by Sami Kinnunen
What can be done to increase access to affordable potable water in Puerto Rico in the event of another natural disaster?
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and completely destroyed the islands electrical system. Many people, including myself, didn’t realize how much we rely on electricity for all of our daily needs. Without power the water and wastewater treatment plants were completely shut down. Communities were without running water anywhere from two weeks to ten months. Puerto Rican officials claimed that water service on the U.S. island had been restored to 96 percent of customers as of June 6, 2018, but outside of cities, service has been slower to be reconnect. Flow is often intermittent and the water quality is uncertain. But even before Hurricane Maria utilities were deteriorating and not reaching all of the population. Over the course of our study abroad experience I researched the operation of the existing water infrastructure, the causes and impacts of water scarcity post Hurricane Maria, and potential innovations that would allow Puerto Rican communities to be sustained in the event of another natural disaster.
Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) owns and operates the island-wide public water and wastewater systems. Over 97 percent of Puerto Rico's population is served by the PRASA's water system, and approximately 55 percent of the population receives services from the PRASA's wastewater system. PRASA is the only entity authorized to conduct such business in Puerto Rico, effectively making it a government monopoly. With one central utility there is no competition for quality of service or expenses causing a steady disinvestment in the pipes, pumping stations and treatment plants. Puerto Rico has registered more drinking water violations than any other state or territory in the United States, as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported in the spring of 2017. According to data analyzed by the environmental group, close to 70 percent of the island’s population gets its water from sources in violation of federal health standards for drinking water. Of the water that is treated through PRASA plants, 60% is lost through leaks in underground piping, in comparison to 12% when compared to the industry average in the United States. There were already many issues with Puerto Rico’s water supply but this was only exacerbated with the coming of Hurricane Maria.
It is estimated that 76,000 Puerto Rico residents in over 200 communities across the island rely on drinking water sources from pumps, wells and surface water that are not supplied by PRASA. Approximately 237 of these small systems, commonly known as non-PRASA drinking water systems, provide drinking water to approximately three percent of the population of Puerto Rico. A large majority of these citizens live in the central mountain range and must use off grid systems as PRASA is not willing to install pipes to villages with low population density. These communities must either apply to have their own water supply or travel everyday to somewhere that does. Applying for a permit to operate an independent water system takes a long time to obtain government approval. Once a community has approval they need to find funding for pumping station, disinfection system and reservoir. After those are installed each community needs to have their own pump operator to manage the equipment. Without explicit community engagement and leadership these projects never get off the ground. Thankfully while I was there I had the opportunity to meet with a community leader that had gone through all these steps. That community was called Corcovada and if you are interested you can read about it on another of my blog posts. I talked to the leader Cesar Irizarry and he said he is trying to spread Corcovada’s methods of community organization and sustainable practices to other communities across Puerto Rico. Corcovada was prepared for Hurricane Maria, operating their water pumps separate from the main grid by using solar panels but many weren’t so fortunate.
Effects of Maria (Main Distribution):
Hurricane Maria decimated the islands electric and water infrastructure, knocking out water service to over half of the residents. For months after the hurricane, without electricity, surrounded by damaged infrastructure, Puerto Ricans struggled to find clean water after sewage, gasoline, and more was swept up in floodwaters. But the island’s underlying geography, along with a history of poor investment in the water system, have made contamination a long-standing problem in the island territory. Even before the storm Puerto Rico needed more than $2 billion to fix up its water infrastructure, and now the island needs billions more just to rebuild. With no running water for months many people were turning to local water streams as their source of drinking, cleaning, and going to the bathroom. Many people are still collecting water from mountain springs and creeks that run alongside roads. Some know they should boil this water, and others don’t. Without proper disinfection many were exposed to waste in their drinking water. At least 74 suspected cases of leptospirosis, a dangerous bacteria, have been reported, including two deaths.
