Social Issues

Clean water a luxury for thousands of Chilean families

By Adriana Thomassa

Valparaiso, Chile, Apr 12 (EFE).- When Carmen Gloria Guerra moved more than two decades ago to an informal settlement on a hilltop in the Chilean coastal resort city of Viña del Mar, the few homes standing lacked gas, electricity, and running water.

Residents had to rely on fire for cooking and candles for illumination, while water had to be fetched in buckets from neighborhoods at the foot of the hill.

The makeshift encampments have multiplied amid a chronic shortage of affordable housing and more than a thousand of those settlements lack reliable access to safe water.

In Reñaca Alto, where Guerra lives, the non-profit WATERisLIFE (WiL) has launched a project meant to improve the quality of water available to residents.

The area currently relies on water delivered in tanker trucks.

Though the water is potable, it is vulnerable to contamination with micro bacteria both in transit and while sitting in storage tanks outside homes.

To address the problem, WiL has devised a very simple system comprising a bucket, hose, and a set of filters.

“The water comes out completely clean and the filter can last between five and seven years if maintained properly,” WiL Executive Coordinator Maria Paz Valdivia told EFE in Reñaca Alto.

Viña del Mar leads all of Chile’s cities in the number of encampments with 99, 94 percent of them without secure access to safe water, according to the latest report from housing advocates Un techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile).

Emilia Venegas, a director of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Committee settlement in Reñaca Alta, tells EFE that her community is home to around a thousand families.

Twice a week, tanker trucks deliver 1,000-2,000 liters (264-528 gal) of water for each home.

“Sometimes the water smells bad, so we boil the water before drinking it,” Carmen Guerra says. “The ideal is that we have the water already potable and normal sewerage.”

And during the rainy season, the tanker trucks struggle to make it up the steep roads of packed earth, forcing residents to make the water they have on hand last longer.

“We have to keep the water in the container for a long time and it is exposed to the dust, to the leaves, to the animals’ coats. The truth is that the water is contaminated a great deal,” Carmen’s neighbor Nelda Mancilla says.

Luisa Diaz, who has lived in Reñaca Alta for 25 years, remembers that she and other members of her family suffered through many illnesses after moving to the Sacred Heart encampment.

“We thought it was something natural, that something didn’t agree with us, gave us gastritis, and later we began to realize that it was the water,” she says.

Some residents have thought have switching to bottled water, but the cost – roughly 17,000 pesos ($21.18) for a week’s supply – is prohibitive for people on low incomes.

“The truth is that this filter is going to help us a great deal. The confidence of being able to take water has already changed our lives,” Mancilla says.

WiL hopes one day to be able to provide the filters to poor communities throughout Chile. EFE at-jm/dr

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