By Sue Tiffin
Gord Forbes has been on nearly a dozen water mission trips with Water Ambassadors Canada a non-profit organization that works according to its mission statement to provide clean safe drinking water to impoverished people living in developing countries through building and repairing wells installing water filtration and chlorination systems constructing bio-sand filters and teaching health and hygiene.
The Haliburton resident’s volunteer work has taken him to El Salvador Honduras Nicaragua sometimes on repeat missions with groups of about eight people or so to help train local residents on water purification systems and ensure people living in sometimes remote communities have access to clean water.
But a recent trip to Colombia with the Water Ambassadors organization initially founded in Haliburton almost two decades ago was like no other.
“It’s a six-hour flight from Toronto to Bogota but it’s a whole world away” said Forbes speaking to the Echo soon after returning from the almost week-long mission to Colombia where he and one other volunteer travelled to Cucuta on the border of Colombia and Venezuela to offer resources and training to Venezuelan migrants and refugees who would then smuggle their newfound knowledge and equipment back into Venezuela.
That country has been experiencing “the largest exodus in the region’s recent history” due to “ongoing political human rights and socio-economic developments” according to the UN Refugee Agency with about four million refugees and migrants seeking asylum worldwide according to the governments that have received them.
Forbes said he and fellow Canadian volunteer Jeff Merriman prepared for the mission by gathering as much as they could for use in the region filling their four allotted suitcases with about 200 pounds of supplies.
“So what we took in were devices that we use to chlorinate and purify water battery chargers tools and another device called a Sawyer Filter which is a small water purification device that can be used for a single family or a small group of people” he said. “So we packed our suitcases with as much stuff as we could take that we were going to leave behind. We came back with almost nothing – just our own clothes is all we brought back.”
Surprisingly to Forbes the pair did not experience any difficulty getting through customs upon landing in Colombia.
“That was a minor miracle because I’ve been in countries before where as soon as they see your baggage they want to know what’s in there what is it worth what are you doing with it are you going to sell it where is it going all this kind of stuff” he said. “Nobody asked us a thing. It was like a miracle … how did that happen? We went through the whole thing and nobody even looked at us. It was amazing. It was a very good start to the trip.”
Upon arrival in Bogota Forbes and Merriman met a team in place waiting to drive them to their destination at the border between the two countries.
“Cucuta is what they call a medium-sized town it’s three quarters of a million people” said Forbes. “It was jammed with people choked with cars and motorcycles and bicycles people everywhere vendors selling anything and everything on the streets and sidewalks just to earn a few pesos … it’s a pretty chaotic place.”
Forbes and Merriman relied on a driver during their stay.
“You don’t want to drive in that place that’s something only the locals have got enough fortitude to drive” said Forbes. “Because the city is so clogged you have no idea where to go and most of the intersections are uncontrolled they don’t have stop signs they don’t have traffic lights no yield signs. the basic rule of driving in this city is that if you’re moving you have the right of way. It was pretty hairy driving.”
At the border between Colombia and Venezuela which Forbes said is “wide open” allowing anyone to cross on foot he stood on the fence line looking across the border chatting with the guards and watching people come in.
“They open the border crossing at 8 o’clock in the morning” he said. “Before they open it there’s a line of people waiting to cross. And they do that all day long. Some are coming to stay they’re bringing all of their goods everything they own but a lot of them are coming to Colombia to buy stuff they can’t buy in Venezuela and then taking it back across the border for people who can’t get out: elderly people nursing mothers people with mobility issues they have a real hard time walking across the border or going the distances. These folks buy food clothing water whatever they can find and take it back across to the people they’ve left behind. You’ve got a stream of people going in and a stream of people going back again. And they’re carrying different things. The people going in are carrying suitcases of clothing and belongings and everything and the people going back are carrying grocery bags and packs of whatever they can find. It’s phenomenal to see. I stood there in the midst of that crowd watching it right on the border.”
