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.


mayalibre said...

Wael, I'm not a water treatment engineer but my instincts tell me that the first thing those people need is some simple filtration systems, screening out small microns and microbials, so that their rainwater could still be used. That would be a survival move. Then the only thing I can think of is, if the utility is concerned about its "coverage", perhaps the village residents could volunteer to do the work to extend the coverage to their area, and vow to maintain their own systems. Like a sweat-equity deal. The utility gets an extension, and the villagers get, not only water, but an education in what it takes to bring water to an area and keep it flowing.

Good, basic filters (solid compressed charcoal with additional bio-filtration mesh) are probably between $100-300. For the immediate need someone could fundraise enough to buy one or two for the village. It wouldn't be enough to bathe them, but it would be enough to let them drink and not get sick until further help is arranged.

Ask the Red Cross as well.

Lynda said...

Wael, thanks so much for visiting my blog all the way over in Africa, & for all your comments !
Bye for now
Lynda, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania