Letting Go of the Konani Water Well

Posted on: September 3, 2010

Have you ever given away something that was so meaningful to you that it helped to define who you are? I had that experience this week.

In 1989 my father, without asking anyone else’s opinion, without getting permission, without knowing how it would be done, without even knowing if it COULD be done, announced to the people of Konani Bolivia that he would drill a potable water well in their community. It turns out there were no deep water wells in all of the Altiplano in 1989 (The first one was drilled sometime in 1992.). No Water tanks. No submersible pumps. And most importantly, no drilling rigs for water.

Four years later, with the help of many people, with an old shallow oil well drilling unit, and with $20,000 of MY INHERITANCE J; we found water. Lots of it. Clean potable water. The second potable water well in all of the altiplano.

It was such a big deal for our family that Dad, at age 75, took my Mom, myself and my daughter to the grand opening of the well. We flew 3,000 miles to go to a party.

Some years later my father said it was the most important thing he had ever done in his life.

And the Konani well has meant a lot to me. That experience is what led to the creation of Engineers In Action. Seeing what potable water could for a village in terms of children’s health, reduction of infant mortality, and even economic development changed my life. And when the opportunity arose, we started EIA to build on what we had learned at Konani.

I visited the ole girl again this week. 17 years old and still pumping water. Not doing too bad of a job either. 40 some families linked into the main line which runs to the Methodist Health Clinic. To save money on electricity they fill it up in the morning, when everyone uses it, and then turn it off for most of the day when everyone is out working the fields. Then they turn it back on the evening.

But the old girl is showing her age. The town has grown dramatically. Because of her, the community has felt the need to drill 3 additional wells at about the same depth, all within a mile or so. Each well covers a different part of the city, and the other three are linked to each other.

But out old well can’t keep up with the population growth in her area. In fact, the Methodist Health Clinic hasn’t been able to receive water from the well for several years because it is all used up and there is not enough pressure by the time it gets across town to the clinic. There are waterlines nearby, but they are the town’s, not ours and the church’s.  To make things worse, the water table in that micro watershed has dropped and none of the wells are doing what they used to do.

And now the town wants the Church and my family to turn the well over to them. While most church members don’t want to give up this icon of Methodist help to the community, it only makes sense. If all four wells are linked together, and the two water towers, most of the community can be covered by a single system, and all they will need is one good deeper (beyond the current 90 mtrs) well.

And frankly, I don’t want to give up the well. It has meant so much to dad, to my family and to me. And yet, there is an old saying that ‘nothing reaches its full value, until you give it away.’ So this week I talked to the good Methodist folks of Konani and explained to them the logic of giving up the well. I’m suggesting that the Church and the Stephenson family give the well to the Alcade (mayor) of the Municipality under two conditions: that they get water to the Methodist Health Clinic, and that they drill a deep water well somewhere in the town.

It was a bit painful to suggest it. It was quite painful for the Church folks to consider it. But it just makes too much sense. So I’m hoping when I return in February to turn it over to the town of Konani.

Churches and other institutions have a tendency to hold on to things too long. They hold on to them when the need for them has long since gone away. They hold on to institutions whose needs are being filled by government agencies with far greater resources then what the Church has.

The Church started universal education, Universities, Hospitals, Homes for the Elderly, Homes of the Mentally Disturbed, Homes for the Handicapped and on and on. The Church saw the need. The Church developed institutions which began to fill those needs, and which demonstrated to the world the need for support and working with those folks.

And finally society caught up. They saw the need, and become willing to put a portion of the entire culture’s resources into filling those needs: Public Schools and Universities, Hospitals, etc. And when they did, they brought greater resources then what the Church had available.

But the Church, instead of saying, “Yeah, society is taking care of that problem. Let’s move on to the next.” The Church instead desperately clutched the old Church institutions and tried to compete with the government; usually losing. Thus in Oklahoma we have Homes for Orphans, or for troubled girls who are empty and desperately looking for a purpose because, with government resources and help; there are no orphans anymore, etc.

Well, I’ve decided that I don’t want to be like that. The Konani Water Well has done an incredible job. It has shown the impact of potable water on a community. It has inspired countless other communities to get potable water. It has faithfully served the people of Konani for 17 years. It is now time for her to join the other wells in an integrated coordinated water distribution system and become just another well like all of the rest.

But I’ll miss talking about the “Stephenson” water well. I’ll miss stopping by and seeing how she is doing. And every now and then, when I’m on the road between Oruro and Konani, I’ll still point out her tiny water tank, that seemed so huge when we first built it; and say “it all began with her”.

And frankly, I tear up a little thinking about that. It really is true: “You don’t know something’s true value until you give it away”.

What do you need to give away?

From One learning to Give to another,