Tierra Nueva / by Matthew Sullivan

This is one of those posts that has been sitting in the edit bin for a while. Not because we didn't want to get it out there but because.... Well, everything kept changing. And it still is. Changing that is. But after a while we thought we would just throw it out there as it might be instructive to show how uncertain things can be in the global development world.

In early 2011 we returned from the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua where we had been working on a master plan for another new Agros village. The only catch was that instead of a new 30 household village, which is what we had done for the last three, we were working on a new 150 household village. Needless to say we encountered some scale issues.

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We always try to sucker/convince a civil engineer to come on down with us and this time our friend Court Harris from CH2M hill answered the call. We had the pleasure of his company last time we were in Nicaragua doing the master plan for another Agros village, San Jose. He is a lifesaver when it comes to working out water collection and distribution systems on site and he has a hearty constitution which comes in handy fairly often. Last time it was sleeping over a leaking septic tank... This time the true test was the 'mystery ice'.

We spent ten days walking the site, checking out the water sources, holding meetings with the future villagers and beginning the design process. The site is beautiful.... Sweeping vistas, rolling hills, fertile soils. That was the good part. The bad part was the access and water. The "road" going to one of the housing sites was even worse than El Edens (first village we worked on in Nicaragua). We had serious trouble in a jacked up Hi-Lux in dry season. I wouldn't even try it when it was raining. But there was still a road and that pretty much defines where the housing can go as cutting a new road is prohibitively expensive.  So... we have these two housing sites that are on the top of the hills and the only on-site reliable water is way down at the bottom. The only good news was that the government is planning on putting in a municipal level water distribution system which will come directly to the village. Of course that may take a little time..... So we needed to design an interim system for the next 2-5 years. Or longer. (remember this part... it will come back to haunt us)

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Lets talk pumps.  Did I mention there was no electricity? Yeah. None. And not really an option either. There was some discussion about bringing water from another Agros village which was located 8km away and had access to a great supply of clean water but Court's analysis of the transmission line showed that the pressures would be so high that iron piping would be required, not to mention special road and river crossings which would make the line prohibitively expensive. So, back to pumps. We designed a two stage system using windmill and hydraulic pumps to deliver water from the river to the housing site. The river wasn't exactly clean but there is some great lo-tech filtration options out there. We were thinking about using one developed at Seattle University (http://www.su-ewb.org/?page_id=103).

We had some great meetings with the future villagers. We played some informative games and talked about how the village would be laid out. Out of all the groups we have met with in Nicaragua, this was the strongest. They will face some serious challenges but we have no doubt they can handle it.

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We also had a chance to head back to San Jose and El Eden to see how things were doing. A little post occupancy analysis so to speak. You can check that out here.

Update:

So here we are in the spring of 2012... The current status is all kinds of messy. About two months after we completed our report, the municipality let Agros know that the municipal line might be a little longer than two years out. Maybe a lot longer. So, the Agros team began looking for a more permanent solution and they went back to the long distance transmission line. At our urging, they hired a local engineering firm to design the system. Given Courts earlier concerns with the difficulty of this design, two engineers from Herrera Environmental Engineers here in Seattle, Michael Spillane and Tyson Wright, went down to Matagalpa to check out the progress and make sure that everything was going to work. They reported back that the designs seemed feasible and that the local engineers seemed like a great crew. The local firm laid out a line and worked up a design to get water from a site about 10km away. No easy feat but it looked like it was going to happen.

Well..... Maybe not. The municipality, who would have to give approval for the transmission line to travel on municipal roads, put a stop to the project by demanding that the money that would go into the Agros system be put into the municipal system instead. So, over a year after people moved onto the site there is still no water. Not a great situation. But also not a unique situation. This is the kind of thing that pops up all the time. Curve balls come at you all constantly and you had better get good at hitting them. We are currently talking with Agros and they are talking with the municipality. Hopefully we can come up with a solution soon. But we will come up with a solution. It just may not be the first one we thought of, or the second...or the third.....