This June, Future Scientist’s President Richard Novak paid a visit to Panama after seven years since his last trip to the country. The last time he was here was leading a student group, and they did a water storage tank project in the high school in Portobelo. Now seven years later he came back to assess Future Scientist’s expansion up the coast and how the Self-Solving Initiative is taking place in the communities of Costa Arriba. From his arrival on June 21st to his departure on June 26th, our time was filled with meetings with other organizations and amongst ourselves with two other members of Future Scientist that are in Panama, Morgan Hess-Holtz and Amador Goodridge. It was a productive five days of discussion and analysis and it will help to set the tone for our operations for years to come.
On Saturday, less than 12 hours from Richard’s arrival, Morgan, Richard and I began a first tour of meetings in Costa Arriba in the communities of Palenque, Nombre de Dios, and Portobelo. Our meeting in Palenque was with some of the members of the water committee. We talked about the water security of the community and what actions have been taken to ensure water security. We asked them for their ideas on what could be done to better committee administration of the water system as well as the new water well that was constructed by Open Blue. We stressed the importance of stronger collection tactics in order to get the whole community to participate and pay their monthly water bills. This is a local problem that plagues most rural communities in Colón and in other Panamanian provinces. After Palenque we traveled further upcoast to Miramar, the site of a clinic and a future project, and all the way to the end of the paved road in Cuango to get a sense of the communities and local economy. We then made our way back to our next stop, Nombre de Dios.
In Nombre de Dios we met with Aníbal Villacres, my counterpart in the community. With Aníbal we discussed steps we could take in involving the the new government in the water security of the region. We decided with his input that we needed to facilitate dialog among the town and the representatives and mayor of the region, Ministry of Health, and other representatives of local institutions. From there we will organize a discussion of what Nombre de Dios needs with respect to water security and quality, and we will draft a set of goals that could apply to the entire district of Santa Isabel. We hope that together we can mobilize the local politicians and leaders to invest in their communities and inspire the community to advocate for their own benefit in order to create positive and sustainable change in Santa Isabel.
After Nombre de Dios we went back to where it all started: Portobelo. Richard wanted to revisit the school where the storage tank project was done by him and the student group seven years ago. There he was able to reconnect with Wilfredo Aguilar, the original Future Scientist counterpart. They have been friends from when Richard came with the student group to install the storage tanks. It was clear WIlfredo was happy to see Richard and it was nice to see the two old friends reunite. We went to lunch with Wilfredo at a little restaurant not too far from the school. There we discussed future collaboration between the school and Future Scientist. We talked about the upcoming science fair that the older students participate in and ideas on what kind of projects the students could do. The Future Scientist team is brainstorming ideas for the students and we will present them to Wilfredo later on. It will help us reintegrate into the school after a bit of a hiatus extending up coast and having a focus on the local clinics, developing relationships in other communities, and finding other project opportunities in these communities. After we said our goodbyes we made our way back to the city. Richard was finally allowed to rest before the whirlwind meeting tour that would be our Monday and Tuesday. Before that tour we were to have an internal lunch meeting among Amador, Morgan, Richard and myself in order to discuss Future Scientist and the week ahead. It was a productive meeting where we discussed how our Saturday went in Costa Arriba and next steps for the organization. Morgan, Amador, Richard, and I were also able to catch up and get to know one another a little better which was great for group cohesion for the activities to come the following two days.
Our first meeting of our tour was in Open Blue (https://www.openblue.com). We met with Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org) and Javier Visuetti from Open Blue. We discussed the Miramar waste management project, our visit to the compost center at the vocational school, fish waste that Open Blue produces and how we could incorporate that waste into our project in Miramar, and next steps for the Miramar project like securing a location for the waste center. It was great for Richard to meet these key players in this project and get a sense for the direction we wanted to take it. Our next stop was the Technological University of Panama (Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá or UTP) (http://www.utp.ac.pa).
The UTP is one of the more prestigious and demanding schools in Panama. Here I have met professors and students alike that are a part of the engineering department. I have collaborated with them for charlas in Costa Arriba as part of our Agua Colón grant. We want to start including them in projects and are looking for an assistant with an engineering background to aid me in project management in Colón. In UTP we spoke with the dean, Prof. Martin Candenado, in order to formalize the collaboration between the university and Future Scientist. We want to work with students in order to get them into the field to get hands-on experience and develop projects to take their studies further. We will continue to work with the engineering staff and students and later on, once we see that the collaboration is bearing fruit, we will work on formalizing our connection with the university.
