By Rucker Alex and Charlotte D. Smith, Ph.D.
Despite being surrounded — and bisected — by water, Panama struggles to meet its citizens’ water needs in both urban and rural areas. In 2013, 840,000 of the country’s 3.8 million people lacked 24-hour access to water, 600,000 did not have access to a potable supply, and 30,000 relied on tank trucks to deliver drinking water.
Urban regions have experienced significant disruptions to their water supply in recent years. In December 2010, a 15-day rainstorm caused mud from Alajuela Lake to clog purification equipment at a nearby water treatment plant. The resulting shutdown, which lasted for over a month, hampered tap water access for more than a million residents of Panama City.
Even in the absence of 90-year storms, only 56 percent of water samples from the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN), Panama’s urban water and sewer utility, conform to required drinking water standards. In 2013, 49 percent of water under IDAAN’s management was unaccounted for, and more than 20 percent of the population served by IDAAN did not have a 24-hour supply, according to a report from Global Water Intelligence.
Improving drinking water access and quality is a high priority for Panama, and there are several ways UC Berkeley students can lend a hand.
In January 2014, three graduate students accompanied Charlotte Smith from the School of Public Health on an exploratory trip to Panama funded by a USAID–Development Impact Lab “Explore” grant. The purpose of the trip was to establish a collaborative structure for implementing and evaluating community-based water systems with the non-governmental organization Global Brigades. UC Berkeley undergraduates currently participate in week-long brigades and internships with the NGO in Honduras, and the university is interested in establishing a relationship with the Panama group, especially around environmental health and water issues.
Global Brigades is a student-led, nonprofit health and sustainable development organization. Volunteers collaborate with communities in developing countries on sustainable solutions. According to the organization, 6,100 volunteers from over 70 university clubs have traveled to Honduras, Panama, and Ghana to provide health and economic development solutions to more than 350,000 beneficiaries.
UC Berkeley has sent 16 one- to two-week “brigades” to Honduras to work on medical,dental, public health, water, architecture, and microfinance projects, and several students have participated in month-long internships. Volunteers can take an undergrad-led deCal class to prepare and are responsible for fundraising to pay for the flight and approximately $750 in donations to the communities in which they work. Currently Global Brigades Panama doesn’t offer a program focused only on water, though their public health program has hygiene and sanitation components.
Among its projects, Global Brigades works with the village of Platanilla in eastern Panama, where residents complain about water quality. Villagers get untreated water from the river or purchase bottled water. The river water is believed to be responsible for illness in the community, especially among the children. With the help of student volunteers, Global Brigades is planning to assess drinking water system alternatives within the next year or so, and to raise funds to subsidize the construction of a system.
In addition to meeting with the staff at Global Brigades in Panama, we also had meetings with other organizations and individuals in order to assess the context and opportunities for collaboration. These included the Inter-American Development Bank, the Ministry of Health, the Spanish Embassy’s Office of Technical Cooperation, and a charismatic priest from Wisconsin who has been overseeing the construction of community water systems in the eastern province of Panama.
Inter-American Development Bank
The Inter-American Development Bank contributes approximately $200 million annually to Panama’s $500 million water budget. In urban areas, the bank focuses on helping IDAAN with water quality control issues. In rural areas, the bank is investing in centralized water systems and helping to strengthen the effectiveness of the community-based water boards, called Juntas de Agua.
Ministry of Health
The Ministry of Health oversees water quality in Panama and is responsible for water systems for communities with fewer than 1,500 inhabitants. One of the ministry’s current water and health projects, Proyecto de Agua y Sanamiento en Panama (Project for Water and Sanitation in Panama), aims to implement sustainable drinking water and sanitation systems. Rural communities have one or two operators who are repair specialists, and the community compensates them about $20 a week. However, training occurs only at the time the system is installed, so maintenance is problematic. Currently there is little opportunity for additional training for system operation and maintenance personnel.
“Father Wally” Kasuboski
Father Wally Kasuboski, known locally as “Padre Pablo,” arrived in Panama 26 years ago. He soon began working with the community in Tortí to establish its initial water system, helping secure a continuous water supply to residents. Currently, the Canasas Water Project brings potable water to approximately 5,000 people in 14 different villages. According to Father Wally, this project is the largest rural water system in Panama: approximately 65 miles of PVC pipe were buried by hand, and the water tanks hold one million gallons.
Providing water to rural communities is a multi-faceted problem, requiring an understanding of the organizational structure and challenges of public water systems, the obligations of regulatory agencies, and the abilities of non-governmental organizations to aid in building educational and technical capacity. The Development Impact Lab’s Explore grant afforded an opportunity to explore various components of the water sector in Panama.
Opportunities for UC Berkeley Students
- Undergraduate project: participating in Global Brigades Panama Global Health brigade (with focus on water) in summer 2014 or summer 2015
- Undergraduate or master’s project: participating in 21-day internship with Global Brigades Panama in summer 2015
- Master’s project: collecting and evaluating data in Panama (similar to Honduras approach) to measure Global Brigades health impact in Panama
- Master’s or doctoral level research project:
- Optimizing addition of chlorine disinfectant (experiment with timing and quantity) in Tortí
- Fortifying food supply and assessing health impact with Father Wally in Tortí
- Assisting IDB intervention efforts on primary health in indigenous communities. Coordinating public health program, including water access and water quality. Project has already performed two studies relating health outcomes in over 50 communities. Opportunities for collaboration.
- Determining how to improve plant operations and the system of water quality control. Documenting compliance with water quality standards. Need to identify problems, develop action plans, oversee implementation, and train technicians.
- Spatial analysis of water system improvements and health outcomes.
Rucker Alex is a Master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Department, and Charlotte Smith is a lecturer at the School of Public Health in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences.