Training of Trainers for Aqueduct Maintenance and Slow Sand Filters

  • Health
  • Water & Sanitation
  • Panama
This project is led by Rileigh Presnell, a Volunteer from Washington

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The people of this Panamanian tribe have been drinking untreated stream water since their community’s founding. This has led to a number of extreme illnesses, and sometimes even death, from water-borne pathogens that could easily be removed. This project proposes to repair the community’s existing aqueduct, and to improve the water’s quality by adding various treatment measures. The community will serve as a pilot project, and they are excited and ready to take their knowledge to neighboring communities of the same tribe that are also drinking directly from streams and rivers. The community is preparing for the construction portion by gathering sand ahead of time, and starting with monthly trainings. Once funds for construction are available, they will first move the water diversion dam to a stream that does not receive any type of agricultural runoff. Second, they will be installing slow sand filters and a chlorinator to treat the water before it is distributed to households. The slow sand filters are a sustainable treatment option because sand is readily available from a local area, and after installation, maintenance costs are negligible. Finally, pipes in the distribution lines will be repaired and more houses will be added to the system. Throughout the process, the community members will receive trainings on slow sand filter installation and maintenance, aqueduct maintenance, and general fund management so that they can pass the knowledge to other communities in need.

Since the Peace Corps Volunteer’s (PCV) arrival in September of 2018, community members have continuously pushed for improvements to and trainings on their water system. The first day that the Peace Corps Volunteer came, they appointed a committee to work on the health of the water in the community. Later, in November of 2018, official elections were held for a Water Committee that would be backed by the Panamanian Ministry of Health (MINSA) and paperwork was submitted in February to legalize the group. Throughout the election and legalization process, community members organized all meetings, and the Water Committee filled out all necessary paperwork on their own. In November, 2018 Community members decided to set a $0.50 monthly fee to cover costs of repairs to the current water system. In April of 2019, the Water Committee completed the Water Committee Seminars training with the PCV. In June of 2019, the Water Committee (without the PCV) had a meeting with the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment to discuss the possibility of legally protecting the watershed of the stream used for the aqueduct. Afterwards, the committee wrote their own contract with the landowners of the watershed that outlined the expectations and rules that would permanently protect the community’s water source. Throughout the preparation for the project, meetings to discuss the design and goals for the project were all organized by the community—the water committee agreed on meeting dates, the secretary prepared notes to inform each beneficiary, and one of the two designated committee spokespersons distributed the notes to each household. The PCV was never the driving force behind organizing and conducting meetings rather the PVC provided guidance on what needed to be accomplished. The Water Committee took full responsibility for organizing meetings and with the assistance of the PCV led the discussions.

One of the main topics discussed in meetings about the project design was the method and design for water treatment. The PCV presented various options explaining the benefits and costs of each. The community members decided that installing a community-wide slow sand filter was the best approach because it was the most economical option (both in installation and maintenance), and the local Water Committee rather than an out-of-town technician would monitor it. After the decision was made and confirmed the community asked, “When can we start hauling sand from the river to start this filter?” The community has organized for each house to bring 70 5-gallon buckets of sand to fill the filter. During meetings on the repair and design of the system, community members also expressed that they wanted to be able to show other communities how to safely treat and protect stream water. The secretary of the Water Committee specifically has made it his mission to talk about reforestation of the watershed, and plans to talk to houses in outlying areas within the region about the importance of protecting their water source. However, the excitement to be change agents does not stop there. Beneficiaries are ready to go to neighboring communities to teach about the science behind slow sand filters as a treatment method, and to help them start their own slow sand filters to treat their drinking water. The proposed project uses the most sustainable design possible for this area of Panama. The aqueduct is already constructed, but because the government installed the system without community support and without training the community on maintenance, community members were improvising repairs and expansion that were actually adding to the obsolescence of the current system. Since November 2018, every household has been paying a monthly water fee to the Water Committee that goes to repair costs. The Water Committee has started repairing small parts of the aqueduct with these funds—buying a few tubes/replacement valves at a time. However, the extent of the current damages is too great for the community to self-fund all repairs. After the proposed initial repairs to the system, with the education on proper tube maintenance and repair, and with the monthly water-use fee, the smaller, upcoming repairs will be easily covered by Water Committee funds.

Also, when the system was initially implemented, there was no design for water treatment and no training about the option for point-of-use treatment. This has led to years of suffering from community members as children and babies constantly fall ill from water-borne illnesses, and high costs for hospital and emergency doctor visits to treat the symptoms. Surface runoff in tropical climates tends to have high concentrations of organics, and the local stream water quality (in terms of turbidity) varies daily, eliminating the possibility of simply chlorinating the stream water. A filter has to be installed. The proposed slow sand filter uses locally sourced sand that is readily available from a nearby river, meaning sand replacement will be free. Also, the plastic-lined in-ground basin design will endure a minimum of 20 years of use, and repairs to the plastic cost less than cement tank repairs. Water will then be chlorinated as a precautionary measure after passing through the slow sand filter using chlorine tablets available from the local MINSA office. The community wants to install a system-wide slow sand filter because they are more confident in the Water Committee’s ability to organize workdays to maintain the system, than to rely on each household to treat their own family’s water. The single mother of twelve suffers more to tend daily to a small slow sand filter in her home than she does participating in a monthly workday to clean the system-wide slow sand filter.

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