In the year since Maria, 50 percent of Puerto Ricans said people in their households could not get enough water to drink, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey. About 2 in 10 say they drank water from a natural source such as a stream or river after the hurricane hit in September 2017. Even by the summer of 2018, 53 percent say they are worried about the quality of water in their homes. These problems, along with broader wariness of how federal and territory government has handled the hurricane’s aftermath, will ensure many Puerto Ricans continue to spend a large slice of their income on bottled water.
Rebuilding with Resilience:
However, this is an opportunity to change the way Puerto Rico’s water distribution system is set up to protect communities against future natural disasters. When the hurricane ravaged the island communities had to act mostly independently to clear debris, tend to the injured, and acquire water. Communities need to be prepared and trained to operate on their own without government assistance. There are many water technologies that help in this process:
Rainwater Collection Barrels: These have been used all over the world since before humans have had electricity. Driving around the island we could see many homes that had them installed already however, they were made of thin plastic and many were damaged from the storm. There are new designs that use ferrocement, a thin reinforced concrete, to make rainwater collection tanks capable of withstanding hurricane force winds. This design is simple using cement, sand, water, chicken wire, and steel bars widely used to collect rainwater in India.
Community Center Disinfection Stations: It is very common for communities in Puerto Rico to have a community center where everyone gathers. These spaces are especially important when going through trauma so that people can build trust off of each other. Community centers would be the ideal place to house emergency water purification stations. Each community can stock up on portable water filtration devices and anti-bacterial tablets. If stored in dry conditions away from the sun each of these technologies can last for three to five years before being put to use. Portable filtration systems and anti-bacterial tablets are only temporary solutions but, when a community is completely isolated something needs to be available.
Independent Groundwater Wells: The communities that gained access to electricity and clean water the fastest were the ones that existed off grid from the main utilities. It is worthwhile to have communities evaluate if they want to install a community groundwater well for their own purposes. The cost of rural communities operating a well is relatively low as there is minimal pumping needed to get pressure to each person’s house compared to the cost of pumping water up from sea level. It is highly suggested to use solar panels to power the pumps so fresh water will continue to flow even if the electric system goes out. However, few studies have been conducted on the long term sustainability of the large scale use of independent groundwater wells. There are cases all across the world where increased pumping of water has dried out aquifers and caused the intrusion of saltwater into the earth. However, with the current three percent of the Puerto Rican population using groundwater as their main source of hydration the water levels have not drastically fluctuated over the past 10 years.
Water is the most important resource we have. Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure is poorly maintained but this is an opportunity to allow communities to take matters into their own hands and be more self reliant. However, just having these technologies is not enough it takes community investment, leadership and practice to know how to deal with a disaster when it strikes. Hopefully these tools are a step in the right direction.
● What can be done to reduce the amount of water lost in transmission?
● Are there effects on sustainability for large scale use of groundwater wells?
● What can we do to incentivise communities to operate independently
● What parts of other countries plans for utility independence could be used in Puerto Rico?
“Making Water Safe in an Emergency | Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene-Related Emergencies & and Outbreaks | Healthy Water | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sept. 2017, www.cdc.gov/healthywater/emergency/drinking/making-water-safe.html.
Milman, Oliver. “Another Flint? Why Puerto Ricans No Longer Trust Water after the Hurricane.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Aug. 2018, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/08/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-water-quality.
“Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA).” Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, 2018, www.gdb.pr.gov/investors_resources/prasa.html.
Rodriguez, Carmen Heredia. “Water Quality in Puerto Rico Remains Unclear Months after Hurricane Maria.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 14 June 2018, www.pbs.org/newshour/health/water-quality-in-puerto-rico-remains-unclear-months-after-hurricane-maria.
“Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Puerto Rico Survey, July 3-Aug. 29, 2018.” The Washington Post, WP Company, Sept. 2018, apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/washington-post-kaiser-family-foundation-puerto-rico-survey-july-3-aug-29-2018/2327/.
“Planting Water.” Rain Water Storage, 2016, plantwater.freeservers.com/Techniques/rain_water_storage.htm.
Howard. “The Problems of Iodine Tablets for Water Purification.” Preparedness Advice, 30 Mar. 2017, preparednessadvice.com/water_purification/iodine-tablets-for-water-purification/.