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Chemist aims to make safe water flow in Guatemala

A chemist's effort to ensure people have safe drinking water flows thousands of miles beyond his Provo Department of Water Resources laboratory to a remote mountain village in Guatemala.

Michael W. Scheetz will make his third 10-day trip to Xalibe in the Cloud Forest region this December to complete a project that delivers clean water to 18 families who currently share a roadside spring with cows, chickens and dogs.All but one of the families in the isolated Mayan village have lost an infant to sickness. Five children died in one family.

"Most of them are attributable to easily preventable, water-borne diseases," said Scheetz, director of Provo's water quality laboratory.

An estimated 35,000 people in less-developed countries die each day from diarrheal diseases and illnesses associated with unsafe drinking water and other water-related problems, according to Water For People. Diarrheal diseases alone are linked to the deaths of 6 million children annually.

"There are still people in the world who don't have drinkable water," he said. "We take it for granted. We turn on the tap and fill a glass without thinking about all that goes into making clean drinking water."

Scheetz is on the Intermountain section committee of Denver-based Water For People, a nonprofit organization affiliated with American Water Works Association. Merril Bingham, Provo public works director, helped form the group in 1991.

"It took some time to get off the ground, but it's really going right now," Bingham said.

Water For People provides technical know-how, financial assistance and education about safe drinking water and sanitation for mostly tiny villages in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It currently has about 200 projects worldwide under way.

Scheetz joined the organization after reading a newspaper article about a water project in Bolivia, a country in which he served an LDS Church mission. The article boasted about a water treatment plant in a town outside La Paz having one-third of its samples pass a bacteria test.

The horrendous percentage kindled a desire within Scheetz to help. "This is the first time I really felt strongly about something," he said.

Scheetz ventured to Xalibe, a rough, up-and-down 10-hour bus ride from Guatemala City, in April with a medical and dental team assembled by CHOICE or Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Cultural Inter-Exchange based in Salt Lake City. While doctors and dentists examined villagers all day, Scheetz worked out with local leaders a way to convey water directly to their homes and school.

Village leaders settled on a building a 2-meter-by-2-meter cinder-block water storage tank on a hillside above their houses. Scheetz returned to Xalibe in August, this time accompanying a CHOICE expedition of Weber State University nursing instructors and students, to build the tank.

The students taught villagers how to brush their teeth and the importance of frequent hand washing.

Scheetz admires doctors who travel to faraway villages to provide medical care such as repairing cleft pallets or providing eye glasses. But, he said, those humanitarian gifts help only one person.

"If you can fix a water system, you have affected everybody's life for generations," he said.

In December, Scheetz will help the impoverished village run a plastic pipeline from a spring to the water tank and from the tank to the houses and school. Although he offered to install brass spigots in the houses, the villagers don't want them. They don't have parts available to fix the taps should they fail. They intend to cram wooden plugs into the end of the pipes.

"That way if the plug breaks, they just take out a machete and cut another plug," he said.

Scheetz has no problem with that because villagers will have clean, fresh water delivered right to their homes. "Hopefully," he said, "people will be a lot healthier."