Testing the waters: Tools to help Puerto Rican communities stay healthy

By Elizabeth Stevens
Oxfam’s Carlos Talaba-Echevarria (left), the Science Trust’s Leslie Maas, and local water operator Luis Torres add GPS information to samples from the water tank. After Hurricane Maria, Oxfam worked to support and strengthen local organizations that were responding to the emergency. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

A workshop on low-cost solutions to water-quality issues may yield high-impact results.

On an August afternoon in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, the air was thick with moisture, and the weather alternated between bright sunshine, thick fog, and downpours heavy enough to trigger floods. The forest there is a feast for the senses, with giant tropical trees, pale green butterflies, and a chorus of peeps from the tree frogs called coquis.

A small team of us set out to visit the spring that provides water to the settlement in Jayuya known as Zamas. Luis Torres led the way as we began following a stream up Cerro de Punta, Puerto Rico’s tallest peak. Torres lives in the area and he volunteers to keep watch over this community’s water supply. Three times each week he checks up on the spring box and storage tank, and makes sure the chlorination system is in order. With us that day were Oxfam’s Brenda Guzman-Colon and Carlos Talaba-Echevarria, and Leslie Maas and Nelson Almovodar, staff from an Oxfam partner—the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust--who took a break from distributing water filters in the community to run tests on its water supply.

Twenty minutes from the road, we came to the community’s water storage tank, where Torres opened up a manhole and let us peer in. The tank was nearly full, which means they had a supply of 25,000 gallons of water.  But was it clean? Maas dipped two sterile plastic bags into the water and sealed and labeled them carefully.  

Keeping it simple

In December 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Oxfam and PRSTRT invited experts from the University of Puerto Rico and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to present workshops on low-cost methods of testing and cleaning water. The participants—51 local organizations and community leaders—learned about disinfection techniques involving filters made of sand and gravel, stoves made out of cans, and chlorine extracted from salt water. They also learned how to gather a sample of water, add it to a special kind of petri dish, incubate it using body heat, and analyze the results—a quick and easy way to check for coliform bacteria at times of emergency.

“The training was excellent—and practical,” says Maas, “and look what it grew into.”

Thanks to the workshops, her group has received a $1.9 million grant from the organization UNIDOS por Puerto Rico, and is now distributing water filters and testing local water sources all across the island—a program she’s managing. They are targeting small rural settlements that run their own water systems, which are known as community aqueducts. About three per cent of the population depends on community aqueducts. Federal clean water regulations apply to them, but the communities in many cases are poor, and water testing is expensive, so, she says, “there is a high level of non-compliance.”

When disasters strike, Oxfam is keen to support local organizations, in part because—like the Science Trust—they don’t pick up and leave before the work is done.

We moved on up the stream to the spring box, the structure that helps filter out sediment and build pressure for the water’s descent to the storage tank downstream. Torres removed debris from the roof, and Maas collected more samples—this time gathering untreated water close to the spring.

When we were done, we slipped and slid down the rocks in the rain and returned to the town.

Sure to make a difference

Two days later, I met with Maas at her office and she showed me the petri dishes: the untreated spring water is clearly loaded with coliform bacteria, but thanks to Torres and the chlorine tablets, the water in the tank is clean.

“There is a cultural belief that springs are healthy,” she says. “People should know that water from these sources should be filtered and treated before drinking.”

Torres is a chemist and an environmental professional; he takes clean water seriously, and he makes sure this community adheres to a testing regime. But he thinks the Science Trust’s free testing and filter-distribution project is a good idea, because, he says, “some communities are not following the rules. They are not chlorinating.”

The problem becomes acute in emergencies, when pipes can rupture and pumps lose their power, and a community might have to shift to a secondary source of water. Maas has seen it all. “One community that lost its primary water source after the hurricane began drawing water from a new source that appeared. It turned out to be untreated water from a water treatment plant. People got sick. There were even reports of leptospirosis.”

Maas is pleased that the filter and testing program could reach 32,000 families or more, and she feels sure it will  make a difference.

“Every time I see young mothers and their children in the communities where we’re working,” she says, “I feel really good about what we’re doing.”

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