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Published on: 06/03/2012

The committee in charge of the water system in Belén, Guatemala dedicated itself to collecting the fees, presenting accounts to the revenue administration and selling new connections. At first, since the system was new, there were no problems. Maintenance consisted of cleaning the distribution tank and, occasionally, the collection tank. Committee member Don Herminio Pérez recalls that they only met a few times. Three years after it had been constructed, the system developed many problems.

People protested because the water was not reaching every part of the community. There were also problems because the treasurer and secretary, backed by the water engineer, were taking decisions without consultation. The president and two members of the committee resigned because they did not like this way of working, and because of the problems that were arising. The treasurer and secretary remained on the committee for twelve years. Over this period, the water spring that had been bought was no longer sufficient to provide water for everyone, yet new taps were sold without taking spring capacity into account. Water was used for productive purposes, especially for cattle and coffee, and demand increased as people moved in to escape violence in other places. Eventually, the committee asked people to chip in money and bought the spring in the Morelia plantation.

In 1992, UNEPAR, the implementing agency started work and in 1993 the new system was up and running. One hundred more users were installed, and now the community had a total of 190 water connections, septic tanks for waste water and 190 improved latrines. The treasurer and secretary continued taking the decisions without consulting the community. They collected the fees, they cleaned the collection and distribution tanks, they repaired taps in houses and presented accounts to the government three times a year. They also continued to sell services without considering the capacity of the new spring.

By 1994 the number of connections had reached 315. Problems began anew. Doña Dora said: “We don’t have water all the time. There’s a shortage because the committee sells new taps; there are water leaks and the community of Belén is growing.” Don Santiago said: “Essential repairs aren’t done, nor do they review all aspects of the system. The committee does not hold itself accountable to the community.” When the water system became unreliable, people despaired. Only 75 of 315 members continued to pay their water fee in full and this was only enough to pay for constant repairs because of water leaks. The committee decided to ration the water supply, dividing the community into five sectors, and re-filling the tank at night. This increased costs since they now had to have a full-time water engineer to open and close valves in the sectors on a daily basis. The fee increased from Q. 17 to Q. 27 per beneficiary per month, without giving families the minimum water they needed. People continued to protest.

Doña Hermelinda said: “In the high lands of the community the water no longer arrives, and in the sectors where it does arrive they only have water for three hours, and not every day. Still, the committee does not do anything.” Doña Eugenia said: “We don’t know what was done with all the money from the sale of the new taps. The committee doesn’t give information about how much was brought in from the sale of new connections, nor about the investment of this money. Neither do they inform us about the total number of beneficiaries.” Doña Cheli commented: “We’re fed up because our project doesn’t function well and we do not agree with the way that these three people are working .”

UNEPAR did not want to have anything more to do with this community and its complex problems. At the same time, the community was angry with the institution. According to one user: “The only thing UNEPAR has given us is a promoter who reviews the books with the treasurer every four months.” In the end the fees collected were not sufficient to do even minor repairs.

Jaime Pacajoj Cifuentes

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