Barrio Mio Transforms Vulnerable Neighborhoods in Guatemala

This story was originally published in USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean September 2016 newsletter, highlighting PCI’s “Barrio Mio” project in Guatemala. 

Today the world is celebrating International Day for Disaster Reduction, a day to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction and to recognize how communities are reducing their exposure to disasters.

In many countries where PCI works, even small shocks and stresses can have devastating and long-term effects on families – their health, safety, livelihoods, access to clean water and sanitation, food and housing. With USAID/OFDA support, PCI developed an urban disaster risk reduction (DRR) model that is helping transform vulnerable neighborhoods in Guatemala City into resilient, safe and healthy communities.

The first phase of the project, named “Barrio Mio,” which means “My Neighborhood,” was successfully implemented from 2012 to 2015 in two neighborhoods of Mixco Municipality, a densely populated urban area located on a hillside at risk of landslides, flooding and earthquakes. In this phase, the project upgraded communities’ water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems, developed rainwater drainage infrastructure, improved stairways and emergency evacuation routes, engineered retaining walls, and reinforced housing structures through a cost-effective process that featured the active participation of the beneficiary communities and the collaboration of public, private and academic actors.

The planning processes, activities and lessons learned from these model communities were systematized through a series of guidelines and manuals that have been shared with key municipal and national authorities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region.

José Murguia, PCI Barrio Mio Project Director, said, “We aimed to model a project that could help reduce disaster risk in hazard-prone urban settings by improving settlements, WASH systems and livelihoods. It is important for PCI to promote the replication of this project in other vulnerable communities of the region. According to recent research conducted in the metropolitan area of Guatemala City, more than 300 communities live under similar conditions as El Cambray Dos village, where heavy rains triggered a major landslide in October 2015, killing at least 280 people and leaving more than a hundred families homeless.”

Eduardo Paiz, PCI DRR Specialist, commented that one of the most innovative elements of the project is the water treatment plant, which removes impurities from wastewater so that it can be discharged into the environment. The treatment plant was specially tailored to the steep slopes of the area and uses a low-cost biological process that works with the force of gravity, requiring no electricity. Before this innovation, untreated wastewater collected in the streets and flowed into a nearby river, creating health and mudslide risks.

Rosalba Ayala, a community leader and beneficiary of the Barrio Mio project, said, “We are very grateful to USAID/OFDA and PCI for helping us to develop a safe neighborhood. Previously, in the rainy season, it was hard to walk through our streets as they were always muddy and our houses were frequently flooded.”

Rosalba, who is also a mother of six children and a food vendor, added, “This project empowered our community, as we had to organize and work together to rebuild our neighborhood infrastructure. We started with a group of ten women, who helped motivate other neighbors to join what we called the “ant plan” because we worked in rows, hauling down sandbags, pipes and other materials. Our kids also wanted to be part of the project, so we gave them small jobs to contribute.”

Julia León, another community leader, commented that it was very exciting to see more than 90 neighbors working together, sometimes until midnight.

“We all put our hearts and souls into this project, and we had to do it all by hand, as our streets are too narrow to allow construction machinery to enter. We dug a tunnel at least two meters deep and 700 meters long, where we installed the WASH system and rainwater drains,” said Julia.

Julia added that one of the most memorable days of the project was when they were able to pull down the steep slope a huge tank for the wastewater treatment plant, equipment that they never imagined having in their neighborhood.

José shared, “Women’s involvement was essential to the project’s success, as they had more time and willingness to work on a community project. It was also very important to partner with national and municipal government agencies, as they can continue to replicate the initiative throughout the country. In fact, the Mixco municipal government already has replicated the project in 15 communities, and they are currently working with other neighborhoods where the same needs exist.”


By Irene Gago, USAID OFDA/LAC Communications Officer