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​One year since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico in fragile state

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New Oxfam report on impact of lack of water finds women particularly impacted by storm

San Juan, Puerto Rico – One year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s struggles are far from over. While the lights are on most places and water is running again, there is still a long way to go to full recovery. Countless households were badly battered and families across the island are struggling to rebuild. Rural communities are being left behind: many are still without consistent power and water and are highly vulnerable to any new shock; people are anxiously watching the skies as a tumultuous 2018 hurricane season is still threatening communities along the Atlantic and Caribbean. 

“While Puerto Rico has come a long way since Hurricane Maria hit, all of us on the island know that there’s so much more to be done,” said María Concepción, Oxfam’s Program Director in Puerto Rico. “The people of Puerto Rico have worked day and night to repair the damage, and in some cases, filled the gap where the government response was nonexistent. Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring, and Oxfam was proud to support a locally-led response in the aftermath of the hurricane. But we also know how fragile our systems are, and how imminent the threats of future catastrophic climate events. We’re especially concerned about rural communities who are just one knock away from another all-systems failure.”

While Oxfam rarely responds to humanitarian emergencies in the US and other wealthy countries, the organization decided to step in when the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico faltered. As the months wore on, and thousands of people struggled to endure without power and water, it became increasingly clear that government actions were slow, insufficient, and lacking transparency. The recent readjustment of the official death toll by the Puerto Rican government – from 64 to nearly 3,000 – exposed the deadly impact of the long aftermath. Many communities are still struggling to recover. Community input and local participation in recovery plans are critical, especially in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, as local communities should have a say in how these federal dollars are spent and in how their neighborhoods are rebuilt. These funds should be targeted to those most affected by the storm, including women in rural communities facing water challenges and those living in poverty. 

Oxfam is particularly concerned about the impact of the hurricane on women in Puerto Rico. Today Oxfam is releasing a new report, “The Weight of Water on Women: The Long Wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” which finds that women shouldered extraordinary physical, financial, and emotional burdens due to the extended lack of water after Hurricane Maria. The study finds that as households lost this most basic service, it mostly fell to women to do the arduous labor of caretaking and maintaining households. 

“Around the world, we see that natural disasters often deliver a disproportionate blow to women. Hurricane Maria, unfortunately, was no exception. The lack of water made daily activities extremely difficult for Puerto Rican women. Simple chores, like cooking, laundry, and cleaning, became monumental tasks. Whether it was physically, mentally, or emotionally, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the toll the lack of water took on the lives of countless women across the island,” Concepción said.  

Water is one of the most basic human needs: every person interviewed for the Oxfam study said that being without water was much worse than being without power. When Hurricane Maria knocked down the already-fragile power grid, it disabled water systems across the island and left millions without reliable access to potable water. In many places, it was months before it was restored. While all Puerto Ricans were impacted by the absence of water, the Oxfam study found that women reported problems that hit more frequently and more deeply than men. Men were indeed impacted – especially around finding and transporting water – but women spent much more time and effort doing household maintenance work, and these were the tasks that were disproportionately impacted by water’s absence.

At the same time, the women of Puerto Rico also showed remarkable strength, resilience, inventiveness, and community devotion in the wake of the hurricane. They are also leading the way to new ways of thinking about sustainable and resilient alternatives: many invented homemade solutions for the lack of water, including rigging a pulley system from outdoor containers into the house and rearranging home plumbing. The Oxfam study provides a series of recommendations to help guide water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs and help conduct them in a gender-sensitive manner, including strategies for disaster risk reduction and emergency programs that are responsive to community-identified problems.  

The full report is available at https://www.oxfamamerica.org/WASH-gender-Puerto-Rico/

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Note to editors: 

Over the past year, Oxfam and local partners have provided nearly 30,000 people with reliable access to clean water through water filter distributions, distributed 22,000 solar lights, and provided legal support to nearly 5,000 people struggling for FEMA aid. We also helped found a Water Alliance to repair and improve local aqueducts and support research on the specific impacts on and needs of women on the island. 

Oxfam continues to work on programs that support long-term recovery and resilience.

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