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Has the Water Arrived Yet?

March 27, 2011

… a question that is asked all too frequently in Chichica, where water only comes once, sometimes twice a day for a few hours at a time.

Every morning someone in the family wakes up when they hear the water spurting out of the faucet and fills 5-gallon buckets and 50-gallon barrels with water for daily use. My current host family has 3 50-gallon barrels for showing, laundry, and cleaning dishes, and several buckets kept separate for cooking. You basically scoop out water using a bowl as you need to wash dishes and laundry on a big, flat rock or concrete platform, and you take bucket baths by scooping water out and pouring it all over yourself, soaping up, and rinsing. The amount of water that they store for a day’s worth of living is probably excessive, but since the aqueduct is so old, it frequently breaks. In that case, those barrels have to last for 2 or 3 days until it is fixed. It is a bigger problem in the dry season, when small creeks that are normally abundant dry up and families have to haul water from a few wells located throughout town.

Photo Caption: Left: The bucket system in my current house. Complete with tub for laundry, concrete platform for washing and rinsing, and bowl for scooping. Right: Bucket system at Lipa’s house.

The aqueduct is going on 30 years old and the water source (a small creek) is not sufficient to meet the needs of Chichica’s 1,200 residents and institutions, including the district municipal building, health center, high school, elementary school, and all the professors and health workers that it takes to staff them. To resolve this, Chichica received an aqueduct project from the national government. About three years ago a group of engineers from the government conducted a study and designed a new aqueduct approximately 5 kilometers away with a larger water source.  Later, a separate government institution built it. The problem is that it never worked. Tubes in the middle of the duct broke a half hour after it was turned on.

The aqueduct committee tried to reach out to both entities to resolve the problem, but the constructor evidently blamed the engineers who did the study for a faulty design, and the engineers blamed the builders for crappy construction. The one certainty is that it is a bad government project that likely saw people scraping off the top of the budget for their own needs.

Photo Caption: A 20,000 gallon tank for the new aqueduct, next to the newly-built bio-sand filter.

Water is not only an issue in Chichica and other Comarca communities that rely on spring wells and rivers, but all throughout Panama as well. My family has a house in a Latino community near the ocean that also only receives water in the afternoon. During our training in Santa Clara, a small community outside of Panama City, we once went 7 days without water. During Christmas time, whole neighborhoods in Panama City were without water for weeks. The major difference is that those communities aren’t able to fetch water from the well since they live in a concrete jungle – another reason why life in the Campo is just a little bit better.

Many of my friends work in the Environmental Health program of Peace Corps and are here in Panama to help resolve these very problems: water and sanitation. As such, I recruited my friends and resident aqueduct experts Chris and Jake to come to Chichica and assess our problem. After a brief meeting with the aqueduct president to debrief the issues, Jake explained “Usually when an aqueduct doesn’t work it is a simple solution that is easy to fix, or a big problem and your totally eff-ed. Chichica is totally eff-ed!”

Greeeeaaattttttt. Fortunately, after going up to the source they saw a little hope, but realized that they would have to conduct another study to understand whether or not it can be fixed. Jake and Chris did, however, conclude that it was a crappy design because the reservoir fills up with sediment and that it was also a crappy construction job because the tubes are the wrong size to adequately resist pressure (thus breaking in the middle). Someone is winning here, but it is definitely not the community.

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