Sunday, January 25, 2009

Panama's Promised Land - Without Water

There's an article on the University of Miami School of Communications website about a little town called La Tierra Prometida - the promised land - about 30 minutes outside of Panama City. It sounds like it might be in the direction of Darien. It's a village of 500 people with no water. Their situation is rather desperate. People, especially children, fall ill constantly to diarrhea and fever from drinking fouled water.

Please read the article and the accompanying video. I want to know what can be done about this situation. Those of you with experience in such maters, please comment.

Here is the article in full:

La Tierra Prometida: Panama’s waterless Promised Land

By Andrew Donovan & Natalia Vanegas


Tucked away among the rolling hills of Panama’s impoverished Sector C countryside rests a small and secluded village known as La Tierra Prometida. Just a 30-minute drive from the sultry skyline of Panama’s thriving cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, La Tierra Prometida – translated means “The Promised Land” in English – represents a far different world than that of the country’s well-known capital city.

Rotting wood and rusting scrap metal adorn the small, dirt-floor shacks that line the rocky and winding dirt roads of this seemingly forgotten shantytown in southern Panama.

However, this represents only part of the cruel irony of the place called The Promised Land. The approximately 500 men, women and children who inhabit the close-knit community of La Tierra Prometida live most of their days without running water.

Water only flows through the village’s pipes once every three to six months and the government car that brings water during the dry times only comes every eight days, if at all, resident Maritza Correa said. Even when the car does show up, that water lasts only two or three days before it becomes contaminated and unusable.

Without the proper means to store and conserve the transported water and without a dependable supply of fresh water from the pipes, citizens of La Tierra Prometida have done their best to cope, but continue to endure unending problems.

Residents collect rain water in large barrels for drinking, taking showers and washing clothes, but due to changing climates and insufficient storage procedures, this water source is not reliable and undrinkable.

“During the winter, we have fewer problems, but during the summer, sometimes it doesn’t rain,” Correa said. “And even when it does rain, the water only lasts two or three days before it starts to smell bad. This has affected the kids. It gives them diarrhea, vomiting and fever.”

Hoping to prolong the water’s useful life, one resident added Clorox to the rainwater, hoping to clear up the black residue that had accumulated at the bottom of the barrel. The residue cleared, but the resident, Clara Santos, was left with rashes throughout her body after bathing in the improperly-treated water. “Look at me how I am,” Santos said, painfully revealing several scars spread across her forearms.

Like the rest of the people of La Tierra Prometida, Santos is fed up with the waterless conditions.

“For a whole week, my grandson had a fever and diarrhea, and he was vomiting,” she said. “There are no more options. The water from the rain is making us sick.”

“When there is no water from the water car, from the pipes, from anywhere,” Correa said. “We have to go to the stream to shower. The stream is in the woods and there could be snakes or other animals. That’s dangerous. Aside from that, there are people with bad intentions living in the woods. They can take a girl and take advantage of her,” she added.

From the car, to rain water, to the streams, Correa said the people of La Tierra Prometida have tried tirelessly to come up with a solution, but have yet to find one. “I have been living here for seven years and the problem is still not over,” she said angrily. “We have tried in everyway to solve this issue, but they haven’t solved our water situation.”

“They,” according to Correa, is the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN), the country’s national aqueducts and sewage institute.

“We’ve ask the IDAAN to do something about it, but they haven’t solved our problem,” Correa said.

Their pleas to the IDAAN – the country’s water distributor – have gone unanswered other than the time some of the villagers banded together in protest, creating a human roadblock on a nearby street.

“When we did that, we got water,” Correa said. “And what does that tell us? That tells us that there is water available because the day we closed the street, the engineer from the IDAAN came here and the next day we had water, and a lot of it.”
But, within days, the village’s pipes were again dry, leading Correa and other residents to believe their situation is the result of a lack of compassion and competence on the part of the IDAAN rather than an issue of supply.

IDAAN officials do not deny the accusations of the village’s residents. However, officials say they have no foreseeable solution to the problem and they do not know when running water will be consistently available to the area. “The people that live in the metropolitan area have different conditions of service of potable water,” IDAAN official Catalina de Guema said.

“There are zones in the city of Panama that always have the flow of water. “There are other zones that have it sporadically.” La Tierra Prometida is located in one of those zones and its lack of water is due to the nature of its establishment said fellow IDAAN official Julio Cefar.

”Those are zones that were not planned and the communities are growing without the government being able to keep up,” Cefar said. “Because of that, we cannot always cover those areas with water.

“Despite that, I believe we have one of the major coverage areas of potable water based on population in all of Latin America,” Cefar said. “That’s what the statistics say.”

But, it’s not the statistics that matter to the people of La Tierra Prometida. “They always tell us to wait and it seems that we are going to stay waiting,” Santos said. “Nobody listens to us or comes here to see the situation. We’re totally abandoned.”

Here is an accompanying video::

VIDEO: Tierra Prometida: Panama's Waterless Promised Land

And here is a blog post about it by one of the university students:

Panama Day 3: Harsh Reality

Why is the rainwater undrinkable? Why does it go bad so quickly? What storage solutions can be implemented so that rainwater can be cached safely for longer periods of time?

Comments please.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living in the Past, Living in the Future

Living in the Past

I have an American friend in Panama who seems to dwell in the past more than the present. He grew up in the Bahamas in the 1970's, a particularly carefree place, and his walls are covered with photographs of the days when he flew high in many ways - he was a surfer and a pilot, but also a drug and alcohol abuser and lived in what was essentially a commune. Someone in his life was a painter and he has several of her paintings on his walls, most of them depicting idyllic scenes of the Bahamas: a curving beach lined with palm trees, the water lapping at the shore.

He began to lose his vision in his late teens. It was a progressive condition with no cure. He sobered up and became a drug and alcohol counselor. He can still see, but not well.

His life is very different now. He has been sober for fourteen years, he is divorced, and he lives alone in a comfortable house in the Panama countryside.

He speaks of the past often, and when I visit we frequently end up talking about one of the photographs on his walls or in his albums: him sitting on the stoop of a ramshackle house with a big German shepherd dog on his lap; standing next to a small airplane, wearing shorts and a tank top; sitting in a bar with his arm around Count Basie, a famous jazz pianist who died in the 1980's.

This friend of mine becomes easily discouraged when things don't go his way here in Panama. He doesn't have a clear idea of what he wants from Panama, aside from a comfortable, peaceful place to spend his days (which would certainly be enough for many people, but is not enough for my friend); and I wonder if his inability to visualize his future is what causes him to turn to the past for comfort. Sometimes I think that the loss of his sight is responsible: that in losing the ability to see the beauty around him, he is forced to detour in his mind into the past, where everything is as bold and bright, and pleasantly nostalgic as he wants it to be. Herb Caen, who for many decades wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle before he passed away, said half-jokingly that he tended to live in the past because most of his life was there. I wonder if my friend believes this as well.

The Unreality of Linear Time

What is the past, anyway? Sure, there are physical remains of the past all around us, such as volumes of ancient books under glass in museums, or the bricks of the pyramids, or the bones of a dinosuar embedded in the earth. But those things exist in the present. What happened to the past? Where did it go?

Nowhere, according to modern physics. Einstein believed that the disctinction between past, present and future was an illusion, and that all exist simultaneously. It's only we humans who are limited to our linear reality and our moment-by-moment perceptions.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said in what Muslims call a "hadith Qudsi," or a statement in which the Prophet is narrating a statement of Allah that is not a part of the Quran:

"Allah said, 'Sons of Adam inveigh against [the vicissitudes of] Time, but I am Time, in My hand is the night and the day.'"

So if God himself is time, and He is eternal, existing in all times and all places, then time must also be unconfined by our incredibly limited linear perspective.

I find it interesting, by the way, how much of modern quantum physics echoes and confirms religious concepts expressed in the Quran.

Coming to Terms With My Personal Past

But I'm thinking more of my personal past, or yours: my childhood, my pains and joys, my humiliations and victories. Are they just chemical markers in my brain, perhaps remembered wrongly, or do they exist? What am I supposed to do with this past, how am I supposed to use it?

