When Miguel and Maria Vargas faced tragedy, the couple channeled their grief into a fight for clean water.
By Wanda O’Brien
The Napo River stretches more than 1,000 km through the basin of the Amazon rainforest, an economic expressway where motorized canoes transport goods and ferry people to and from school, work and home. Here, washing lines the shores, fishermen bring in the daily catch and neighbourhood kids splash in shallow banks.
But the river was also a source of drinking water for almost 200 people in the community of Mondaña, where Miguel and Maria Vargas were raising their four children. The Vargas family lives on a cacao and fruit farm slightly inland from the “highway,” as Miguel calls it.
Although the parents knew the water was untreated, they didn’t have access to any water that was.
In 2001, Nelly Marcia, their 13-year-old daughter, fell ill with a fever after drinking river water. As evening fell, and the family dozed fitfully in and out of sleep, her symptoms worsened. At midnight, both parents bundled their daughter into a canoe and paddled the short distance to the available clinic.
The clinic wasn’t properly equipped, and the family couldn’t travel to the larger city. Shortly after 5 a.m., just before the sun would rise on the Napo, she passed away.
“It could have been because of the water and parasites,” says Miguel, still searching for answers 15 years later. “Maybe if the doctor had only prescribed one pill at a time, or there were better facilities…” he trails off. “I don’t know. But that is what happened.”
The Vargas’ never found out the exact cause of death. But instances of waterborne diseases are common in the region.
With three growing kids and a 79 acre farm to manage, the family tried to focus on the cacao harvest, finding a market for their fruit and sending their kids to school. Still, Miguel and Maria were haunted by their loss: How could this have happened? And how could they stop it from happening again?
The answer was clear to Miguel. It was also filtered and clean. The grieving father started to knock on doors—campaigning for the right to have drinking water piped into the homes in his community.
Three times Miguel made the journey—a half-hour canoe ride and three-hour bus ride—to make the case to the city. Three times he was promised someone would follow up.
This went on for more than a decade. Maria used a wooden wheelbarrow to transport water to their home, and encouraged her husband to rally the neighbours and local government. Miguel helped his wife maneuver the heavy loads when it caused her too much pain, while continuing to advocate for pipe dreams.
WE started working in the highlands in Ecuador in 1999, and in 2013, expanded to include communities near the Napo River. One of the first people the organization met was Miguel.
“I will always remember that day,” Miguel recounts when the head of the WE Ecuador program came to his house to speak to him. “He asked, ‘Miguel, what is your need?’ And I thought, what do I always say to my neighbours? So I answered, ‘We need water.’”
With the support of the community and local government, WE built two clean water projects to serve each bank of the community. Water is piped from a spring to a filtration system, before making its ways into neighbourhood homes. This is the change Miguel has been advocating for.
Now, when Maria needs to do washing, she simply turns on the tap and fills up her sink. When the grandkids are thirsty from playing, Miguel pours them a glass of water, knowing it won’t make them sick.
The legacy of Nelly Marcia lives in every clean drop.