Felix and the Pump

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs from Marvin and Martie Wachs, long time friends and supporters of Amizade who have visited and served in Bolivia numerous times.  For more stories from the Wachs visit their blog at

In the U.S. when you wake up every morning, turn on the light, pad down to the bathroom, use the toilet, turn on the water and step into a hot shower, do you think much about it?  Probably not.  Remember how frustrated you were with the utilities folks during that last storm when the power didn’t come back on for TWO hours?  Here in the U.S. and many other developed countries, water, sewer and electricity are taken for granted.  But they aren’t taken for granted in Bolivia.

In our many volunteer visits to Cochabamba, Bolivia with Amizade Service-Learning, we have learned to better appreciate such amenities as running water.  The home of our friend Felix, the mason who works with Amizade groups, is a great example of what middle class Bolivians must do to obtain running water.

The first time we visited Felix at his home, there was no kitchen or bathroom.  His wife Isabel did all cooking and washing in a dirt-floored shed just feet away from the small house that Felix was gradually building as he had the money to do so.  There was a commode in a rickety shack at the back end of the property, but it required a bucket to flush.  Two years later when we returned to Bolivia, we saw that Felix had added a kitchen, living/dining room, and a tiled bathroom to his brick and tile house.  The kitchen had a sink, but it had running water only in the mornings. Throughout Cochabamba, water is so scarce that public water pipes carry water only part of the day. In Felix’s neighborhood, the water pipe is a 2-inch line that carries water until around noon.  The pressure in that pipe is just enough to supply a trickling stream to the kitchen sink or bathroom basin.  Sometimes there is just enough pressure for a morning shower, but when Felix came home dirty from work in the early evening, the water was no longer being supplied, so he was unable to take a shower.

The Cochabambino solution to this problem is installing a cistern at or below ground level.  There is also a tank on the roof.  When the water is available, the cistern is filled and a pump takes water from the cistern up to the roof tank.  Water is then available at a pressure dependent on the height of the roof tank and until the cistern is empty.  Tanks and pumps are not terribly costly by U.S. standards, but for people like Felix, they are not very affordable.

Felix had acquired a roof tank, but had no way to fill it, since the city water had insufficient pressure to reach the roof top.  U.S. water comes into homes between 40 and 60 PSI.  That means you can fill an upstairs bathtub about as quickly as one downstairs, you get some sting if you adjust your shower just right, and your toilet fills before the next user shows up.  Bolivian roof tanks need to be 8 stories high to get the pressure the U.S. enjoys.  Felix’s roof tank is at best 8 feet over his shower head.  Think gentle rain.  This works in his favor, first, because many shower heads have an electrical heating coil (since hot water tanks are rare and expensive) which provides its hottest water at the lowest flow rate.  Second, less water is used.  Whereas a U.S. family of four will average 2000 gallons per day, Felix’s cistern and roof tank will hold about 400 gallons for his family of four.

Our Christmas present to Felix and his family that year was a new pump. Felix still needed to save for a cistern on the ground, and pipe to carry the water from the cistern to the roof tank.  When we returned to Bolivia 2 years later, he had saved for and bought the cistern and pipe.  He and his family now have running water (cold only) in the sink in the kitchen, and a bathroom with a hot water shower.

-Marvin Wachs