[IQP] Sustainable Water Management in the San Miguel Community

Sponsor: Footprints Possibilities Inc.
Student Team: Anna Matsco
Lucio Nicoletti
Gavin Taylor
Christian Tweed
Abstract: The community of San Miguel, located in the La Mesa region of Panama, lacks a proper water system. There is an absence of documentation on the system. We created maps of the community and the water infrastructure and made recommendations for lasting improvement. We also developed and administered a survey for the community. With this information the community will be able to reach out to the local government to acquire fiscal assistance.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

Panama City has significantly improved their water quality in recent years, and by consequence has made it safe to drink. However, proper water treatment is a frequent issue in the rural communities of Panama as they do not have access to the same resources as the citizens in the metropolitan areas. Residents of the rural communities are not receiving water that is safe to drink causing sickness among the residents. San Miguel is an example of one of these rural communities. Located in La Mesa region, roughly an hour drive east of Panama City, San Miguel lies at the bottom of the Sierra de Veraguas mountain range on the western side of the Pacora River.

The local water management committee in San Miguel is the Junta Administradora de Agua (JAAR). They try to keep the water system functioning, but currently there is no written history on the system or any documentation. Each household is supposed to pay $2.00 per month towards the water system, but there is no document of who has paid, and no water lines have been shut off for people who have not paid. The community has three filters, a grate filter at the beginning of the water system, a sand filter, and a holding tank where chlorine is added. There are four pressurized slow sand filters that have been built, but never used due to financial issues.

We spent time in San Miguel to create maps of the water system and community, as well as perform water tests and surveys. This information enabled us to assess the current situation and make recommendations for improvement. We worked with a nonprofit organization, Footprint Possibilities, as well as the JAAR to achieve this goal. With the information collected the JAAR will be able to gain funding from the local government and make improvements to the system where necessary.

To accomplish our goal, we created three main objectives that guided our project:
1. Map the community of San Miguel, including houses, roads, and pipes using mWater surveyor.
2. Create and perform surveys to gain a better understanding of the community’s access to water, and attitudes towards the water committee.
3. Perform water tests at different locations throughout the water system and at houses in order to determine the quality of water.

To create a map of the community we used an application called mWater on our cellular devices. This application allowed us to get exact GPS locations without using data. We walked the entire pipe system with a maintenance worker and marked critical points including filters, diameter changes, leaks, distribution pipes, and valves. Once we had this information, we transferred it onto a piece of software called QGIS, which allowed us to use these points to make a map. We numbered the locations and made an Excel sheet with the longitude, latitude, and a description of each point. The first question of the survey we administered was linked to the GPS location, so we were able to get the exact coordinates of the houses. Once we had the house locations, we were able to create another map on QGIS that included houses, restaurants, the school, and the local health center, which were numbered as well.

We created a spreadsheet of everyone in the community and within the spreadsheet there is a list of all of the survey questions along with the responses. This survey was designed to help us understand how this community receives and manages their water. The questions we asked were targeted to determine how the community felt about the JAAR and the functionality of the water system. We planned on performing a complete census of the community. Unfortunately, our census is not complete due to technical malfunctions and time restrictions. To set up the survey, we used the application mWater. When we met as a team, we decided to add a few more questions to the survey so we could have a deeper understanding of the community and the water system. The first survey we created was overwritten by our updated version, thus resulting in us losing all the responses we initially obtained. Further efforts to recover this information were impeded by scheduling and timing issues.

We knew there was a lack of information about the water system, but we needed to test the water to determine the severity of the situation. We used test strips to test hardness, alkalinity, pH, free chlorine, and total chlorine. We completed these tests at different locations throughout the community, once after a heavy rainstorm, and once on a day without any rain. With this information we were be able to analyze locations of poor water quality, and how well the filters were working.

From our map we were able to make important observations about the water system. San Miguel relies on a gravity fed water system from the Pacora River. The system starts in the mountains before any houses to ensure the river is not polluted by humans or animals. Whenever it rains, the maintenance workers need clean out the filters. This is an issue because during the rainy season it rains almost every day. The grate filter, at the source, is rusted, which can lead to rust deposits traveling through the water system.

After the grate filter, the water enters a pipe and runs to a sand filter. Next, the water travels into a reservoir tank where chlorine is added to the water. The storage tank is too small to hold all the water during the rainy season, causing it to release the excess water. This is a problem because during the dry season the community frequently has an inadequate amount of water. Between the first filter and the storage tanks there are a significant amount of leaks that need to be repaired. The pipe flows directly down the mountain, following the road into the community. In the community, the water travels to the houses from distribution pipes attached to the main pipe. The pipes have many cracks, which can lead to more contamination in the water from having bacteria seep into the water system. Another issue is that the diameter of the pipes is too small to support the flow of water into the community. A significant portion of the pipes are above ground and installed incorrectly making them vulnerable to damage.

Once we completed and evaluated water tests, we discovered that the water is not safe enough to consume. Throughout the community, there is not enough Free Chlorine within the water, which tells us that the community is at risk of being exposed to harmful bacteria. The storage tank is not adding enough chlorine to the water to make it potable. At the beginning of the system, we found the pH was less than six, which is too acidic to drink, but after the second filter it rose to between 7.4 and 8.4. This is more acceptable as water is supposed to have a pH of between six and eight. We tested for alkalinity, which was in the acceptable threshold. We found that the water had a hardness of zero ppm, which means there are no minerals in the water. However, there are no specific health risks relating to water hardness. Further bacterial tests need to be done to determine exactly how unsafe the water is to drink.

The results of the survey stated that people were generally satisfied with the water service. We suspect that they are only satisfied with the fact that they are receiving water and not necessarily with the quality of the water. Eighty-six percent of residents surveyed stated that they were drinking tap water, and 59% of those people said they were not treating the water. Thirty percent of residents said they get sick from drinking the tap water. In addition to this 30%, ninety-one children under the age of five in 2018 have had water related illnesses. Since adults have been drinking the water for so long they have built up more of an immunity, but children are are much more susceptible to harmful bacteria in the water.

Conclusion and Recommendations
The primary concern for the JAAR is to properly repair the current damages to the pipes. These include replacing the metal grate and fixing any cracked pipes. The community should improve the current conditions of the sand filter and use the four unconnected pressurized slow sand filters as this would improve the quality of water before entering the pipes. Additionally, the pipe diameter should be increased to improve the distribution of water. Our final recommendation is for the JAAR to improve the organization of payments and have more communication with the community members. These may be difficult changes without proper funding, so it is important that the JAAR reach out to the local government to acquire fiscal assistance.