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Amazonian Tribes Try Harvesting Rainwater After Oil Drilling Polluted Their Water

Decades of oil drilling have polluted Lago Agrio. But now local tribes are installing rainwater harvesting systems that provide clean water.

Oil companies started drilling around Ecuador’s Lago Agrio in 1972. Texaco had found oil here a few years before, in the middle of the Amazon, and for decades the oil industry harvested the oil gushing from the ground. Chevron took over when it bought Texaco, and Ecuador’s state oil company took over from Chevron. All the while, the drilling operations were pouring pollution in the area’s air and water—so much pollution that last year an Ecuadorian judge ordered Chevron to pay a total $18 billion to a group of 30,000 indigenous people, represented by a coalition of lawyers from Ecuador and North America.

While lawyers fight in international courts for oil companies to pay up, the people in the Lago Agria area are living in one of the most polluted pieces of land on the planet. Oil is still being extracted from the area; some locals work for the industry. But a new project is ensuring that these communities will have access to clean water, despite the pollution that surrounds them.

ClearWater has already installed 70 rainwater-harvesting systems in villages that border the Agua Rico river. Four tribes are working to coordinate the installations—picking which sites will be first in line for the systems, putting them in, and training families to maintain them. And this week, with support from international NGOs like the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch, the group launched a campaign to raise awareness, but more importantly, funding. The ultimate goal is to raise at least $2 million.

While the funding may be coming from outside the Lago Agrio area, project director Mitch Anderson has looked to the community to set the direction of the project and work to make sure it’s sustainable. In 2011, Anderson and the musician Rea Garvey met with tribes in the area and proposed partnering on a project that would be led by the tribes. In the meeting, the two men told the tribes, “You guys tell us what you want that to look like.” Adds Anderson: “They said water.”

Collecting and processing rainwater in such a polluted place requires extra care. The harvesting systems that ClearWater is using were designed specifically for this area: They have a filtration layer that targets the heavy metals that pollute the area, Anderson says. And the group is going to be doing tests on the water to make sure that it is clean enough to serve as drinking and cooking water—which would be its primary use.

While collecting and filtering rainwater can keep these communities healthier, it won’t fix the long-term pollution problems the area faces. ClearWater is working with Engineers Without Borders to assess how best the $2 million they hope to raise could be used and to look at the possibilities for larger projects that would filter river water or create clean wells.

If some court ever does force the oil industry to pay for the damage it’s caused to this area, these communities will have much more than $2 million with which to address these issues. “There’s going to be a bigger challenge which is management of those funds and implementation of programs that actually benefit the people and clean up the environment,” says Anderson. “We see this project as a great way of preparing for that moment.”

Photo courtesy of Mitch Anderson

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