Testing Water Quality on Top of the World

Peter Borella collects water samples in 36 small villages with his son Max, other Terra members, and Bolivians. The results will be the first widespread ground heavy metal water analysis in the region, helping Terra determine future projects.

The small thatched-roof adobe house blended almost seamlessly into the earthen-colored landscape. The panoramic view was breathtaking: rolling hills covered in a mosaic of newly-plowed fields unfurled to the west and south, Lake Titicaca to the north, and jagged, glaciated peaks loomed over the small house and extended as far as the eye could see to the east. The Bolivian Altiplano is like no place in the U.S.

“The Altiplano is like the Mojave Desert on top of Mount Whitney,” said Dr. Peter Borella, professor of Geology and Oceanography at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California Peter held a compacted clump of soil and examined it. His brow crinkled as he watched the dirt disintegrate in his hand. “I don’t know how these people make a living from the soil. It’s rocky and nutrient-poor. These are some hearty folk!”

Dr. Borella had traveled more than 1,000 miles into the heart of South America to help Terra Resource Development International (Terra)—a humanitarian organization that helps rural and impoverished Bolivian communities improve their water and natural resources—study water quality and soils in rural villages.

“It’s important to engage in these kinds of activities,” said Peter. “Some of this experience will be transferred to my students at Saddleback.”

It’s not easy work, physically or emotionally. The Bolivian Altiplano, which translates into “high plain,” is one of the world’s highest populated areas with an average elevation of approximately 13,000 feet above sea level. It is also one of the poorest regions in Bolivia, reputed to be the second poorest country in Latin American. Most rural Bolivians earn less than a dollar a day, eeking-out a living by farming potatoes and raising small herds of sheep, cows, and llamas.

A hefty part of the poverty can be attributed to the climate. The Altiplano has a long dry season where nighttime temperatures often fall below freezing. These temperature extremes have done no favors for the soil—the fertile zone is only a few inches deep.

Drinking water is also a problem. If a community even has clean water, it is usually from a shallow hand-dug well or a deeper well that taps groundwater. The problem is that no one really knows if the water is healthy.

Coming to the Altiplano to help answer this question was one reason Peter had traveled so far. Another reason was to be with is his son, Max.

Eight years ago Max traveled to Bolivia as a Peace Corps volunteer, and he has been working there ever since. In 2006, Max co-founded Terra.

“There is so much need in this area,” said Max, Terra’s Executive Director and Field Program Coordinator at Stanford University. “It was hard for me to turn my back on the people when my Peace Corps service ended.”

During the past three years, Terra has buillt water systems in four communities among several other projects that included building latrines and greenhouses. After completing a water project in the rural town of Capiri last year, Terra conducted a comprehensive water quality analysis and found elevated concentrations of arsenic, a cancer-causing contaminant that occurs naturally in parts of the Altiplano.

“We decided we should see how widespread the problem is,” said Max.

For seven days Peter, his son Max, and several Stanford and Bolivian students traveled to 36 communities to collect 48 water and 25 soil samples. Terra will analyze the samples for heavy metals. Those areas with test results showing elevated concentrations will signal places where developing groundwater requires more than simply putting in a well.

“The results will hopefully guide future projects and inform those communities and organizations which are developing water to look into filtration systems,” said Peter.

Peter tightly screwed on the lid of a water sample and turned around to take in the view. “This is an amazing experience,” he said. “It would be great to get Saddleback students involved in projects like these in the future.”

Project Brief
Water Quality Testing in the Altiplano
Financial Support:
Terra contributes $5,000-$7,000; Standford provides student and chemical analysis; subsequent phases will have Bolivian contribution
In progress
Altiplano region of the Bolivian Andes
TERRA, Stanford University, University of Oruro