The Aqueduct

Posted Jan 04, 2010 by 1 Comments

About half-way through my time in Panama, I had the chance to visit a different part of the Comarca (a region home to the native Ngöbe people).  What I saw gave me a whole new appreciation for those who long to bring clean water to those who don’t have it…

For the last couple of years, Dead Wheat International Foundation has been working with the Peace Corps to build an aqueduct that will bring potable water to the neighboring villages of Kwite and Calante.  Our mission for this four-day trip was to install a sediment filter at the water catchment area two hours into the mountains.

To get to the village of Kwite, we had to take a four hour ride on a motorized canoe.  The boat’s tiny engine propelled us for a few miles along the coast before turning into the mouth of a wide brown river.

Kwite's river... a source of life and of death. (Click the image to see the full size panorama)

Kwite's river... a source of life and of death. (Click the image to see the full size panorama)

As we headed upstream, we passed villages on stilts, fishermen in canoes and wide stretches of dark, dense jungle.  Every minute of our journey took us farther from cell phone towers, farther from electricity and farther into the empty spaces on the map.

Hunkered down to keep my head out of the rain, I had plenty of time to reflect on just how remote we really were.  But I had a hard time concentrating with the number of distractions in the boat.

The motorized canoe we took to get to Kwite.

The motorized canoe we took to get to Kwite.

Every time someone shifted their weight, the canoe would rock to the side, threatening to tip us all into the muddy water.  Whenever the rain picked up, the lady behind me would open her umbrella, stabbing me in the back of the neck with its poles.  The village store owner sat in front of me, slamming down beer after beer with his son.  By the time they had each had seven bottles, they were practically yelling in my ear.

Finally, we arrived in Kwite, a village of 15-20 elevated huts perched on the side of the river.  We got out of the boat, strapped on our water-tight backpacks and started marching toward our destination…

As we trudged toward our camping site, we slipped and slid down muddy paths, climbed hills and waded through streams.  We reached our camping site as dusk was closing in.  We set up our tents at the edge of a cow pasture, less than half a mile from the aqueduct’s water source.  With headlamps shining, we tried our best to avoid stepping in the many piles of cow dung covering the area.

Steve Bliss from Dead Wheat and I installing the water filter.

Steve Bliss from Dead Wheat and I installing the water filter.

Finally, after setting up our camp, we went for a quick bath in a nearby river, zipped ourselves into our tents, and feasted on a dinner of plain tuna and granola bars.  With nothing else left to do, we went to bed.

The following day we woke up, put on our wet clothes from the previous day and headed off to the water catchment area.  There, we spent a couple of hours building a makeshift sediment filter out of PVC pipes.

Later in the day we walked the line of the aqueduct to see the work that had been done by several of the men from Kwite.  Although poor, they were able to contribute “sweat equity” to the project, and had been working tirelessly to cut a path through the jungle for the pipes.

The aqueduct cutting through the jungle.

The aqueduct cutting through the jungle.

From its source all the way down to the tank where it ends, the aqueduct is roughly four miles directly through the jungle.  We hacked our way through overgrowth with machetes, plodded through muck and mud and fought with the razor grass lining parts of the path.

As we slogged down the trench beside the half-finished PVC pipeline, I thought about how significant this whole project was for the people of Kwite.  For decades, they have been drinking, cooking, washing and bathing with water from the polluted river.

Looking at a map of Panama, you can see that there are 10-15 other villages upstream from Kwite, and all of them use the river as a latrine.  Cattle droppings, trash, chemicals… they all get washed into the water.

And with no other source of potable water (except for exorbitantly expensive bottles from the city), villagers drink in parasites, bacteria and harmful chemicals every day.  Many adults lose valuable weeks of work to painful diseases.  Many children die.

So for the people of Kwite, the aqueduct isn’t just a fun project.  It’s literally a matter of life and death.

One of the villagers of Kwite.

One of the villagers of Kwite.

It struck me, as we followed the line of the aqueduct down into a swamp, just how simple the whole thing is.  These people are getting sick and dying because they have no clean water.  With a little hard work and dedication, they can drink safely once again.

But as we headed back to our campsite that evening, I wrestled with the reality of it all.  Sure, it’s simple, but it still seems so huge and impossible.  I mean, it took a whole team of people months of hacking and digging to bring water to just a single village.  How can we possibly hope to bring drinking water to the millions of people in the world who don’t have it?

Eventually, I realized the truth.  It is impossible.  You and I cannot bring clean water to the entire world.  We just can’t.

But do you know what?  We can bring clean water to the people of Kwite.  We can invest our time, energy and resources in the initiatives like Dead Wheat that are already there.

We can't help everyone.  But we can help them.

We can't help everyone. But we can help them.

And when that aqueduct is done, there is another village right across the river that needs help with their water.

Sure, these villages are remote.  On the global scale they are rather insignificant.  But because the people of Dead Wheat long to live out the Kingdom of God in their part of the world, these villagers will not suffer forever.

This is a truth that has been growing in my heart for a while now.  When I look at statistics about billions of people suffering needlessly, I realize just how small and insubstantial I am in the struggle for social justice.

I can’t fix the world.

But here’s the beautiful thing.  I don’t have to.  That’s not my job.  God will restore this world.  I just need to love and care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25) that I encounter in my life.  He will take care of the rest…

At the end of our time in Kwite, we once again boarded the boat, this time headed back to the land of cell phones, TVs and tap water.  Behind us was a tiny jungle village that will soon have clean, fresh water.

To the world, it wasn’t much.  But to the villagers of Kwite, it was everything…

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Next Steps
    • Support Dead Wheat's clean water initiatives financially (click here).
    • Pray that the villagers of Kwite and the millions like them around the world will find more advocates like Dead Wheat to help give them the water they need!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Scott said... 


    January 5th, 2010 at 8:01 am  

    So good to hear a boots-on-the-ground perspective. My heart longs for clean water for all who don’t have it. Let it be said of us that we did all that we could so that more could experience more of the Kingdom of God…

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