Building back better in rural Puerto Rico—with women up front

By Elizabeth Stevens
Betsy Garcia talks with Carlos Adorno from the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico (right) and Carlos Talaba-Echevarria from Oxfam as workers complete installation of Algarrobo’s new submersible motor and pump. At the heart of Oxfam’s response to Hurricane Maria is supporting and collaborating with Puerto Rican organizations like those in the Water Alliance. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Oxfam and our partners are assisting some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable communities to restore and improve their water systems—and to be sure that women have a strong voice in the way things work.

In the little community of Algarrobo, high in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, water suddenly gushed from a wellhead.

It was a moment everyone had been waiting for since back-to-back storms knocked out the settlement’s water supply nearly a year before. The hurricanes of 2017 crippled the electrical grid across the island. Only when power was restored months later did Algarrobo find it had another problem: sediment from the storm floods had destroyed their water system’s pump and motor.

As with many communities that run their own water systems, Algarrobo has little money to spare. In the wake of the hurricane, the 90 families that live there could ill afford additional expenses, so they turned to a new consortium—the Water Alliance—for help. The Alliance purchased equipment for the well, and now the system is up and running.

An alliance for clean water

In Puerto Rico, there are more than 240 water systems that are run by communities rather than the island’s water and sewage authority. They are called community aqueducts, and they serve small settlements in hard-to-reach areas, drawing water from springs, wells, and creeks. Many of the families that rely on them are poor and can’t afford to pay for the maintenance, testing, and treatment that ensure water safety, so they are at risk—especially when emergencies disrupt their precarious water infrastructures.

The Water Alliance, which includes Oxfam and our partners Bosque Modelo and the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico, aims to help communities around the island whose aqueducts were damaged by the storms create systems that are safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable. We’re targeting 20 for starters, though additional funding we’ve received may enable us to double that number.

Women deserve a strong voice

The consortium has another goal: “We want women to be equal partners in the conversations about water,” says Alana Feldman Soler, program manager for Bosque Modelo.

“Women are the primary water managers for their families,” explains Oxfam program adviser Brenda Guzman-Colon. 

That responsibility became much more onerous when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico: it was mostly women who found themselves washing clothes in the river, and women who tried to keep everyone and everything clean—from children, the sick, and the elderly to food to kitchens and toilets—though water no longer ran from a tap. Read our research report: the Weight of Water on Women.

Emergency or no emergency, says Guzman-Colon, “They deserve a strong voice in managing their community’s water system.”

How might a woman’s perspective make a difference? She gives an example: “Some communities are lax about chlorinating their water supplies. As the primary caregivers for children and the elderly, women might insist on stronger protocols.”

So, in every community where the Water Alliance tackles an aqueduct project, it takes a look at whatever barriers exist to effective women’s participation in decision making and leadership. The problems could have to do with lack of child care or the timing of committee meetings. In many cases women lack the knowledge they need to weigh in on key decisions, so technical training for women could be crucial. With time and attention, all of the problems are likely to be solvable.

“Men who are in leadership positions in the community aqueducts tend to be in charge of the technology and maintenance; women tend to be the treasurers and secretaries,” says Feldman Soler.

Algarrobo may be the exception that proves the rule.

There, the community water committee is run by a woman—Betsy Garcia—and it is women who jump in a Jeep and drive into the hills to add chlorine to the storage tank. Women have trained themselves in the details of delivering clean water. “We know how to make it work,” says Garcia. “When we speak to technicians, we know their language.”

And in this community—catastrophic hurricanes aside—things appear to be going well.

Carlos Adorno of the Community Foundation for Puerto Rico, who has worked with the women on the Alliance project, confirms that these technically capable women are a good fit for leadership. “The women who run the aqueduct are admired and respected in their community.” 

“We haven’t had chlorine in our water for 20 or 25 years,” says Rafael Salgado, shown here discussing his community water system with staff from Oxfam and Bosque Modelo. “I want to improve the system for my children and grandchildren.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Sustainable solutions, not quick fixes

About 25 miles west of Algarrobo is a small settlement in the mountains called Gripiñas.

“We haven’t had chlorine in our water for 20 or 25 years,” says Rafael Salgado, who operates the community aqueduct. Salgado is 77, and he isn’t worried about the water for his own sake. “Bad weeds never die,” he jokes. “I want to improve the system for my children and grandchildren,” he says. “Not for me. They are the reason for everything.”

On an August afternoon, he hosted an evaluation team from Bosque Modelo in hopes that Gripiñas would qualify for a Water Alliance system upgrade. One team member interviewed him about the community aqueduct and the 60 families that it serves, while another scanned the site for solar power possibilities. Feldman Soler examined the pipes and storage tank and visited the source of the water—an unprotected creek. Without chlorine in the system, she said, “We can pretty much guarantee that the water is contaminated.” 

A couple of weeks later, Salgado got the good news: Gripiñas was selected. The first step for the Alliance will be to go door to door, inviting every family to a meeting about the water system. “Our goal is to introduce the project, listen to their concerns, and hopefully build a joint work plan to strengthen the aqueduct leadership and tackle water needs,” says Feldman Soler. Because a safe water system isn’t all about wells and pipes and tanks—it’s about the commitment and vigilance of the people who run it. Community leaders need to create and register a nonprofit organization, and get a formal title to the land where the water storage tank sits. After that, the upgrades can begin; in this case, that’ll probably mean drilling a well. If there’s enough land available with the right exposure, the whole system may be powered by the sun—a much more reliable source of electricity than the island’s power grid. The result: a supply of clean water that will be able to weather future storms.

Improving community aqueducts has implications beyond public health and women’s leadership, says Guzman-Colon.

“A community that resolves its water problems may feel empowered to address other issues, too, like housing or economic and infrastructure development. When we help communities register as nonprofit organizations, it puts them in a much better position to get funding for other projects,” she says. “Clean running water is only the beginning.”


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