THE NOBLE MEDIA AGUA
Here’s a little story that tells a lot about the ebb and flow of life. Although it leaves me wondering a bit if there is more ebb than flow, here it is. My Peace Corps group arrived in Bothell, Washington, to begin our orientation for service in Chile, over 40 years ago…July of 1967 to be more precise. About 40 of us were going to work in forestry sector development, and about twenty had been chosen to help a new low-cost housing initiative. We were immediately tasked with designing and building small temporary wooden shelters for the married couples of our group, since the single males (all single members of our group were male) were assigned to live in the close quarters of a dorm-like structure.
Enter the main character of this story…we were instructed to build about a dozen “Media Aguas”. What? In English that would be a dozen “Half Waters”? Well yes. It turns out that the progressive government of Eduardo Frei Montalvo had launched in 1965 a massive program to decrease the housing deficit in Chile, through a comprehensive program that was based upon the concept of a way of life defined by the neighborhood, and was establishing low-cost housing incorporated with schools, health clinics, and sports fields. The basic housing unit was the “Media Agua”, and the method to build them was the self-help approach whereby the beneficiary families were responsible, with government help and oversight, for building the houses.
The Media Agua was a wooden structure, with a door and several windows, about 200 Square feet in size. It didn’t necessarily have running water or a bathroom, since both were provided communally in most cases. Heating for the winter months at that time was provided if at all from a charcoal-burning grill-type heater, the cause of many injuries and deaths over the years from fire and asphyxiation. Electricity could be connected, although it was scarce, and for those who had a connection, an electric table-top burner could be installed for cooking. Lighting and cooking with bottled gas became an alternative to charcoal and electricity over time. Our Peace Corps housing volunteers lived and worked in these very poor, often crime-ridden developments on the outskirts of Santiago and other secondary cities, working closely with the community leaders and working side-by-side with the residents as they constructed their new communities. For most of these people, the Media Agua was an improvement over their previous home.
But back in 1967, as we arrived in Bothell to begin our Peace Corps service, not one of the incoming housing volunteers had even heard of a Media Agua, much less built one. Hence, their need to be familiar with this construction, coupled with the need for more private housing for the married couples in our group, they learned by doing, and designed and built a dozen Media Aguas. Over their two and in some cases three or more years of service, these Peace Corps Volunteers were part of a huge movement that resulted in greatly improved housing for tens of thousands of very poor Chileans.
But over the years, Chile developed and expectations grew significantly, to the point in the 1990s and early 2000s that the communities providing the wooden Media Aguas became the housing option of last resort for the poorest, least educated, sector of urban Chile, and the Media Agua was seen as a symbol of a level of poverty that Chile intended to eradicate once and for all. To wit, Michelle Bachelet declared in 2006, when she became President, that Chile would no longer be “A country of Media Aguas”. And as she and her administration approached the end of their term in early 2010, they were well on their way to making that the reality, as many newer, more adequate models of low-cost housing were springing up the length of the country on the outskirts of small, medium and large urban centers. The Media Agua was becoming history.
But, as the wheel of fortune turned down on Chile in late February, the massive earthquake that struck the south central part of the country unfortunately brought the Media Agua back on center stage. Close to 400 thousand were left homeless by the quake and the subsequent tsunami, just a month or two before the rainy, colder winter weather would set in, and massive emergency housing was needed. The estimate was that at least 40,000 temporary housing units (mostly Media Aguas) would be needed. Over time, the Media Agua had gone through model changes, but is essentially the same as our Peace Corps Volunteers and their Chilean counterparts worked with in the late 1960s. Humanitarian relief agencies, like the Hogar de Cristo’s “Un Techo Para Chile” relies heavily on the media agua model to provide housing through out Chile, but especially now for the 20,000 unit commitment they have made in the Bio Bio and Maule Regions for those affected by the earthquake.
As a temporary shelter, the Media Agua will provide many families who lost everything in the tragic earthquake, with a roof over their heads this winter. Chile produces in excess softwood construction lumber (mostly fast-growing radiate pine) highly appropriate for the construction of Media Aguas, and much of this production is centered in or near the affected Bio Bio and Maule regions. This facilitates timely, economical provision of large amounts of housing. An interesting sidebar to this story about housing is that many of the forestry Peace Corp volunteers who helped build those dozen Media Aguas in Bothel, Washington in 1967, served in the Bio Bio and Maule Regions, promoting the massive reforestation efforts which 40 years later are paying of with raw material for the provision of emergency wooden housing to earthquake victims.
However, Chile has grown a lot over the past 40 years, since our Peace Corps Volunteers helped build communities of this type of housing. Chilean’s expectations regarding housing are, rightfully so, a lot higher now, and the Media Agua is not acceptable as permanent housing for most, if not all, Chileans. Some communities in the aftermath of the disaster have even rejected the “gift” of this housing in disaster relief efforts, for fear that this will be all they see from the relief effort, in which case they would be stuck in housing in many cases inferior to what they had prior to the earthquake. The housing that in the 1960s was touted as an improvement in living conditions is now seen as an inferior mode of living. Meanwhile, engineers, architects, and builders are modifying the basic Media Agua model. In the long run, they will surely produce satisfactory wooden houses, probably combined with brick and cement that will become the norm for modest housing, replacing the outgrown Media Agua and the traditional adobe construction that failed so extensively in the earthquake.
So the noble Media Agua, that we Peace Corps volunteers were introduced to in Bothel, Washington, in 1967, again comes to the rescue of a population of poor Chileans in need of a roof over their heads, it will serve its purpose and again (soon, hopefully) give way again to better housing more consistent with the aspirations and means of present-day, modern Chile.
Well done, Media Agua, Chile owes you a big debt of gratitude.
Written in McLean, Virginia, on May 25, 2010.