Tropical Storm Agatha Update: AIDG's response in Xaquijyá, Guatemala [06/09/10]

Intern Sadhbh MacMahon reports:

On the morning of June 8th, most of AIDG, including coordinators and interns, piled into our vehicles already packed with shovels, dry goods and sanitary items. We were headed to the Xaquijyá community near Lake Atitlan to help them with some of the damage they had suffered as a result of tropical storm Agatha. Landslides had completely wiped out several of their houses along with a grain storage shed. Many other homes were buried in mud and uninhabitable. More urgently, the storm had torn through some of the piping that fed water to the community from mountain springs higher up, leaving some 160 houses without running water. The nearest alternative water source was a long hike away.

A woman picks up pieces of her destroyed homee

Upon arrival, we handed over the food supplies and our crew was split into two groups: one to check out the water system, the other to shovel houses out of the dirt and assist with reconstruction where possible. The shoveling looked a daunting and depressing task. What had been a small stream on a mountain slope, had grown to a rushing river of mud sprawling 20 to 30 feet across, levying trees, rocks, chunks of house, and a thick layer of personal debris. By the time we arrived there to help, the mud had congealed into a motionless sludge. The amount of work necessary to free the houses from their solidified mud baths was far more than our lively but small crew would manage in a day.

Further up the slope, where houses and a grain store with 76 bags of grain had been wiped out, little green shoots from the scattered maize seeds had started to sprout in the mud, like a sad little offer of 3 quetzales, where 300 000 were needed.

Corn shoots from destroyed grain shed
Corn shoots from destroyed grain shed

Our water assessment group first surveyed the pipes down by the community. PVC pipes of 1/2” inch diameter carried water from a holding tank and diverged to various groups of local houses. One of the pipes now completely dry, ran though a culvert which crossed beneath a main highway. Talking with Steve Crowe, AIDG’s Director of Technology, this seemed an almost hopefully bad location for the pipe as it appeared to be the most likely direction a landslide would head in. I say hopefully because as we surveyed the path of the pipes, we were looking for ways to improve the system. If AIDG were to supervise and fund the reconstruction of a new water system, we would attempt to increase the system’s resistance to future storms. This may be best achieved by installing the pipes on a less vulnerable route.

Broken pipe in the middle of a landslide
Broken pipe in the middle of a landslide

We headed further up the slope, and passed the site of the destroyed distribution tank. Previously, it had been fed by a large poliducto hose carrying water brought from smaller pipes that ran from about 10 different mountain springs, some as much as a three hour walk away. Everything at this point was dry. We continued on up the slope passing several pressure reducing manifolds that were also all dry.

At one point our path crossed a channel in the slope which was leaking water from the ground, suggesting that either a buried pipe had ruptured below or a new spring had opened up. Mostly however, the broken pipes that we encountered were split across more great landslides and were dry, indicating damage much further up the mountain, or complete redirection of the sources of water. A somewhat more grave situation than we had expected.

Another community's broken spring box
Another community’s broken spring box

Crossing the tumbling forest debris, it was evident that our previous assumption that deforestation was the cause of heavy landslides in this community, was not the case. Fully mature trees, rocks and roots, were caught in a frozen cascade down the mountain slope, and causes for specific areas of erosion were not at all apparent. So designing a more flood resistant system was looking tricky.

Finally we reached a fresh water mountain stream with several tubes run across it, two of them broken, but one at least with water pouring from one end carried from another stream further up the path. Our guides told us that this was the first of the many little sources of water which were scattered over the mountain side. We would need at least a full day of hiking to survey the full extent of the damage so as to begin a plan for repairs. We rejoined our companions below, an exhausted group with blistered hands, who had made a valiant dent in the side of the mountain of mud; and headed home with a better understanding of the devastation of Agatha.

AIDG volunteers taking a break from digging
AIDG volunteers taking a break from digging

I am not sure how plans to repair the pipelines will go. Replacement of the existing system as it is will be expensive. However with the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes in Guatemala, and the country´s record of natural disaster in general, the need for a more reliable and resistant system is with question.

– Sadhbh MacMahon, AIDG mechanical engineering intern
Sadhbh Macmahon

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