“I thought it was going to be challenging and it was” he said. “The challenging part was really seeing the plight of all of those people that are flooding out of Venezuela into Colombia typically carrying everything they own and coming into a country where there are so many refugees pouring in that their resources are pretty limited. When they cross the border there’s really no place to stay. There’s very little fresh water. There’s food available but they don’t have much money. There’s no sanitation basically so it’s pretty desperate for a lot of people.”
Forbes and Merriman met with a pastor who had started a church at the border in an old warehouse basically a big empty building. There was some water there though it wasn’t very clean where people could fill water bottles or nursing mothers could mix powdered milk and water for their babies.
“He has a feeding station there where he provides food and water that’s been donated to him wherever he can get it” said Forbes. “He lets people sleep there too on the concrete floor if they have nothing else to sleep on.”
Gravel streets filled with pot holes were filled with people offering to carry bags sell food or products or act as a guide in order to earn money.
“Streets were choked with vendors some of them had set up stalls with just sticks and plastic canopies selling anything from cups of coffee to fruit bananas pineapples tangerines chocolate bars … There are no rules and regulations as to what you can sell and how you can do that so people just buy or borrow or rent whatever they can and try to make a few pesos to move on. It’s really something to see.”
The Water Ambassadors volunteers needed buckets to build the Sawyer Filter units they planned to leave behind and found a warehouse room full of buckets that had delivered freeze-dried vegetables from Canada through an organization called “the Gleaners” based in Kitchener Waterloo.
While at the warehouse-turned-church Forbes had the experience of seeing a mealtime in which lunch is prepared for the border population – rice soup mix a half of a hard boiled egg for each person a glass of lemonade made from powder mix. Forbes said he couldn’t see the end of the line of people who if they were turned away when the food ran out would just return the next day.
Anywhere from 100 to 200 people are fed before returning back to the streets the park abandoned cars they are sleeping in or vendor stalls they operate. One of those people was a woman with an MBA a professor of business and economics at a university in Venezuela who was selling cups of coffee at a table in the corner of a travel agency to make a living. She had found a way to buy cakes then jam and she was decorating individual slices of the cakes to earn a little bit of money. Forbes said despite her situation she was like many of the other Venezuelans who had crossed the border – hopeful in search of a better life.
“This was way beyond anything I had expected” he said. “It was way busier way more chaotic it was much poorer there were very many people the needs were greater than anything I’d expected or seen before.”
Besides putting together the Sawyer Filter kits which were taken to shelters Forbes and Merriman visited a water station on the highway.
“When the refugees get to Cucuta a lot of them decide it’s too busy here they can’t stay here they have to leave” said Forbes. “They’ve got to walk to wherever they can find another town or village where they might be able to find food or water or a job or something better than where they are there so a lot of them just leave and walk and a lot of them walk towards Bogota which is uphill in the mountains 250 miles on the highway.”
Non-profit organizations have set up water stations along the way in some cases offering water pumped out of a river and put through a paper filter.
“It was still dirty water” said Forbes. “All they did was filter the sand out of it really.”
Forbes and Merriman built a water purification centre there and also worked with five people that had come by bus about 17 hours from Venezuela who could be trained in how to build and operate purification plants taking three kits back across the border.
The team of five split the equipment between them packing it within woven plastic grocery bags amongst other goods to avoid having it confiscated by border guards and soldiers who might sell it. Forbes has since heard that the team was successful in getting the equipment across the border and set up providing clean water to those in need.
He said it is frustrating to him that few people are talking about what he called a desperate situation in Venezuela and Colombia.
“I feel like I’ve got to let people know that there is a problem here so that we can build on what we’ve done and maybe raise some more funds so we can go back and fix it again” he said. “I can’t fix the whole problem but I can help somebody.”
He stressed that the cost of a Sawyer water filter for a family costs only about $35.
“My main motivation is to let people know that there’s a problem that nobody is talking about but also to let them know that there’s a local organization that was founded here [in Haliburton] that’s actually trying to do something about it” he said. “We can do something.”
For more information about Water Ambassadors Canada to donate or get involved visit www.waterambassadorscanada.org or phone 1-877-988-4688.