UMass Dartmouth students helping Panama villagersBy MICHAEL GAGNE , Associated Press
Nov. 3, 2013 12:31 AM ET
DARTMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — A small group of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth students is taking the civil engineering they've learned in the classroom and hoping it will help a small Panamanian community get better access to clean spring water.
Five members of the UMass Dartmouth chapter of Engineers Without Borders last spring made their second annual trip of a five-year project to restore to its full capacity a drinking water system in Panama's remote Valle Las Perlas village, home to about 300 Ngoba indigenous people.
The group explained that Panama's government some 10 years ago had constructed the system, which includes an aqueduct and a large water storage tank.
Water is routed from a protected spring about a mile away, to the storage tank, and eventually circulated throughout the village, to some, but not all, homes.
It should be an adequate water supply. However, it's no longer effective.
"Half of the water entering the system is actually making it way to the tank," explained UMass Dartmouth senior Kyle Costa, who serves as the group's president. "Our goal is to rehabilitate the system."
Water sometimes only trickles through the system. When it was first built, it flowed at about a gallon per second. Now it only flows during rainy season, and the flow is much slower — it takes more than a minute and a half to fill a five-gallon bucket.
Furthermore, vandalism has compromised the above ground network of PVC pipes, which leak in several areas. And the current tank is too small.
So, the community is forced to use another nearby stream for drinking water. However, that water is not clean and particularly harmful to the community's children, members explained.
The Ngoba don't have a lot by way of modern amenities. In addition to not having running water to their homes, they also lack electricity. Instead of bathrooms, the village has latrines. However, people appeared content.
Members described their host families and villagers as friendly and welcoming.
"The first trip was to determine the feasibility of the project to see if it was even within our means as students to complete it," said Ben Mitsmenn, a graduate student. Mitsmenn served as the project leader.
"We tested at multiple taps. We also tested the water people were using when they were not getting water from the system," Mitsmenn said. Then the group, coordinating with the Peace Corps affiliate in the region, reported its findings to the community.
Mitsmenn said half the trip was public relations. "A lot of the community was a little bit confused as to why we were there in the first place, so these were things we had to clear up."
At first community members were confused over the concept of water fees. After all, water flows in nearby rivers. It's free.
"A lot of it is having to explain the context of paying for maintenance. The network we're putting in has to be maintained," said Rola Hassoun, the group's treasurer.
"They were really excited in what we were doing," added vice president Jackie Buenrostro.
At first, the students wanted to install taps at every household.
However, after assessment that proved to be unfeasible. So they will install new tap stands throughout the community.
The system would be refurbished using materials from local hardware suppliers, including concrete and piping.
And it will be designed with population growth in mind, to meet the demands of 600 people. It would hopefully be sustainable for 20 years. The new design include a 6,000-gallon tank.
Now the project is in the design phase. Next spring members will return to begin implementing their plans.
"Panama is a beautiful country. People in the community were so wonderful. They very cooperative, very engaged and really excited to help them help themselves," said Hassoun.
The trip began with a flight from Logan International to Panama City. Then a 10-hour car ride from the airport to Valle Las Perlas, located within the northwestern province of Bocas del Toro, near the Costa Rican border.
The car ride was probably the most uncomfortable part of the trip.
"There's definitely not a shortage of fresh water in Panama," said Costa. "The problem is just getting it to people's houses."