You see, I don't have quite as comfortable a relationship with my past as my friend.

I know that I need to come to terms with my past. I have a vast and motley assortment of memories colored with regret, shame, confusion, and yes some happy memories as well but they are widely spaced lights on a dark road.

Virginia Woolf wrote, "Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title."

This not to say that I have no worries about the future or that I am supremely confident. But I am strong. I always have been. Watch me wrap my knees and get under a 450 lb. bar on a squat rack. I'm strong, mind and body. I can take whatever the future might throw at me (but that's not a challenge, God)! I can ride it, bust through it, go around it, tunnel under it. I'm strong.

What I want is not to be free of any ill that might befall me, but to conduct myself well. I want to do the right thing and have no regrets. And that's the thing about the past you see, that there are times when I did the wrong thing, and there's nothing I can do about it now.

Like the time, many years ago, that I was walking along Seventh Street in San Francisco with Laura, only a block from our building. We were probably on our way back from the Brainwash Cafe or some SOMA restaurant, I don't recall. Seventh street is a sketchy neighborhood, especially at night. Lots of drug dealers, homeless folks and nutcases. We were coming up to Market Street from Mission, when across the street in the dark mouth of Natoma alley we noticed three men beating and kicking a man who was on the ground. Laura said, "What should we do?"

I could see that this was not a case of some innocent tourist getting robbed. All the men involved looked like thugs. I didn't feel like running over there and getting stabbed or shot. So I said, "Leave it alone, we'll call the cops from the apartment." We kept on walking.

This was not the right thing to do, and I knew that even then. At the very least I could have shouted from my side of the street, or hollered for the cops. Maybe the three men would have run off. I could say that I was thinking of Laura's safety, but the truth is, I was just afraid to intervene.

There are other examples in which my behavior was less understandable or rational, and I don't particularly feel like discussing them. Suffice it to say that I have caused pain to others deliberately and inadvertently, and now that I am older, calmer, wiser, more understanding of other peoples' behavior, and more in touch my own soul, I regret many of the choices I made when I was young.

I can't go back and re-do any of it. I just have to live with the regret. All my strength and courage in the face of the future seems to avail me nothing when thinking of the past.

I know the AA folks say that regret for the past is a waste of spirit. And I believe that. In spite of this post I don't sit around crying over the past. I mostly just avoid thinking about it. And that's exactly my point. I wish I didn't have to do that. I wish I had a better relationship with my own past and could allow myself to experience it, relish the bright parts, laugh over the stupid mistakes, and remember the day to day pleasures. But in fact my memory of the past is very poor, perhaps because I avoid it. I find that when I meet old friends and they tell stories of things we have done together in the past, I rarely remember. I rely on them to be my memory, in a since, which is rather pitiful for someone who hasn't been in a coma or car accident.

I acknowledge that some of the problem may not be my actions themselves, but the way that I veiw them. My life in Panama was full of small joys and happy days, but now that I am back in the USA even that has become tinged with sadness.

Living in the Future

Perhaps because my past is a closed book of regrets, I focus on the future, almost obsessively so. Unlike my friend in Panama, my vision of the future burns like lasers. I am constantly thinking, planning, dreaming. I have bright dreams and no shortage of self-confidence. I am willing to take risks. I try to expand my horizons every day. I try to challenge myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I take tremendous pleasure in parenting my daughter Salma, though she does run me down sometimes like an Energizer bunny on its last legs. I'm a person of faith. I believe in God, the essential goodness of the world, myself, and the people I love.

Still, I need to find a way to come to terms with my past and even find joy in it. Focusing exclusively on the future is like driving a car and never looking in the rear view mirror. There are times when you really need to know what's coming up behind you, for your own safety. I'd like to remember my past better. It's been said that past is prologue, and I'd like to have a clearer insight into my own early chapters. I don't know how to go about this.

Any ideas? And please, don't just say, "Get over it." Give me something real to work with, ha ha. Share your insights, I am open to them.