Guatemala, San Lorenzo children

Ferrocement Water Tank: Part One

By Ted Uram

Ferrocement Water Tank Definition: a water containment structure built from a mixture of Portland cement and sand reinforced with layers of woven or expanded steel mesh, and closely spaced small-diameter steel rods (rebar) – source:

The Children of San Lorenzo, Guatemala

A Good Day for a Guatemalan Hike…

One day, while hiking through the hills of Guatemala on a research trip, an engineer from California came across something he could not get out of his mind. He happened upon the small town of San Lorenzo El Tejar, a community of 2,000 people, many of which are children. The people were kind and cheerful, a tight-knit community, and Andrew was welcomed.


But Andrew soon discovered that the small town located just outside of Antigua, Guatemala contained a dark secret. The main water supply for the entire town was little more than a trickle of water which remained active less than two hours a day. The source was a dirty stream in which the community also bathed.

Engineers Without Borders

That engineer was Andrew Bui, a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders, a US based nonprofit that helps developing countries and communities with basic infrastructure needs. Engineers Without Borders consists of professional chapters started by engineers in their own communities. These, in turn, form student chapters (in Andrew’s case, the University of California Riverside and Cal Poly Pomona) which they educate in the real-world applications of engineering concepts students learn about in school.

“We work directly with students and help mentor them so that they can see exactly what the process is,” Andrew says. “We try to help them use the concepts they are learning in school in real-world applications in other countries.”

With the help of a friend, Andrew used his association with Engineers without Borders to become aligned with another local nonprofit in Guatemala. He expressed a keen interest in helping the citizens of San Lorenzo in solving their water needs. As a result, he was appointed Director of Engineering Initiatives. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Water Supply at San Lorenzo, Guatemala


Life Giving Liquid

Andrew understands the basic need for water. Water is essential. People settle near water. It is not only a necessary component for basic human survival, but we also bathe in it, clean with it, grow our food with it, and depend upon it for the disposal of sewage and waste.

Clean water is a basic human right, and without an adequate water supply, communities face dysentery, impoverishment, and even death.

It was immediately obvious to Andrew that a well was needed. A well would provide an adequate supply of clean water that could be accessed twenty-four hours a day. But in order to dig a well you need equipment, supplies, and a suitable plot of land.

Well Underway

Andrew faced a challenge. While the local NGO (non-governmental organization) was helpful, and the mayor of the town of San Lorenzo was more than willing to provide assistance, a suitable plot of land to dig a well and build the ferrocement water tank could not be decided upon. A location was chosen then moved. Then another location was selected only to be moved again.

The water supply at San Lorenzo, Guatemala stays active for only two hours each day

“There are always challenges,” Andrew says. “Getting things to remain fluid and keep lines of communications open, that’s always one of the hardest challenges.”

Eventually, a plot of land was settled upon and a 500-foot well was dug. But in order for the water to remain clean and accessible it had to be properly contained.

A ferrocement water tank was the solution, a cement-like structure that would hold up to 65,000 gallons of clean water.

That’s when the real challenges came to light.

Tools and supplies were sparse. Ladders had to be fashioned out of planks of wood, plyers and wrenches were nonexistent, a compressor to spray the mortar could not be located, and the power supply needed to run equipment was inadequate.

“The major issue we had related to the mortar sprayer was how to get power, how to get things to work,” Andrew says. “We were told there was an electrical box we could use, but it was a generator that wasn’t strong enough to use the compressor we needed.”

A diesel generator was the only solution. There were none around. The well was dug, but the ferrocement water tank could not be built. Andrew and his group of volunteers were forced to leave the town of San Lorenzo and return to the states.



Was Andrew and his crew ever able to return to San Lorenzo? What became of the small community? Look for Ferrocement Water Tank: Part Two

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