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A Stop in the Desert



Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

The problems addressed are water scarcity and the existing projections of Climate Change at the local level that are beginning to be felt, in a territory like the one we are working on being the southern edge of the driest desert in the world, such as Atacama, in Chile. This territory has a chronic problem with drought although in the last 10 years it has entered the so-called "Mega Drought" that affects most of Chile. Although the problem is global, locally in a semi-arid zone, water began to be lacking due to the poor rainfall and water inefficiency in basins that, despite this, increased the demand for water, mainly due to urban growth. and the farming of agricultural monocultures that do not have any type of regulation in both the use of water and that of the soil. This made the most vulnerable families in Chile, close to a million people, not to have access to potable water, which is why water began to be delivered in cistern trucks. Locally, 50 liters are delivered per inhabitant per day and more than 22,000 people have access to water only by tank truck in very precarious conditions. That is why, un alto en el Desierto, began to recycle gray water from the sinks, to reuse water together with school communities that have very limited access to water to raise awareness and value water as a central element in addition to preventing irrigation with drinking water, making more liters of it available to people. 

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

The most far-reaching change is the creation of awareness in the valuation of water as a central element in our lives in a practical, daily and playful way in vulnerable school communities. The first step, for 15 years, was the creation of a network of schools in territories with severe droughts and limited access to drinking water. We do this at the level of the Coquimbo Region, which has an area similar to Switzerland, located in the south of the Atacama Desert. The second step is the establishment of alliances with the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) and the Liceo Bicentenario Politécnico de Ovalle (LBPO). Key partners, the first agency designed a low-cost gray water recycling system for lavatories, and the second agency built the systems, being a high school. Here we take advantage of technology for change since 15 systems were installed, designed by a university, built by a secondary school and benefited primary schools, that is, a total synergy and capacity installation. Finally, a benchmarking was carried out on other similar experiences in schools, finding very few projects working in the world.  

 How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

Resilience to Climate Change translates, first of all, on the projections for Chile that indicate a decrease in rainfall at the end of this century, a 30% decrease in the average annual precipitation combined with a of 1.5 °C increasing could result in a 40% drop in annual flow on mountain fronts, increasing the country's water stress. That is why the little available water, especially in vulnerable communities that are marginalized by the Water Law (Codigo de Aguas), one of the most liberal in the world, must be used well, and the reuse of water should be MANDATORY especially for waters intended for irrigation. We believe that reuse is key for the maintenance of rural communities affected by drought and the country, in general, should have a water strategy. The Project: “Un alto en el Desierto” goes in this direction, in raising awareness among our children for the recycling of gray water from filtered sinks suitable for irrigation of green areas and useful spaces for the population, improving their life quality. In concrete terms, 4,140 liters a day were recycled, which were previously wasted, being filtered and suitable for irrigation, with a projection of close to a million liters recovered each year, being an experience that injects water into the basin. 

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

 This is very important. Before the project "Un Alto en el Desierto”, gray water was recycled from sinks in an artisanal way, so its systems did not deliver filtered water, there was a lack of knowledge of sanitary regulations and the work always had failures. For this reason, the decision was made to form an alliance with a prestigious university at the national level, to have on the one hand the engineering associated with these systems and the analysis of the waters, to see the performance of the filters. Once this was done, these systems had to be installed in schools, which was hard work, carried out by teachers and secondary students who were doing professional practice. That is why the systems improved in quality and safety of the water delivered, being suitable for irrigation. Regarding lack of knowledge of health regulations, within this process, the Project “Un Alto en el Desierto” was one of the organizations participating in the first Gray Water Law No. 21,075 at the national level, contributing significantly to the issue. 

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

This process is very special because although they always teach us about the importance of water, very few organizations work on it for society-based valuation processes. Despite the droughts, people continue to irrigate with potable water, wash cars, irrigate in hours of high temperature, there are significant losses of irrigation channels, large losses of water by sanitation companies adding to a bleak outlook and a discouraging future. For this reason, it is important to break the inertia, which is why at the Bicentennial Polytechnic Lyceum of Ovalle a sub-specialty of recycling water resources was carried out, this led its students to carry out their professional practices in the construction and maintenance of 15 greywater recycling systems, leaving the installed capacity in the sense that high school students now have a subject on water, something they have never had in history. Being, that, a challenge overcome through a close alliance between monitoring and fieldwork. Another issue overcome thanks to the alliance of organizations that belong to Un Alto en el Desierto, is the implementation of the systems themselves, since some presented problems in terms of flows that can be correctly filtered, here what was done was the so-called "trial and error" finding the appropriate flows to quickly remove the recycled water and not exceed the filter capacity so that the water meets the sanitary regulations regarding water quality.  

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

The work of the project “Un Alto en el Desierto has 15 years, of learning and also of failures, that is why, in the professionalization of our greywater recycling systems, the question of the sustainability of the systems was the initial one, since there are many projects that do not last even a year. For this reason, some keys were worked on, such as having a clear destination for filtered water in each establishment according to the wishes of the students of those schools, and a subspecialty was generated at the Liceo Bicentenario Politécnico de Ovalle, leaving the installed capacity on the teachers and alumni for how the entire system is carried out. There is also a local leader in each place where the water recycling system was installed, which is in charge of operation and maintenance. Regarding the risks, the theft of the pumps or other elements of the system is one due to the location of the schools, in vulnerable places, with a lot of poverty and also a high presence of alcohol and drugs. Another risk is that some poorly maintained system can deliver water outside the permitted limits, which would be unsafe to use, which is why the emphasis has been placed on the importance of managing and using the system itself.  

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

Learned lessons-It is impressive the quantity of recycled, good quality water that if those systems do not exist would be lost, being a territory of drought. No one expected the returns obtained, which is also a challenge for systems management.-The generation of a gray water recycling subspecialty at the Ovalle Polytechnic Bicentennial Lyceum was a complete success, since the students carried out their practice on a much-needed subject in the area and contributed to the valuing of the water resource and having all the learnings to develop a system.-Without alliances, this project would be impossible to carry out, so it is important to have them and have the appropriate role for the operation of a team with the same common goal.-There are many learnings in technical matters, because there were many details to improve once recycling started. The most critical points were the establishment of adequate flow, that the system could filter adequately, the transport of materials to very remote and distant places, the operation of the filters and the adequate management that the greywater must have so it can be reclicled into safe water and that it does not emit bad odors, considering that the systems are found in public schools in Chile.