This past month of March I have had the opportunity to get to know and work with the Palenque water committee. It has been a pleasure to get to know them and analyze the problems that they face with their water system and water security. I began the month by having a meeting with them in order to establish our relationship. From there we programmed a hiking trip to the water source of the gravity-fed water system. Since my community meeting with Nombre de Dios about the need to form a JAAR (Administrative Committee for Rural Aqueducts) I have been waiting for them to organize and invite me to the elections. So in the meantime I have been moving up the coast to find other opportunities with other communities and community organizations in order to aid in project development and problem solving. The water committee in Palenque presented itself as a good place to continue for the AGUA COLÓN project as well as our charla efforts for Future Scientist.
El comité y el problema
I have enjoyed meeting and working with the Palenque water committee. They are a group of individuals who are clearly invested in and care about the well being of the potable water in the community. They presented the problems they are facing and which they’d wish to solve. The projects they have in mind are extensive and ambitious. These problems were a complete replacement of the distribution system from the storage tank to each home in the community. They also want to finish the well that was built by Open Blue. They coordinated the construction of a pump house for the pump they are going to install in the well in order to send water to the community. If the well is successful they will have water coming from the aqueduct and the well, which will greatly improve the amount of water available in the community and may even provide 24/7 potable water for community members. I have been collaborating with the committee members and the representative Pablo Salazar in investigating the problem and searching for information on the distribution system which, according to the committee, was installed decades ago by CONADES, a government institution dedicated to improving potable water systems in Panamá. More information will be necessary to tackle this problem and fix the distribution network. The concern that this committee shows for the water situation in Palenque is exemplary among water committees in the region. Many communities have commented to me about the administration problems that plague water committees along the coast but I can clearly see that the Palenque water committee is a dedicated group of individuals who care about the access to potable water for their community and are united in its maintenance and well-being.
Scouting the Line With Álvaro
On March 13th I hiked two hours up to the spring box that collects the water for the gravity fed aqueduct system in Palenque. I was led by the water committee president Álvaro Salazar and we were accompanied by Francisco Pizarro and Enrique Rodríguez, two community members. The hike we went on was a two hour (four hours round trip) trek uphill into the river where they constructed the spring-box for the gravity-fed aqueduct system. Álvaro is a 65 year old man who can still hike with the best of them. When walking with him I often forgot about his age since he is physically able and in great condition. He and a volunteer are the ones who go up every other week to check the spring-box and clean it so that the water flows smoothly from the source to the storage tank to the community. He became president of the committee simply because the previous president stopped showing interest and he stepped up to take on the responsibility. He is retired and he simply does what he does for the water committee because he cares about the community and its well-being. And his leadership shows in the rest of the committee since they are equally invested in their work for Palenque. They are doing the best with what they have but I hope that I can give them more tools to confront their problems with so that they may come up with impactful solutions that last.
We stopped every so often to scout the line to see if there were any repairs needed or breaks where water could have been escaping. All along the line there were holes that had been made to release air pressure so as not to have air bubbles form in the water line. The holes were punched into spots on the line where the line would rise to a hill or high point and then drop again. These are where air bubbles can form and they can block the flow of water to the storage tank. However these holes also allow water to escape and the system loses precious gallons of water by the day, gallons that could be saved if instead of holes they placed air release valves. This was one of my first observations. When we reached the spring box I noticed that the water level of the river where the intake box is located was low. Water was constantly entering the box and the intake pipe but at a slow rate. There is a dam that has been built to funnel the river water to the spring box, but it is clear that summer has dried the river to a slow trickle. Summer hits water sources hard in Panama if the surrounding areas, like trees and vegetation, are not well preserved. If there is a lot of deforestation for cow pastures and farmland, the watershed loses its ability to retain its water supply through the summer dry season. The spring box was also filled with leaves and other debris so we cleaned it out so that the water would flow better and the spring box would fill faster. We cleaned the intake into the system and where the water enters the spring box. After letting the water flow for awhile I took my water sample for AGUA COLÓN and we made our way back down to Palenque. Upon seeing the water system I think that what really can be done to the infrastructure is simple the air release valves instead of the holes in the tubes. This would save countless gallons of water that they lose a day. In Peace Corps we were taught how to make air release valves using PVC pipes and a little rubber ball. I want to pitch this idea to the water committee to see if we could implement it into their water system and could save them a real headache down the road. We will see what future investigations bring up about the network of tubes in the town and how it can be repaired or replaced in order to ensure that the water coming from the source arrives to each household clean and consistently.
Plans for April
My plans for April are to organize a design thinking charla for the Palenque water committee and start extending to Miramar in order to see what opportunities there are for charlas and projects that the community might want to do. I will continue the search for new water sample sites according to what the project coordinator wants for samples.