to think of our work as “with.” We need to start thinking of development work in terms of education, training, and knowledge transfer through basic relationships with the poor. Alongside literacy in their technical area, engineers ought to go into the field equipped with the skills of effective communication, participatory methods, and critical pedagogy. Our goals and metrics for success should prioritize the fullness of this transfer of knowledge—and thus transfer of power—over and above the completion of individual projects.

As any educator will also tell you, this is not a light or romantic undertaking. The work of education is often a slow, weary, anxious trudge and requires longstanding commitments to individual people. But accompaniment, walking with, is not to parachute in with quick fixes. It is, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem—to face the great problem one small life at a time.”[iii]

Then, once we are down there a while and the problems are no longer faceless, we realize it is never truly hopeless and that work is being done; that there are coals and a bellows.

[i] Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 2013. “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ.” In Michael Griffin & Jennie Weiss Block (Eds.), In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. New York: Orbis Books.

[ii] French, Megan et al. 2017. “Community Exposure and Vulnerability to Water Quality and Availability : A Case Study in the Mining-Affected Pazña Municipality , Lake Poopó Basin , Bolivian Altiplano.” Environmental Management: 1–18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0893-5.

[iii] Berry, Wendell. 1993. “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse.” Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

Climate change and hands of resistance

By Rebekah Nimtz, an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This post is part of a series by MCC Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) on climate change and food security

Several years ago in Bolivia during the rainy season I noticed that a drip bucket in my house was nearly overflowing when I returned from an annual absence of a few weeks. The next year I was surprised to come back to find it only half full. The rainy season had begun a month late. This past year it began well over two months late. On the south side of Cochabamba, in migrant zones where many kids I work with live without running water, even the cacti appeared to be drying up. Bolivia continues to experience the effects of its worst drought in almost four decades and the highest recorded temperatures in the past ten years.

The drought on the ground

The drought on the ground. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia.

El Niño and climate change are credited with playing the major roles in  weather fluctuations, in a country whose ecosystems the UN considers some of the most vulnerable worldwide to the effects of global warming. Late rains have made only a dent in lost reserves, which hovered around 8% capacity, with a reservoir in the governing capital of La Paz at only 1% at the end of last year. This lack of water caused President Evo Morales to declare a national emergency in November. Friends in the city of Cochabamba weren’t as startled by the state of the emergency as those in La Paz, as rationing of water in Cochabamba is the norm. This past year Cochabamba only received, on average, water via the municipal water company, SEMAPA, a few hours once a week.

In the region of Mizque, 160 km outside of Cochabamba, adaptability to the effects of drought depends on whether one lives closer to the village, with more access to an irrigation system and agricultural machinery, or half-an-hour further out in the mountains, where one’s livelihood is more dependent on cultivating corn and raising cows, goats and vicuñas.

Jaime Pardo works for OBADES, the social arm of the Baptist church in Bolivia. MCC partners with OBADES in its work with locals in Mizque on food security projects such as irrigation systems, greenhouses, and crop diversity. Jaime shared that in early 2016 the rainy season not only started late, but was cut short when the rains stopped in March, leaving already planted corn unable to reach maturity. By the end of the year there was no more pasture left for livestock. Animals had to move around for hours in search of first water and then food, complicated by the drying up of once full rivers. It was a bit easier for the goats, who would eat anything within sight, even plastic. Jaime commented that the image seared in his mind of this past year is of skin-and-bone cows wobbling down the mountainside as though drunk, trembling and barely able to stand. As for their owners, without water to sow their crops, the only option has been to leave for the city.

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity. Photo by Jaime Pardo.

A vast number of farmers have also left Bolivia’s already dry southeast Chaco due to the unprecedented rate of cattle deaths, the region’s primary income. Lake Poopo in the western part of the country completely dried up at the beginning of 2016, not only due to drought,  but also water deviation for mining. The Uru people, who lived off the lake for centuries, have long since gone, along with their way of life. The swell in already exploding urban populations exacerbates poverty and puts greater demands on failing infrastructure and local municipalities to implement solutions.

In rural and urban areas alike, communities have plead with the government for assistance, with the repeated loss of crops resulting in economic ruin for families. Some irrigation and groundwater projects have come about as a result. Nevertheless, even the breadbasket of Cochabamba unprecedentedly began importing food from neighboring countries. Outdated infrastructure exacerbates the problem with up to 50% losses of water in some places within pipes and distribution networks. Privatization is an option, but faces opposition for often failing to reach city outskirts and municipalities. The Misicuni dam and hydroelectric project of Cochabamba, underway since 1957, is a set-back filled effort of 10 private local and international companies that is only now gradually approaching completion. It was originally planned to give water to 400,000 people in a city with now closer to a million inhabitants.

Meanwhile, deforestation of the northern Amazon, in Bolivia and beyond, inhibits the flow of humid air and rain to the Andes. Hydroelectric projects damage the river arteries of the jungle and affects the natural water preservation cycle. Damaged water cycles leave torrents of rain that show up late, to destroy crops at the time of harvest and cause catastrophes with flash-flooding, as opposed to the gradual, soft rains of days gone by. The need to address emergency situations means that working on root causes turns into a catch-up game for a government that is already behind on developing prevention and relief plans for a problem long foreseen.

Bolivia has accessed, however, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s green fund for a “My Irrigation” program to assist in rural areas. The construction of grain storage plants are underway. Experts emphasize the need for long term water shortage plans such as dikes for water storage, preservation and education initiatives, and continued efforts to renovate outdated water distribution systems so they can be ready to carry, for example, the water now beginning to finally gush from the Misicuni dam project.

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia Ramos.

The small, hopeful steps of local communities across the country, especially alongside governing bodies, are prevailing against the obstacles, even if those steps begin as little more than drops in a dry bucket. The community of Villa Vinto, not far from Mizque, in partnership with OBADES, is enlisting a Peruvian model in the creation of artificial lakes and dykes to capture and store rainwater. With municipal government offers of new farming tools as prizes for the best efforts, the project is hoped to spread to communities throughout the entire region. Mizque continues to produce drought-resistant maca, which in addition to being a delicious superfood, reaps greater economic benefits than typical potato crops. The persistent well-digging of colony Mennonites in Durango on the border with Argentina has allowed them to grow crops in previously declared agricultural dead-zones. If a drop of water can carve out a canyon, the small efforts of hands working together might be able to eventually fill that canyon with more water for the future.