This article series offers advice for Hand Dug Water Wells and the sanitation and maintenance concerns with this water supply type.This article describes the process of digging a well to provide usable water and the steps taken to make the well safe and sanitary.
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We include both technical advice and a description of the practical problems that one must encounter and overcome in providing usable water in an area where public water supply is absent or limited.
Our home in Colonia Loma Linda is at the top of a hill facing the street, Calle Sierra Nevada. The lot extends to the bottom of the hill, where there’s a predominantly unpaved dirt road which during the rainy season appears more of a stream.
Our photo of our dug well (near completion, at left) shows just how steep the hillside is.
There are tell-tale signs of moisture near the bottom of our hill: trees remain green year round, a bit of river reed (carriso) grows near the bottom of our land; a neighbor has healthy banana trees; and he and another neighbor have wells. Our own fruit trees, further up our hill, have traditionally struggled, I assume in part because of the distance to the water table, and of course because of the stone substratum.
Below perhaps a foot of hard earth, our land is pure rock. We knew this when we bought it, and were able to confirm it as we watched workers digging three retaining walls for the house, by hand, excavating several feet down.
I estimated, based on a conversation with one of the lower neighbors, that if we began digging about ¾ of the way down the hill, we would have to dig a total of about 13 meters in order to reach a sufficient supply of water. The neighbor recommended a diviner / digger. He came by, we told him approximately where we would want to dig, and then he pegged the exact spot using his two lengths of reinforced steel as divining rods. And what if he was wrong? He was pretty old, which did instill a modicum of confidence.
At the time the diviner / well digger’s price seemed high, at 3,500 pesos per meter. We’d never checked around and didn’t have any friends with well-digging experience to guide us. We then spoke to Rogelio, a bricklayer whom we’d known for a few years. He advised us that he knew someone who knew how to dig a well, and that with him (Rogelio) at the helm, we could work out a weekly rate for a small team. We trusted Rogelio, so asked him to coordinate the digging, which he did.
We actually had a choice of having the well dug by hand, or by a company with well-digging machinery. An architect friend advised to go with the former, indicating that a commercial outfit would first seek municipal permission for the digging, which may or may not be forthcoming, and in any event would entail delays; so the best would be to go with a more informal arrangement. And after all, that’s what our neighbors had done – dug their wells by hand, quietly, without fanfare – and no problems with the municipality.
Digging a well by hand, through rock, entails using chisels and mallets, and no more. Some workers use a ladder to descend, while others simply shimmy up and down with the aid of a thick rope.
Beginning the Well Digging Process
Let the Well Digging Begin in Loma Linda, Oaxaca
Shortly after we had moved to Oaxaca, I went to a rare contents sale with a friend, and amongst other things purchased a job lot of nails, chisels, hammers and mallets, figuring that in the course of the balance of my lifetime, some of it would be useful. I had already learned to be much handier around the house than I had been the previous 53 years. Now I had more of the supplies that I used to come across in my father’s garage.
Rogelio, in consultation with the well digger, comprised a list of materials for me to acquire: ropes, a longer ladder, and buckets.
I already had the mallets, and it was just a matter of finding an ironworker (herrero) with the machinery necessary to forge points and flat surfaces on the chisels. I had wrongly assumed that every herrero possessed all such equipment.
Our photo (left) shows at upper center the brick arch that marks the final location selected for our dug well. You can see that this well had to be dug on a steep hillside, and down-hill from the buildings and most of the property where its water would be used.
Digging of our "dug" well began in January, 2008.
I instructed: “Start digging here, where those couple of rocks are lying on the ground; not over there, not over there, it has to be right here, because that’s what the diviner said. Ensure that the diameter all the way down is at least ten centimeters wider than the outside diameter of those rings over there. We have to be able to lower them down.”
Well Digging Schedule - el Pozo
The work week on construction sites for Monday through Friday is traditionally 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an hour for lunch and usually a couple of impromptu short breaks. Payday is every Saturday at 1 – 2 p.m., when workers leave for the weekend. Work proceeded reasonably well for a number of weeks, without incident, although I had already begun to regret the weekly pay arrangement rather than a fixed amount per meter.
It seems as though construction workers will make what they expect they should make, regardless of the arrangement. The difference is that if you pay by the project, or in this case by the meter, you know as best possible what your cost will be. If it’s by the week, you’re at the mercy of your trabjadores and their work ethic.
Paying the Well Crew
Mid-digging we decided to leave Oaxaca for a few days, not anticipating being back until late Saturday or Sunday. Friends were minding the house for us. We gave them the weekly pay for the crew, and asked them to pay the money to the boss (in our mind, clearly Rogelio) on Saturday afternoon.
Our friend gave the money to the wrong person – the well digger, instead of Rogelio who would traditionally take all the money and pay himself and the two workers. The well digger ran away with the money for all three. Upon our return from our brief vacation we learned of what had happened, and while Rogelio knew the well digger and in fact had coordinated with him to work on our job, the scoundrel was nowhere to be found, and certainly not at his home.
It’s not totally uncommon for this kind of thing to happen, right down to the culprit failing to return home, and hiding out elsewhere, often in his village in another part of the state.
We felt bad for Rogelio, and he felt bad for himself, recognizing that the obligation was his to track down the thief, since he had been working for us based on Rogelio’s assurance of his honesty. We suspended work, and never did hear from Rogelio about the outcome, although he has returned to our home to do more traditional bricklayer jobs.
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Mr. Starkman is a retired Toronto attorney who operates the Casa Machaya bed and breakfast in Oaxaca Mexico. Mr. Starkman has written more than 90 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, Mexico, and writes here about well digging from a lay person's perspective. This hand dug well procedure article describes the process of digging a well to provide usable water and the steps taken to make the well safe and sanitary. We include both technical advice and a description of the practical problems that one must encounter and overcome in providing usable water in an area where public water supply is absent or limited. |
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Carlos Soberman, San Miguel de Allendex, Mexico kindly contributed the photograph of flooding during the rainy season in Mexico. Februray 2010.
"Comparison of large and small diameter wells", Natural Resources Management & Environment Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO Corporate Document Repository - Self-Help Wells - see http://www.fao.org/docrep/X5567E/x5567e04.htm
Hand pumps for wells, product sources:
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Typical Shallow Well One Line Jet Pump Installation [ copy on file as /water/Jet_Pump_Grove_Elect_Jet_Pumps_1.pdf ] - , Grove Electric, G&G Electric & Plumbing, 1900 NE 78th St., Suite 101, Vancouver WA 98665 www.grovelectric.com - web search -7/15/2010 original source: http://www.groverelectric.com/howto/38_Typical%20Jet%20Pump%20Installation.pdf
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Water Fact Sheet #3, Using Low-Yielding Wells [ copy on file as /water/Low_Yield_Wells_Penn_State.pdf ] - , Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, Cooperative Extension, School of Forest Resources, web search 07/24/2010, original source: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/XH0002.pdf
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