The following day we stayed within the City of Knowledge and visited the foundations and organizations within the area. We started the day with an update meeting on the AGUA COLÓN project with the project lead, Dr. Zohre Kurt, at INDICASAT-AIP (http://indicasat.org.pa/home). We discussed what the geographic focus should be for the project, what our next steps in water collection should be, and what kind of data we need to measure impact. Critically, we need aggregated diagnoses of patients who come into the health centers and clinics related to symptoms of waterborne disease. We came to the conclusion that the information that both the Agua Colón project and Future Scientist need this information to measure impact, so we are starting to collect this information and will likely hire a short term contractor to help.
The Agua Colón project is funded by SENACYT (National Secretary of Sciences and Technology) (https://www.senacyt.gob.pa), and we want to continue that collaboration for support of future projects. We met with them to discuss how we can continue to work together and help SENACYT reach students and young people in Colón, a dramatically underserved province of Panama. SENACYT is dedicated to providing academic support to high school and college students with education programs, camps, workshops, and even fully paid trips to study in the United States. They wanted our help to connect with these students in Colón and create a strong line of connection between SENACYT and the Colón youth. An idea was that Future Scientist could act as a mentor to students looking for these types of academic opportunities in order to help them with the necessary requirements in application. SENACYT provides these opportunities to students in order to help them rise out of poverty on their own merit, and they are opportunities that Future Scientist can advertise and support among the youth of Costa Arriba.
Our final destination on the meeting tour and the last meeting we were to have on Richard’s stay in Panama was with an organization called CATHALAC (Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe or Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean) (https://www.cathalac.int). CATHALAC is an organization based on intergovernmental agreements across Latin America. They support the water health of Latin America by providing water analysis and watershed monitoring technologies as well as educational programs to empower communities to take charge in their water health. Our meeting with them served as an introduction between the two of us and we hope to collaborate with them in the future given Future Scientist’s history of providing access to clean water through the Clean Water Initiative (http://www.futurescientist.org/clean-water-access.html).
Richard’s visit was an impetus towards new relationships and project opportunities with organizations that we had been previously unaware of. It was great meeting the people behind these organizations and it is clear that we have similar goals. It is only the beginning of what we hope to be long and fortuitous partnerships. We want to leverage these relationships with these organizations in order to arrive at mutually beneficial collaboration, with the ultimate benefactor being the people of Colón.
I have met many people in the last year working for Future Scientist. I have created community connections, allied with institutional partners, collaborated with community counter-parts, and structured a water health education network among the clinics in Costa Arriba. These connections more often than not bear fruit for future projects and they have always been helpful in taking some weight off the work I have to do and allowing me to turn over the work to the people in Costa Arriba. Several connections I’ve made have begun to bear fruit in the form of a new project, a trash management project for the town of Miramar.
The beginning of the story starts with when I met Javier Visuetti from Open Blue. Open Blue is an organic fish farming company with its farm in Palenque, Costa Arriba, Colón. Its offices are in Panama City. Part of their yearly budget is dedicated to community development for the communities of Santa Isabel, the district that extends from Nombre de Dios to Palmira. Other communities included in this district are Unión Santeña, Viento Frío, Palenque, Miramar, Cuango, Playa Chiquita, and Palmira; to name a few. Some projects they have done with this budget are potable water wells in Viento Frío, Palenque, and Miramar. They hand out scholarships to exceptional students in the area that meet their grade requisites. Thanks to Javier Open Blue has established itself as a positive presence in the communities of Santa Isabel. For 2019 they have a trash management pilot project planned for Miramar. This is where I saw an opportunity to unite Open Blue with a couple other organizations in the area in order to create a pair of local alliances in order to create a project with a higher impact.
