Many people have questions regarding potable water and wastewater systems here on the coast of Ecuador so the goal of this post is to share some basic information about how water is managed in a typical residence. Tom and I both received our doctorates in fields related to water quality and water treatment so this topic of particular interest for us.
For starters, residences located within town limits are generally connected to the city water system. For Manta, as well as the small fishing towns where we primarily work (Crucita, San Jacinto and San Clemente), waters from the Rio Portoviejo outside the inland town of Rocafuerte are collected and treated at Manta’s El Ceibal water treatment facility located in Rocafuerte. The treated water is stored in a large (5000 cubic meter) elevated tank and distributed via gravity once or twice a week to Manta and the above-named fishing towns.
The sporadic disbursement of water means that all residences including private homes and condo buildings have below-ground cisterns for water storage. This water is then pumped into the residence via an electric pump.
Homes that are located beyond city limits and who are not connected to city water receive water on an as-needed basis by calling a water truck (“un tanquero”). A whole “tanquero”-full (approximately 10 cubic meters) costs between $15-40 ($1.50-$4/cubic meter) depending on the location and generally lasts a good couple of weeks, depending on usage requirements, of course.
For a concrete example, the water bill for our house in Crucita amounts to $0.60/cubic meter and when we lived there we averaged about 20-25 cubic meters per month with a washing machine and garden ($12-15/mo plus nominal fees of a couple of bucks for network maintenance). In San Clemente we currently pay $0.80/cubic meter.
Because this region experiences somewhat frequent power outages (particularly during the rainy season), having an electric water pump translates to not having ready access to water during outages. Aside from having a backup generator to work around this issue, many people opt to build an elevated storage tank. In this situation, the electric pump fills the elevated tank and then water is gravity fed into the home. We have this set up in our Crucita house and it is a godsend during the rare but possible all-day power outage.
Returning to the notion of “treated” water coming out of water treatment facilities: This water may be referred to locally as potable but it should not be treated as so. Proposed treatment “standards” may be similar to those in developed countries, but whether those standards are enforced routinely and systematically is another question. In other words, do not drink directly from your tap. That being said, we still use tap water for washing dishes and even for brushing our teeth. Individuals with more leery intestinal flora may wish to proceed with more caution, especially regarding the brushing of teeth.
By far the most common source of potable water are the ever-present blue, five gallon water jugs (called “bidones,” pronounced “BEE-doh-nez”). Once you’ve purchased your bidon (an initial $5 up front payment) you exchange it when empty for ~$1. These jugs are universally available, whether in a small ma and pop shop, or more conveniently, delivered directly to your home from the back of a truck, mototaxi-like contraption, etc.
The trouble is that as the popularity of this source of “potable” water continues to grow, so of course does the competition. We were told that in the province of Manabí alone, there are over 30 different distributors, none of which are held to highly stringent water quality control regulations. Without strict oversight and accountability, it is easy to see how some companies might not adhere to suggested water quality standards. That being said, most expats we know (including us for many years) have relied on bidones as our primary source of drinking water.
Other options are whole-house treatment systems or smaller below-the-counter reverse osmosis systems. However, these systems, because they are still not very common, tend to be very expensive as compared to in the US or elsewhere. When looking into under-the-sink filtration systems last year, prices varied from $500 and upwards, with many of the better models costing around $1500 including install and a 1-year warranty. And, of course, systems requiring electricity are subject to not being available during power outages.
After doing a decent amount of research, Tom and I settled on a simple gravity-fed water filter made by Nikken (Nikken Pi-Mag Aqua Pour). We had seen these systems in several locations around Ecuador, including the birthing center where our son Kai was born. When we learned more about it we decided it was worth the high price tag ($443 although you can catch them on sale on occasion and they are about a $100 or more cheaper if you can buy from the US).
What we like about it is that it has a multiple stage filter system including a 0.2 micron filter for sediments and bacteria (as opposed to the 0.45 micron filters more common on other systems), a layer of activated carbon, a second layer of activated carbon mixed with colloidal silver and then a final layer of zeolyte. Together, this system effectively removes all sediment, bacteria and chemicals, including chlorine. And unlike other effective filter systems, the treated water sits in a container of pebbles which introduce important, essential minerals back into the water.
*A side note here: Our bodies require trace amounts of minerals naturally found in water from nature. When we drink lots of water void of these minerals (e.g. water from a reverse osmosis treatment system), the minerals slowly become leached from our bones and can lead to deficiencies, manifesting in conditions such as osteoporosis. That’s why having those pebbles in the Nikken filter is a key element to providing healthy water.
We also like that it does not require energy to operate since the water passes through the filters via gravity. Also, the filters last a year so it is very low maintenance. Actually, when we purchased ours it came with a second set of filters included in the price so we’re set for two years.
We figured we were going through about 5 bidones per week, the equivalent of roughly $260/year so we’ll have paid off our investment before the second year and know we’ll have reliable, good quality drinking water.
If you have any questions about this filter, especially for how they might be used or needed in Ecuador, feel free to send us an email. Bias alert: We like this product so much and recognize the strong need from them here in Ecuador that we recently became licensed to order and sell any of Nikken’s products here in Ecuador.
And now, onto the wastewater side of things…
More often than not, residences here on the coast are connected to septic systems. Modern wastewater treatment facilities are still a rarity in Ecuador, even in larger cities. As opposed to more managed and regulated septic systems found in the US and elsewhere in the developed world, septics are typically crude and consist of a hole in the ground with brick walls with a cement cover and an open bottom. In our latest two construction projects, we installed biodigesters to amplify water treatment. Unfortunately, these treatment systems are not common yet with local builders and cost more than the simple brick wall approach so they are rarely used.
As with many things in Ecuador, new projects are underway. For example, last year sewage pipes were installed throughout Crucita to connect to a proposed wastewater treatment plant outside of town. The municipality is awaiting another bulk of funding to move forward with the next phase of the project. Manta is also in the final phase of completing a new potable water treatment facility in Manta proper. So things are indeed moving forward. In the meantime, with the use of water filters and biodigestors, we can meet our needs for reliable drinking water and/or reducing the impact of our wastewater. Ecuador is not for everyone but for those of us for whom Ecuador is a good match, we totally love this place and see it for all its potential!