Located in remote southwestern Colombia within the Mayasquer Awá-indigenous territory, the town of Tallambi shares many environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic characteristics with neighboring Chical, just across the border-defining San Juan River in Ecuador. However, the suspension bridge between the two communities marks a stark difference in public services. Chical’s population benefits from paved roads, recreation infrastructure, and high-quality drinking water and sanitation services. Just across the river, Tallambi languishes, the result of years of abandonment by state and international actors during which rural areas of Mayasquer were a hotbed of action by non-governmental armed groups.
Tallambi is currently served only by a rudimentary potable water system constructed in the early 1980s, which captures water from a pair of small streams a kilometer away, pipes it to a reservoir, and then distributes the untreated water to a portion of the community through a series of polyethylene hose lines. However, numerous leaks in the infrastructure, coupled with unmetered connections and a lack of awareness around the need for local water conservation, has led to water shortages during the area’s six-month dry season. These shortages cause frequent closures of the town’s ~250-student school and preschool due to government requirements on sanitation infrastructure, as well as interrupting basic daily tasks for local families. The poor water quality compounds these issues by causing high levels of diarrheal disease and parasitic infections.
Green Empowerment and our local partner ALTROPICO are currently undertaking a project in Tallambi to rehabilitate the water system and conserve the local watershed, helping approximately 1,000 indigenous people to benefit from improved health and environmental conditions. ALTROPICO has worked with local leaders in Tallambi and in the Mayasquer Resguardo for more than 15 years on economic productivity, conservation, and governance issues. The organization will soon begin the seventh year of field efforts in its long-term program on conservation and governance in the binational Mira River watershed with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Tallambi presents a major opportunity to leverage the reputation ALTROPICO has built in the region and ongoing watershed conservation efforts in the San Juan tributary of the Mira to empower rural leaders and make sustainable, concrete improvements in health and environmental outcomes.
Furthermore, successful implementation of a program that combines system rehabilitation and complementary training will also provide a model for cost-effective, sustainable replication in the area through government or other funding sources, as many local small and mid-sized communities’ current water systems are similarly decrepit, undersized, and do not provide adequate water quality or quantity.
Activities so far have focused on the early stages of construction, the establishment of a local water committee to manage the improved system, and the strengthening of local environmental management efforts. Community leaders have also collaborated in extensive baseline surveying on water use and waterborne disease incidence, so that Green Empowerment and ALTROPICO can use this data at the end of the project to determine the effect of these efforts on the community’s health and water availability.
Community members collaborated on mingas (communal work days) to carry materials, dig trenches for pipes, and other kinds of manual labor. Following conversations with local leadership, six residents of Tallambi–including several who supported management of the preexisting system–were selected during a community general assembly as members of the new water committee. These local leaders have already received initial training on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) topics, focusing on sustainable use of water resources and the importance of proper hygiene and water quality in reducing occurrence of diarrheal disease. They have also begun to undertake training in environmental management topics. Reforestation activities are slated to begin in December with the arrival of the rainy season.