I was introduced to Francisco Pizarro when I went on the water source hike in Palenque with Álvaro Salazar, the president of the Palenque water committee. Francisco accompanied us to the source in order to see it for himself. I learned from our conversation on the hike that he works for an organization called Let’s Do It!- Panamá. They are dedicated to the eradication of trash contamination and littering as well as the promotion and education of improved trash management practices. Let’s Do It isn’t the only waste management organization in the area either. Another waste management organization in Costa Arriba is called BlissPanama/Sembrando Cultura. An agent of theirs is Nelson. I met him when I participated in a community clean up in Portobelo and I recognized that he would be another great asset for the waste management project with Open Blue and another great connection in Costa Arriba. Uniting these organizations will be key to the success of the trash project in Miramar.
To date we have had two meetings in order to come together and brainstorm ideas for the trash project. Our brainstorming session was successful in seeing that we are all on the same page as to what exactly is the problem and its causes, and what the consequences have been. We also identified an opportunity for economic incentive for the community members in Miramar. On a national level, the average amount of waste produced in a home is 33% organic. This is from a study done by the Waste Management Authority (Autoridad de Aseo) from a sampling size of 839 homes. Organics make up the highest percentage of trash composition in a home, with plastics following at 17.2% and cardboard at 13.7%. Our idea is to take advantage of this organic waste in order to promote a community composting initiative in order to create rich compost in order to sell. This will create a communal monetary incentive to get involved in the project and create sustainability.
Our next step is to visit a composting company to see exactly how to implement the composting part of the project and train community members in maintaining it. This will ensure sustainability and hopefully provide some sort of steady funding for community projects and needs. We will then pitch our project to the board of directors in Open Blue and the community of Miramar. Once we have the green light we will go to the community in order to organize them and involve them in the project. We want the community involved in the entire creative and implementation process in order to ensure sustainability and long-term involvement on the community’s part. We hope that this project will create a better and cleaner future for the residents of Miramar and future generations of Costa Arriba.
It’s been over a year since I began working for Future Scientist and over a year meeting and collaborating with the people of Colón. In all that time I have become acquainted with the many problems that the Colón population faces in Costa Arriba. Water system infrastructure failures, poor water system administration, mediocre to utter lack of waste management as well as access to waste management services, poverty, substandard medical care and access to health clinics, and lack of economic opportunities are a handful of the problems that communities face in the isolated extremes of Costa Arriba. To the date we have done three project design seminars in three communities: Portobelo, Nombre de Dios, and Palenque. In Portobelo we did it for the high school students and in Nombre de Dios and Palenque we did it for the community members, all in the hopes that they would use the tools and methodologies taught in order to carry out a self proposed project for the betterment of their respective communities. The seminar in Palenque was carried out on April 24th and I had a more intimate group that participated. 5 of the 6 members of the Palenque Water Committee were trained in sustainable project design. It was nice having a smaller dedicated group of adults who were in a position that they volunteered for in order to do projects so I thought they would be the greatest benefactors of a seminar like our design thinking seminar.
Despite the water committee being made up of older adults, they were great participants and were great in the activities. They paid attention, asked questions, and showed enthusiasm in the material. I went through all the subject matter that I have in the design charla so as to not leave anything out for the committee. They responded positively to the activities that are great for breaking up the monotony and creating hands-on connections between the material and its usefulness. Having a smaller more focused group had its advantages in that it allowed me to focus on a specific group of leaders in the community and give them the tools to develop their ideas into tangible projects.
Due to their time in the community and as the acting committee they were able to share a litany of problems that they have seen with the administration of the water system as well as the infrastructural problems that have come up over the history of the aqueduct. The administrative problems reflected on them as they mentioned that there has never been consequences for not paying their monthly water bill so people owe the water committee from months to even years back. This is a huge problem for a water committee if they want to be self-sustainable. If the committee has no funds to use to do projects or maintenance, how will they ever get anything done? This is the vicious cycle I see in these communities where nobody pays their water bill since they figure why pay if the water isn’t the most reliable; then the water committee has no funds in order to improve or repair the system, then the system gets worse and it creates less of an incentive to pay among community members and the cycle just continues to turn and feed itself. The solution they came up with for this problem was to create a better system of consequence for not paying the monthly water bill. The idea was to install valves on the water line to every house so that if the house did not pay there was a valve for which to cut water to their house until they paid. Another solution they came up with was a complete restructuring of the tube network within the town in order to create a better system of distribution and management of water payment defaults among community members. The truth is a lot of these problems and solutions don’t have so much to do with the actual water system rather the social and economic constructs of these communities that causes people to not trust their organizations and neighbors and in the end not pay for things that benefit the entire community and common good instead of the individual.
