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Amazonian feats: WAF Water Research Prize winner 6 months later

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The Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PCUP), supported by GROHE, confronts the challenge of access to clean water in Peru

In the Peruvian Amazon only 31 per cent of the population has access to clean water, despite living in an area with the highest levels of annual rainfall worldwide. Co-ordinated by teaching fellow Belen Desmaison, a team of students from Lima’s Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PCUP) are trying to change this with a research project delivering light structures to capture, store and treat rainwater while simultaneously providing a platform for community services.

The team is working within communities on the peripheries of Iquitos – the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road, and the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, where the population is made up of people from indigenous descent and migrants from both the coast and the Andes – 46 languages are spoken in this region. In recent years, as more people have moved from remote areas, the increase in population has seen the appearance of slums on the outskirts of the city.

‘It is incremental work, developed in conversation with a diverse array of parties, but in the long term providing effective services and authentic placemaking for peripheral communities’

Traditional underground water and sanitation infrastructure exists in town, but once a dirt road linking a new settlement appears, slums without services quickly emerge along it. Electricity is always the first basic service to arrive and water follows later, if indeed at all.

Some 13.5 kilometres away from the centre of Iquitos, the PCUP team built their initial structure in an open space in a settlement in the Nueva Ciudad de Belén in February 2018. Despite not yet having water, Belén is one of the few ‘planned’ settlement projects promoted by the state.

Differing from a traditional water tank system, the PCUP team developed a ‘water wall’ incorporating a pitched roof and a wall of tubes that store the rainwater, and simultaneously serve as a non-loadbearing, permeable wall that can be more easily integrated with other structures and services, such as kitchen facilities for the community.

As a result of the Belén project, the team was awarded the inaugural Water Research Prize of £10,000, supported by World Architecture Festival (WAF) founder-partner GROHE in December 2018. Six months on from the prize, the project is still operational and there are plans to add a bread oven to the kitchen facilities and to expand the surrounding seating area. GROHE Design and R&D hope to support the PCUP students, offering ongoing expert design advice to help advance their work. Desmaison is encouraged by GROHE’s ‘commitment to work with us and explore ways in which we can collaborate’.

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3136235 img3956

Source: Belen Desmaison

Part of the prize-winning entry into the £10,000 WAF Water Research Prize,  this light structure was erected in Nueva Ciudad de Belén to capture, store and treat rainwater

PCUP are now working in Santo Tomás, a new informal settlement on the outskirts of Iquitos, occupied by people of indigenous descent of the Kukama- Kukamiria culture. The plan is for a small-scale intervention to provide laundry and showering services – working in collaboration with the national water authority, the provincial municipality and the community leaders, in the hope that it will be replicated elsewhere. Washing currently takes place during the dry season near an untreated well that floods in the rainy season, when people wash their clothes directly in the river. PCUP’s structures, in close communication with residents about where and how they will best work, provide better platforms for these daily tasks. They are building mock-ups in Lima with the intention of constructing a full prototype of the community laundry and shower in August 2019.

A recent visit to Santo Tomás included presentations to the community, the local government and the local university, which is providing support with rainwater testing (Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana - specifically the Centro de Investigaciones de Recursos Naturales, or Research Centre on Natural Resources). The latest results have shown that the quality of the rainwater is very nearly pure, although just outside the acceptable pH range for drinking water.

3136238 07 final view from kitchen

3136238 07 final view from kitchen

Source: Belen Desmaison

A ’water wall’ featuring tubes to store rainwater in the Nueva Ciudad de Belén provides shade and shelter and is incorporated with kitchen facilties for the community

So far, the Santo Tomás project has concentrated mainly on the architecture of the space: a terrace with the rainwater storage system embedded in the columns and railings that provide water for laundry and communal showers. They have not yet developed the sanitation details and how to treat the used water (possibly through constructed wetlands). The structure will form a ‘front yard’ space, providing shade, protection from the rain and facilities serving 26 families.

Currently there are no state policies in place for the use of rainwater, so unsurprisingly there is interest from local governments in Iquitos and across Maynas Province more generally, and also from local universities seeking to promote multi-disciplinary research opportunities – such as the University of Pará in Brazil, who they hope to visit soon. In a challenging context, with intermittent internet connectivity and extremely changeable weather conditions, it is encouraging to see the determination of Desmaison and the PCUP team lead to the dissemination of their research and activity to an increasingly broad audience.

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Whatsapp image 2019 03 18 at 2.42.47 pm

Source: Belen Desmaison

Washing directly in the river, during rainy season when the Santo Tomás well floods

Desmaison is clear that ‘now is the time to start thinking about how both the collaborative process and the end product can be replicated and scaled up in other Amazonian cities and other academic institutions, even beyond Peru’. She is also thinking about ways to incorporate private institutions and ‘identify how this research could open up the field for new markets and exchanges that could benefit all involved’.

It is incremental work, developed in conversation with a diverse array of parties, but in the long term providing effective services and authentic placemaking for peripheral communities.

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Lead image: Women washing by the well in Santo Tomás. Photograph by Belen Desmaison

This sponsored feature was printed in the AR July/August 2019 issue. You can buy the magazine here