A Community Approach to Safe Water
Nicky Lopez, IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Puerto Rico, on how IsraAID’s team is partnering with the community to transform the fortunes of one rural village. I realized pretty quickly that the sun shines down stronger in the mountains of Patillas than it does in coastal San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. All throughout the bustling streets of the city, there are shops selling refreshing drinks that are cool to the touch, popsicles and icy coconut beverages. But in the small town of Barrio Real, Patillas, such luxuries are few and far between. In fact, in Barrio Real, even a glass of water can seem unattainable.
Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities. The municipality of Patillas is nestled in the southeast region. Here there are roughly 12 independent communal water systems that exist outside of the public water company, PRASA (Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority). These systems are frequently located in remote rural areas that rely on both surface water and groundwater for their supply.
On September 16th, 2017, Hurricane Maria became a category 5 storm that tore through the Caribbean. Lydia Rodriguez, a 61-year old retired history teacher and Barrio Real resident, commented that the likes of Maria was “never seen before on the island.” It is estimated that the total damage is more than $90 billion and it is considered the costliest storm in Puerto Rican history.
For communities outside of the PRASA network, many of which had already faced financial struggles, Maria was the cause of long-term problems. Many had limited or no access to the electricity needed to run local water systems; with Barrio Real, it took up to 8 months to restore power. At times, the cost of maintaining generators and the diesel to run them has been too great, and, with communities unable to shoulder the financial burden, they have been left without access to safe drinking water.
In Barrio Real, IsraAID has focused its efforts on constructing a new water filtration system, together with the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, and working with the community to support water quality education. The new system will be solely powered by gravity, negating the need for electricity, and have four separate sand filtration tanks. The EPA identified Barrio Real as an in-need community with approximately 250 families. Community members have noted that they have been taking water straight from unsafe natural water sources and rainwater.
Over the past month of July, IsraAID has been celebrating Water Quality Month. Every Sunday, our team of 16 IsraAID staff, volunteers and fellows have been heading down to Barrio Real to conduct door-to-door water education workshops.
Construction of the new gravitational water filter is under way.
The workshop tackles water-borne diseases and how to prevent them, and addresses common misconceptions about the water purification process. It has proven to be extremely useful in raising awareness of health risks associated with unfiltered water.
IsraAID, through community outreach and mobilization, has involved community members in discussion and is engaging the community to celebrate the importance of safe water. Soon enough, safe drinking water will no longer be a luxury in Barrio Real. And that makes all the difference.
The IsraAID Humanitarian Fellowship is an annual program offering 14 students from colleges across the United States a two month internship in one of IsraAID’s humanitarian aid and development programs around the world. The fellowship is supported by the Schusterman Foundation and the Koret Foundation.
Nicky Lopez studies Political Science, with a minor in Human Rights and Spanish, at San Jose State University and is an IsraAID humanitarian fellow in Puerto Rico. She is from Sunnyvale, California.