Surveying the damage after Hurricane Maria, the well area was covered by three to four feet of rocks, gravel and pebbles.
RCAP Solutions and Water Mission Join Efforts After Hurricane María to Bring Clean Water to Rural Communities
By Edwin Vazquez-Asencio, Sustainable Materials Management Specialist, RCAP Solutions
San Diego is a small community located in the hills of Coamo, Puerto Rico. With the assistance of RCAP Solutions, the community was in the process of developing their official public drinking water system to provide potable water to their residents. They have been providing water to community members for a long time, but not under the official status of a public water system. Because of this, the water quality has not been regulated for many years. The PR Department of Health, in coordination with Environmental Protection Agency, referred this system to RCAP Solutions to help guide them through the process of developing an official and more reliable system.
The community, with a small donation from the municipal government, drilled a well despite the topography challenges of the area. Their economic restrictions and a lack of technical assistance at the time of construction caused them to place the well between a ditch and a pluvial discharging area. When RCAP Solutions evaluated the situation, we taught the community about the elevated risk of losing the well in its current location and the immediate negative effects that they might face if a heavy rain event occurs.
RCAP provided assistance to help them chlorinate the water and become compliant with the required test schedules. As the system began making positive changes, the catastrophic hurricanes hit Puerto Rico; and Coamo was devastated, along with most rural areas on the island. Hurricane Irma brought rain and landslides to the area, leaving them without communication and in terrible condition. A week later, Hurricane Maria, considered the worst storm in the history of Puerto Rico, took out what little was left. The community lost their well and part of their distribution system. The well area was covered by three to four feet of rocks, gravel and pebbles.
“Everything occurred as you said,” commented Alex Mendez, Community Board President of the situation. “I couldn’t believe this disaster when I saw it, but I remember your words and what you said to us. [The well failed] exactly as you predicted!”
But the challenges are more than predicted because it was not an isolated, local disaster. The islands main power grid was destroyed, and consequently, there is no electric power in the town and the estimated time for recovery is more than four months. The community was able to get the old system online with a superficial water source; a small storage tank and gravity-fed distribution, but without any kind of filtration, disinfection or water quality testing. This was the only choice they had to continue water service for their residents.
After our assessment of the situation, San Diego was instructed to inform the community members about the change of source, the absence of treatment, and the need to boil the water before using it.
In our efforts to provide alternatives to the community, RCAP Solutions contacted Water Mission (WM), a faith-based not for profit organization that seeks to ensure safe drinking water access across the globe. RCAP coordinated a site visit to perform a second assessment with the WM staff engineer, Michael Steele and water samples were taken to determine the kind of treatment needed based on available technical and financial resources. This would allow the team to determine the best course of action and decide whether point of use filters were an option for the community.
Edwin Vazquez-Asencio teaching community members how to use Kohler Water Clarifiers provided by Water Mission and the importance of essential sanitary procedures.
RCAP coordinated the delivery of a Kohler Clarifier provided by Water Mission, an effective filtration system that can purify drinking water without electricity. Created in collaboration with World Vision, iDE, and WM, the Kohler Clarifier filter eliminates over 99% of contaminants.
RCAP Solutions staff, Edwin Vázquez-Asencio, coordinated the assistance and taught the community how to use the equipment including a brief workshop about disinfection and how it provides safe drinking water to the community. He was also able to distribute Aquatabs to the community for additional water disinfection after the filtration process, thanks to the Puerto Rico Department of Health
The Water Mission staff has provided meaningful assistance with many RCAP Solutions supported communities, resulting in a very fruitful partnership. After WM’s intervention during the emergency phase, they are counting on RCAP Solutions support to follow up and assist with the long-term recovery process of these small public systems. As a result, the residents of San Diego have filtered water and are less vulnerable to diseases related to the consumption of untreated water.
This unfortunate disaster has presented an opportunity for this community. For many years, the community as a whole has participated minimally in the administration of the water system, but this crisis has forced them to become better educated about their drinking water and will create a willingness to become more involved in the future.
Finally, the RCAP Solutions TAP is also working with the community in the search for their missing well casing and the recovery of the well pump. They are working hard to recover what was lost and rebuild their community and their water system. RCAP Solutions will guide them every step of the way, to maximize limited resources and ensure the best possible results.