Rethinking water: One man’s mission

Sep 05, 2019 by Zena Berakat

A cold glass of water. A warm shower. A pot of water for cooking.

For many living in the world’s largest cities, access to clean drinking water is a given. Just turn on the faucet and it’s right there. But increasingly, access to clean water isn’t so easy or plentiful. A third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, and the problem is only getting worse.*

As the earth’s temperatures rise, weather extremes—floods and droughts—are becoming more common. And the world’s population is growing faster than the supply of water is.

Juan Carlos Daza Sáchica is always thinking about water. He’s a manager who oversees water management, pipe rehabilitation, and fiberglass (GRP) pipes for Wavin Pavco, part of Orbia’s community of companies. He has been an engineer in the water industry for more than 15 years.

Juan lives with his family in Bogota, Colombia. The city of nearly 11 million people gets most of its water from a reservoir in Chingaza National Natural Park, which is situated in the Andes. Many in Bogota believe that water scarcity isn’t a problem for their city.

Juan was no different, even though he worked in the water sector. “I believed my city had a lot of water and that the sources for the water were safe for many years, but now I know better. I now know that water scarcity will be a massive problem for my children.”

It only took one trip to Chingaza for Juan to shift his thinking. He now approaches his job with a newfound sense of urgency and purpose.

Exploring the Future of Water

Juan is part of a team at Orbia’s Lighthouse Labs, which is exploring the future of water along its entire journey—from drinking water to storm water to sanitation.

 

Lighthouse Labs is a collaboration between Orbia and the innovation firm IDEO. The lab was created to build and launch new ventures that aim to tackle some of the world's most difficult challenges, by leveraging Orbia’s expertise in engineering, materials, and manufacturing, and IDEO’s depth in human-centered design.

His team dove into the challenge by talking to people who deal with the water shortage problem first-hand: water utility employees, construction workers, consultants, business owners, and water activists.

This is how Juan came to visit Chingaza, the main source of water to Bogota, and an area that’s off-limits to the public.

Heaven on Earth

Chingaza is one of the world’s most breathtaking water ecosystems. To Juan and his team, driving there was almost like entering a dream. As they ascended into the mountains, they were enveloped by a fog that wrapped around them like a blanket. After an hour, they emerged into a beautiful green landscape of rolling hills with tropical plants. At one point, Juan spotted an Andean Condor, a rare bird with an impressive wingspan and a mythological significance for Colombians. The experience was otherworldly.

Because of the unusual combination of high altitude and tropical weather, the Chingaza region naturally collects groundwater through its rare plants in a way that requires minimal treatment before the water is delivered to the city.

The frailejón (Espeletia) plant is found in the páramos ecosystem of Chingaza. It acts like a sponge, collecting, filtering, and slowly releasing water that’s distributed to Bogota. Environmentalists believe that climate change could destroy this unique ecosystem, and the frailejón, by 2050.

At the reservoir, Juan met up with a water utility engineer who has worked in the region for nearly a decade. He described often waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, stressed about the water scarcity problem.

“I see the water levels going down every year,” he told Juan. “We need to do something now. Actually, we should have started working on this years ago.” The utility employee is watching a crisis unfold right before him that is literally invisible to the Bogota residents, who unquestioningly continue to turn on their taps to a steady, reliable source of clean water.

Though Bogota residents have cut their individual water consumption by 40% in the last 20 years, the population of the city is growing, especially with a recent influx of immigrants from Venezuela. And a water shortage will be the result. The public water utility workers are aware of this crisis and want Bogota’s citizens to be informed. The engineer Juan met urged him to spread the word.

Water levels are rapidly declining.

After a day visiting the region and speaking to the water utility workers, Juan was at once disheartened and energized. “I am an active part of the problem and the solution.”

As his team drove out of Chingaza, descended through the fog, and returned to the city lights, he felt awakened. Speaking directly to water utility workers about their daily challenges had given him a new perspective. “It's inspiring how you can get so much information and ideas from taking the time to talk to our customers directly.”

Lighthouse Labs’ approach of talking to those closest to the problems allows our employees to see massive systemic problems through the eyes of the people experiencing them first-hand. Juan is now working on solutions that will resonate with and help those he met.

And his view of the water crisis went from theoretical to personal: “The future of water is our collective problem. As citizens, employees, and as a company, Orbia must do its part. We all must act now.”

*Source: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000367306