I am hoping that I can have more interactions with other water committees in Costa Arriba similar to the one I have had with the committee in Palenque. They are a group of genuinely concerned community members who want to see their work through and for the benefit of all, despite the difficulties that are presented. I will continue to work with them and together we will try to implement their solutions and maybe try a few of my own ideas for the betterment of their water system. There are other water committees that are in need of education and I am working on contacting them. We hope for the fruits of education to grow from our efforts with these communties and create a better future for its members.
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.
Sometimes being the only one in the field has its disadvantages. Due to the scope of the work I’m required to cover a large geographical area and it is hard for me to do a lot in a day when I have to be in two places that are far away from one another, or when I have to travel far for a meeting or to give a charla. However that’s when building relationships comes to the forefront of my job. Establishing working relationships within the communities and getting community members to do tasks within the community to advance our projects is fundamental in two ways: 1. It allows me to focus on other tasks trusting that the community is taking charge and 2. This is the goal of all development work, that is to say that the community becomes responsible for their own development. In Peace Corps they said that the ideal situation in development work is to work yourself out of a job. Working with and empowering community members so that they eventually are the ones who do everything is the dream result of any development worker. This is the very definition of sustainable development. This has been the objective of building our network of clinics in Costa Arriba. The fact that the chlorine charla comes from the medical personnel within those communities builds the sense of ownership and personal connection between the clinic and the community. This is important in creating longevity for the educational material and so that it remains in circulation long after we have left the area. The Self-Solving Initiative was born from this idea as well. We hope that people take an interest in solving the problems within their community and this way they take ownership of the solution. The idea is that we are simply there to be a catalyst for change and a guiding hand in any sort of technical or methodological problems they may face in the formation of their solution. We are hoping that our efforts will produce lasting positive changes in the rural communities of Colón.
This month two of our new clinics in Cacique and San Antonio have begun to give chlorine charlas. So far they have reached 63 people from the surrounding area. We have ordered three large banners with the chlorine instructions printed on them to hang in clinics in Costa Arriba so that there is always a visual aid available for both personnel and patients. We are awaiting results from the clinics in La Guaira and Portobelo, but we hope to receive attendance lists soon. This network of clinics has expanded our outreach and assured sustainability of the education and in the long run the health of community members in Costa Arriba, Colón.
On February 6th I met with six community representatives from the Costa Arriba region. The representatives are from the communities of Cuango, Nombre de Dios, Palmira, Palenque, Viento Frío, and Playa Chiquita. This was a chance for me to meet the political figures of these communities and establish a relationship with them for future projects or charlas. Representatives are good sources for organizational and monetary support since they are the ones who manage the community project budgets and are often the ones who hear about their communities’ problems. With them I hope to connect to local water committees in order to give them charlas and train them in problem solving with design thinking and develop solutions together for the potable water systems in their communities. This will also give me a medium through which to broadcast information and data gather from the AGUA COLÓN project with INDICASAT, our Panamanian government partner.
We have begun sampling in Costa Arriba in our project with INDICASAT called AGUA COLÓN. On February 15th I went to gather water samples from three wells in the Santa Isabel district in Colón. The wells belong to the communities of Viento Frío, Palenque, and Miramar. They were all built by a company call Open Blue, which is a organic fish farming business in Colón, Panamá. They built these wells out of a part of their budget which is dedicated to community development of the area. They will be another great ally in community project development, and we hope to collaborate with them in the future. Our sampling trip served as an exploratory trip as well. We got to get a lay of the land and map out an idea of how we want to carry out subsequent trips and how we want to develop the project from sampling to community education and transparency. I have another sampling trip planned for the 13th of March. I will be hiking with a water committee member to the Palenque spring source to examine the aqueduct line and get a sample from the source to test its quality. This will give us a bigger picture of the water situation in Palenque.
As we continue to accelerate as an organization, these relationships we build and maintain will become ever more important and decisive in the success or failure of our projects. Hopefully our work in educating the community members leads to these very members taking ownership of their problems and uniting to come up with solutions on their own. Hopefully no outside influence will be needed to push them in the right direction and they can be left alone to their own devices. This is our goal in Future Scientist and forever will be for all development workers worldwide.