I recently spent a week in the beautiful country of Honduras on a project with an organization called Living Water. While there our team worked to drill and install a hand-pump water well in a village near the city of Saba.
It wasn’t the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it may well have been the dirtiest! Living Water has a great method for drilling wells that utilizes a simple but effective generator-powered drill rig.
A few gas-powered pumps helped us get water up from the river, which has until now been the local source of drinking water, via a series of two 1500 liter tanks, to a simple earth-pit circulation system. This system allowed us to circulate water through the drill rig during drilling, keeping the bit cool and flushing soil out of the hole. The well construction is normally a 3-day process with a dedication on the 4th day, but it wound up taking us 4 full days to finish! Read the full story below the pictures.
The full saga:
Day 1: When we arrived on site all this equipment was already set up. Our main task for the day was to drill a pilot hole with the 4″ bit. Unfortunately the primary water pump for the circulation system refused to start. We had to switch to a less powerful pump which left us one pump short for getting water up from the river. No matter, the neighborhood kids helped by hauling one of the remaining pumps back and forth between the river and the two big tanks to keep us supplied with fresh water.
The drill rig works by adding pipe in 5′ sections as the hole gets deeper. Normally in this region the deepest wells go down about 80′-85′. Toward the end of the first day we had reached 120′, drilling mostly through clay with occasional gravel. We had a decision to make. Already behind schedule, our first option was to push down a little farther hoping to find a good gravel layer, and risk losing additional time with nothing to show for it. Our second option was to cut our losses and go back up to the 85′ foot level where we had found a mixed clay & gravel layer. That layer might be able to produce a useable well, but it would at best provide less than optimal flow. We decided to drill another 15′, and 5′ later we hit gravel! A good 8′ or so of clear gravel from that point down gave us a solid water source.
During the day the neighbors fed us lunch on a covered porch and brought us a snack. Those who weren’t working would play with the neighborhood kids who had gathered to watch and to help whenever they could. Getting to know the people, even with a language barrier, was delightful and was a meaningful part of the trip.
Day 2: Normally Day 2 is for widening the pilot hole and inserting the PVC casing. In our case this meant re-drilling the 135′ deep hole twice, once with a 6″ bit and then again with an 8″ bit. Because of the depth of our hole, we had to stop for the day with the big 8″ drill bit all the way down at the bottom. The next steps would have to be done quickly and efficiently.
Day 3: The original schedule called for this to be the day we inserted the actual water pipe, built the concrete pad, and installed the hand pump, but we didn’t even have the casing in yet. We started strong, pulling out the bit, breaking the shaft down in 5′ sections as it came out. We spun the bit as we pulled it up to keep the expansive clay from closing down the hole too much. It was important to get the bit out and all the 20′ sections of casing in before the clay expanded again. By this time we were working smoothly and quickly as a team, and we pulled out all 27 sections the shaft about as fast as it could be done. We quickly inserted the first section of casing, lowered it, latched it in place to keep it from falling to the bottom and ruining the well, glued the next section of casing on, and paused for two minutes for the glue to dry. After almost an hour of focused and fast-paced and movement, the sudden stop seemed like an eternity of suspense. Finally the glue was dry enough to hold and we shoved the casing downward. It stuck! We pushed down on the casing but to no avail, the clay had closed up too fast.
Though we were already behind schedule, there was nothing to do now but to hacksaw the casing, pull out the bottom section, and re-drill the hole again. We were a little discouraged but the team redoubled our efforts with the encouragement (and labor) of the Living Water staff. We sped through another 27 sections of shaft being inserted to drill and then broken down again to withdraw, and started in again on the casings, using a coupling to glue the first two sections where they had been cut. This time we got the second section in, but the third section stuck! We shoved down on the casing, and one of the staff climbed up on top of the drill rig to put push from above. After a couple of moments of hard shoving, the casing broke though! We attached the remaining sections, holding our breath each time we paused for the glue to dry, hoping to make it all the way. And we did! The whole casing was finally in!
By this time it was getting dark, but we couldn’t stop yet. We needed to put a submersible pump down the casing to help flush out the sediment in the bottom of the well overnight. We lowered it down via a rope, making sure to keep pressure off the electrical cord so that it wouldn’t come unplugged from the pump down in the well. We set the pump in place and got it running, and we seemed to be getting a good flow. Seeing the water coming out at a good rate made us feel cheerful, even after a long day and unexpected setbacks. Then, about 20 minutes after we started the pump, it stopped. Nothing was coming out. Another setback! It was well after sunset and the staff made the decision that it was time to call an end to the work day.
By now people were starting to get fatigued, but we hit it hard from the start. We suspected that the pump had been clogged by sediment, but there was no way to know without pulling it out. The weight of the 135′ of pipe full of water plus the small pump itself was almost too much for us to lift, but we managed to pull it up 20′ to disconnect the first section of temporary pipe. Of course, when we unscrewed the pipe all 20′ of water came splashing out on us. This happened every time for the next 6 sections, but at least we had less weight to lift every time. Sure enough, the pump was clogged, so we cleaned it out and lowered it back down again, reattaching each section of the blue PVC pipe. (All this threading and unthreading was done by hand, so wrists and forearms were starting to feel the fatigue.) We lashed the pump in place a few inches higher than the first time and set it running, while we moved on to preparing the actual water pipes and pump mechanism for insertion. We also mixed concrete for the 3 meter square pad that would surround the pump. We also had to do the very dirty and backbreaking job of emptying the muck out of the meter-cubed water circulation pits with a 5-gallon bucket, after which we refilled the pits with clay and dirt. We were told that if we simply tried to fill the soil in on top of the muck, we would have created sink holes that would have been hazardous to anyone walking around on the site. We also set the galvanized well head in place
We stopped to have a pinata party for the local kids. The kids would run in to grab fallen candy while the one with the stick was still swinging! It’s a miracle no one got clocked in the head. The kids also shared the candy they had collected with us, which was very sweet.
By the time all this was done we had clear water flowing out of the pipe. So it was back to work, standing on boards on the still-wet concrete pad. We hauled the sump pump out again, and then started installing the permanent galvanized water pipe we had prepared. At the bottom of the pipe was a plunger, and stainless steel rods were inserted through each section of the pipe to connect the plunger below to the well handle up top. We had to make all these connections without dropping anything down the well. A couple of years ago they had an accident where the pipe was dropped into the well. There was nothing that could be done–they had to abandon the well and start all over the next week drilling a new well. Since then they always have 3 people lowering the pipe with clamps so that there are at least two holding on at all times. We got everything in without incident, and attached the pump mechanism and handle as dusk set in. We were finished! With joyful hearts we joined for the final dedication ceremony in the fading light. The woman who lived in the house next door to the pump worked the handle, and after a moment the first clean pump water came splashing out, to much applause and celebration.
It was time for us to go home, but the Living Water staff make follow-up visits to the well site over days, months, and even years. They check to see how the well is functioning, but also to see how the people of the community are doing. They follow up on the hygiene training that is provided to the local people (part of our team helped with this while the well was being built) and also on the general state of the community. As unforgettable an experience as this was for us, it was truly historic for the people who live there. Many of the children who helped us will be telling the story of this well to their grandchildren.