Postcard from Cristina Marcillo

¡Hola desde Guatemala!

This July, I have been working in Guatemala conducting a drinking water monitoring study of San Rafael las Flores, home to the Escobal silver mine, and co-leading a water-monitoring workshop for citizen scientists from all over Guatemala in Chimaltenango. Since its inception, there has been strong resistance to this mine (at times resulting in physical violence) from the surrounding community, including the indigenous Xinca population. This project is funded by Virginia Tech’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and is a collaboration between the Krometis lab group in Biological Systems Engineering (of which I am a part!) and Dr. Nicholas Copeland in Sociology, who received a Fullbright to work in Guatemala this year.

Cristina Marcillo
Cristina Marcillo

After landing in Guatemala City, our water monitoring team was immediately whisked away to San Rafael las Flores to meet with community members and together decide on an effective drinking water monitoring plan. We sampled households in both the urban center and the rural mountainous outskirts. Most of this area relies on spring water for drinking, domestic, and agricultural use, and treatment appears sporadic. Our sampling included long days of driving and hiking to spring and surface water sources in forested mountainous areas with knowledgeable community guides. We brought with us field equipment to test for arsenic, E. coli, pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity that allowed us to give rapid feedback on water quality. Through this experience, I was able to get an idea of the complicated distribution network the San Rafael community relies upon, learn about the physical environment influencing water quality, and better understand the community’s drinking water concerns. We will continue to be in communication with the San Rafael community as we receive lab results on their water quality.

The following week, I went to Chimaltenango to teach a water-monitoring workshop with Dr. Copeland. This workshop aimed to equip citizen scientists with the knowledge they need to: 1) plan a monitoring program, 2) use field equipment to rapidly test for certain drinking water contaminants and interpret results, 3) understand the health impacts of common drinking water contaminants, and 4) begin to build a national water–monitoring network. Guatemala does not currently have a publicly available comprehensive waterbody inventory or regular monitoring of surface or spring waters. Citizen scientists from all over the country attended this workshop and left with a renewed conviction that their community can care for and monitor their own water bodies and drinking water sources.

My primary dissertation research analyzes environmental justice impacts of US public water system compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, whereas this project in Guatemala looks at public water infrastructure and legislation that is less well-established and in many ways still forming. This project allows me to observe the difference in challenges in developed and developing countries’ drinking water protection efforts firsthand. It also allows me to use my engineering knowledge to work with a community that is adamant about protecting water sources from contamination. Being half-Guatemalan myself, I am excited to partake in this interdisciplinary project and see its impacts firsthand. This project will continue to evolve as we work with the San Rafael community and beyond on long-term water monitoring network.

– Cristina