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As Quakes Rock Puerto Rico, Water Flows for Mountain Communities

These remote mountain communities lost their water after Hurricane Maria. Now, things are different.



A solar-powered water pump in Puerto Rico's Las Piedras community. (Photo by Dori Lozada for Direct Relief)

When Hurricane Maria cut off power to José Amaro’s mountain community, the water went out too.

But during the most recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico – even as power and water were shut off to parts of the island – the community’s new solar-powered pump kept on working.

Cidra, a community of approximately 96 households, is located in Puerto Rico’s mountainous central region. It’s one of 242 communities that can’t get its water from the island’s municipal source.

It’s an issue of gravity: Puerto Rico’s water authority can’t efficiently pump water upward to these small mountain hamlets, according to water systems expert Alex Rodriguez, a member of the nonprofit group Por Los Nuestros.

That means these communities need to provide their own water, by either harnessing nearby streams or pumping water from a well.

For both of those, you need electricity. Without electricity, there is no water.

After Maria, mountain communities throughout Puerto Rico’s more remote areas were cut off from running water – in some cases for months.

But as shocks have rocked the island and driven Puerto Ricans from their homes into driveways and shelters, communities like Cidra that have been outfitted with solar-powered pump systems have been able to get back to life as usual – quickly.

Blue Planet Energy, a company that offers solar energy storage for what they call “unreliable” grids, has supplied approximately 30 communities with solar-powered batteries for their water pumps, some of them with Por Los Nuestros.

Since the earthquakes, not one of those communities has reported a problem with running water.

By contrast, Por Los Nuestros has found approximately 30 different communities who haven’t received support and who have gone without water for at least three days.

Water First

“When I first came [to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria], I thought just turning lights on” would be the most important thing, said Gregg Murphy, Blue Planet Energy’s vice president of business development. Instead, “the issue was water first.”

“There were a lot of people for up to nine months without water” after Maria hit, Rodriguez said.

Although Cidra went four or five days without running water, Amaro recalled, the community was lucky: They acquired a generator within a week.

But there were downsides. “We had to guard the generator because we were scared it was going to be stolen,” Amaro said in Spanish through a translator. To protect it, residents took the generator back and forth from a house to the well each day.

And while they had water, their neighbors were going without – for up to five months in some cases. Cidra became a local oasis, providing water for people in nearby communities.

Clear and Hidden Hazards

Rodriguez saw mountain communities going without water – and saw reports of Puerto Ricans dying of leptospirosis after drinking from contaminated sources. He wanted to help insulate people against future disasters – and quickly realized that the best way to do that was by creating solar-powered pump systems that would continue to function even if Puerto Rico’s fragile grid went down.

He joined Por Los Nuestros, then a fledgling nonprofit a friend had started to help Puerto Ricans recover from Maria, to build what he calls “more robust, more resilient” water systems.

Working with Blue Planet Energy – and through a grant from AbbVie – Por Los Nuestros has developed solar-powered water systems for 14 communities thus far. Direct Relief has committed to funding 25 of these systems in Puerto Rico.

Rodriguez stresses that going without running water is far from a mere inconvenience. There’s the increased likelihood of drinking, bathing in, or washing clothes using unsanitary water, which can cause a myriad of health problems.

But there are other, less obvious concerns. “People go more to the refuge centers, people want to stay away from their households” when water isn’t available. “That problem is creating other problems.”

Indeed. In crowded shelter conditions, people are at greater risk of contracting infectious conditions and of having chronic conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure, go untreated. Housing, feeding, and clothing people in shelters can place tremendous strain on a community.

Good Neighbors

“Everybody felt it,” Amaro said, speaking of the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit Puerto Rico in the early hours of January 7. “Everybody woke up from their beds, and it was a traumatizing experience, because none of the people in the community have felt something like that before.”

The quakes have continued into this week, a fact that has left many Puerto Ricans in a state of anxiety. “I’ve had some people tell me that it feels like it’s worse than Hurricane Maria, because it doesn’t stop,” Murphy said.

However, Amaro said, life in Cidra quickly returned to normal – thanks in no small part to a continual flow of running water.

“We had the worst-case scenario after this emergency,” he explained. “There was no sun, there was no [municipal] power, and it worked. We never lost water.”

José Oyola, president of the Pedro Calixto community in central Puerto Rico, said he’s happy that he can be a good neighbor to nearby residents who don’t have the luxury of running water in the wake of the earthquakes.

After Hurricane Maria, Pedro Calixto also served as an oasis, providing drinking water to about 1,500 people in addition to its own 180 people, Oyola explained.

“Now we don’t have the limitation of telling people we cannot offer you so much water,” he said through a translator. “Now we can help people, because [the system] is designed to do that.”

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