Volunteers working with Living Water International help drill a well to provide clean water for a rural village.
September through February, much of South America experiences dryer, cooler weather. This means aquifers tend to be lower and the groundwater is lower near populated areas that draw water from those aquifers. This is amplified by the large amounts of water required for the region’s agricultural industry, specifically sugarcane, which I observed recently driving past a field at sunset in Masagua, Guatemala, with water jets shooting out over endless fields.
In February, I traveled to Guatemala to take part in installation of a drinking water well for a small community with little access to clean water — or any water at all at times. The opportunity to be part of this project was first presented to me in summer 2017. The logistics of the trip and the team were put together by Parkview Community Church, the church I attend with my family in Glen Ellyn, Ill. This church leads mission work all over the world in a variety of capacities. Providing clean water for those who do not have access to it is one of its global outreach goals.
One of the organizations the church partners with is Living Water International (LWI; https://water.cc/aboutlivingwater). LWI is based in Houston and operates in South American countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and parts of Africa. It exists to help communities gain access to clean water, and through that experience share the gospel.
Our team of 11 people varied in age, gender, and professional experience. We flew into the capital, Guatemala City, and drove to Antigua, where LWI’s Guatemala operations are based. Antigua is a beautiful city, rich with history, architecture, and infrastructure. The streets are rough, uneven cobblestone and the city center has many buildings that were once used by the government when Antigua was Guatemala’s capital. Some churches and buildings we toured dated as far back as 1546.
While this was an amazing cultural experience, it was in complete contrast to what we experienced as we made the trip the following day to the village where the drill site was located. The community where the well would be installed was a small village of 650 people between the cities of Masagua and Escuintla. Further along our route to the drill site, the level of poverty in the area became clearer. Most buildings and homes we passed were stacked cinder block, with sheet metal roofs, and dirt floors.
When we arrived at the site, we were told the school’s existing deep well had been dry for 10 days or so. At the time of the trip, it was sugarcane harvesting season, so the groundwater level no longer reached the elevation of the existing well. Some homes in the area had wells of their own, but were also shallow and usually only fed one or two hose bibs or taps fitted with small-diameter PVC via gravity from an elevated plastic tank outside. The locals talked of getting sick often from drinking the water. It was a humbling feeling. I was excited to spend a week working to provide something so vital to the community.
This well was the first that LWI installed in the area. The local community organizer said that they first contacted LWI seven years ago to start the process of getting a fresh water source for the area. The well was planned to be installed in front of the local school that was home to about 230 students. The school was the local gathering place in the community, so it made sense for the water source to be located there. There was some level of preliminary planning and exploration in choosing this site prior to my arrival. The LWI Guatemalan operations had multiple drill teams. Our team took its orders from lead driller Rudy Gonzales, who had been with the organization for six years and installed 20 wells each year.
The total drilling time for the new well was approximately three days. On the start of the first day, we dug and prepared the mud pits and decant channel. This allowed for settling out and screening some of the dirt and sediment prior to recirculating water back to the drill rig. The mud pits were dug to about 4 feet by 4 feet square, and separated by a 1-foot-wide by 18-inch-deep decant channel running between the two pits.
About 10 local men from the village helped us with this work during the week. Once the pits were dug and sprayed with bentonite to help stabilize the walls, the drilling began. We drilled 70 feet using a 4-inch paddle bit, but encountered a few large rocks that we were only able to penetrate with about 5 feet worth of drill rod during an hour’s time.
At this point, we decided to change the drill bit to a 4-inch roller cone-type bit. This bit resembles a planetary-cone gear that has three additional oval-shaped gears around it rotating in the opposite direction of the center gear to create a cutting action. Changing the drill bit required removing the previously driven 10-foot end rods and re-inserting them once the new bit was attached. On the first day, we drilled 70 feet before changing the bit, and continued to drill to a depth of 120 feet.
On the second day, we started with a 7-inch roller cone bit and reamed the well to the previously achieved 120 feet and drilled an extra 10 feet. Rudy had some concerns about not seeing any soapstone or pumice rock in the samples we were collecting. This type of porous rock indicates a depth where water can be present and flows through the rock, filtering it. When we returned on day three after having reamed the hole to 7 inches, we discovered the last 10 feet had collapsed. This was unfortunate, but common given the surrounding pressure on the hole’s walls, even with the bentonite to stabilize the dirt. In total, we drilled 320 feet while changing the bit twice.
On day three, we drove the 4-inch casing pipe and well screen into the hole to a depth of 120 feet and proceeded with flushing the well. This was done by sealing off the well casing pipe with a cap, tapped with a smaller hole to accommodate a 2-inch air hose that was inserted to the depth of the screen piping. The casing was then pressurized to force the dirty water and bentonite from the drill process out of the rock formation around the screen piping at the bottom of the well. Bleach was added during this time to sanitize the well. The process took about eight hours. There was a lot of standing around during this time, but it gave us some good time to rest and to connect and get to know the locals who helped us with the project.
On day four, we installed the 2-inch suction line in the casing and built the well pump and surrounding concrete pad. The well pump had a basic and rugged design and was built as a hand-level operated style pump, made of welded stainless with an internal rod and plunger. They were designed to withstand the elements.
On day five, we returned one last time for a dedication ceremony. The well was dedicated to the people there, and graciously received by all. It was a big event for that community, maybe the biggest in many of the locals’ lives. We were touched by how incredibly thankful they were. To be a part of something so important to life, yet so taken for granted in other corners of the world, was an amazing experience.