As a US citizen and resident for nearly six decades, access to potable, safe water is something I’ve always taken for granted. Of course I know that’s not true everywhere. I’ve seen the heartwrenching statistics, and the pleas from charities that bring clean water to far-flung peoples who need it.
I just never thought I’d be one of them.
A few days ago my husband noticed that the local grocery store had been completely cleaned out of bottled water. After 25 years in Florida where such things generally signal an impending hurricane, he was curious. So he stopped to ask a local friend what was going on.”Oh,” Mario told him. “The water’s not safe. You can’t drink it. It’s ok to shower, but do not drink the water. There was a pesticide spill into the river that serves most of the population of the Azuero Peninsula.”
My husband found a mini-mart that still had water, and came home with six 2-1/2 liter jugs.
What’s the Story?
Over the next few days, we heard different versions of the story.
A farmer treated his fields next to the river with the pesticide Atrazine (a controlled substance in the US but still sold to other countries!). It rained and washed the pesticide into the river.
A farmer put rat poison in his fields, then threw what was left into the river. The rain washed the poison from the field into the river.
A farmer tried to dispose of his dead cows – dozens of them – by tossing them into the river. (This we’ve confirmed to be true.)
IDAAN (the water authority in this area) knew about the problem two weeks before they publicized it.
IDAAN knew about the problem for one week before.
IDAAN knew about the problem one day before.
It’s safe to use the water for bathing.
It’s not safe to use the water for bathing.
Now we’re hearing that the culprit is a company called Campo de Pesé, which has been cited for as many as 16 violations in the past. A broken pipe at their ethanol plant was responsible for putting atrazine into the river.
The World Health Organization considers 3ppm (parts per million) of atrazine is safe in drinking water, but these levels were as high as 60ppm.
The company’s operations have been shut down for a month. Members of the family of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, whose successor was inaugurated on July 1, are major shareholders.
This, to me, has the ring of truth. And I don’t believe it’s coincidence that IDAAN issued their warning on June 30, Martinelli’s last day in office. . .
The one thing everyone does agree on is that nobody knows when the water will be safe to drink again. I’m assuming we’re looking at weeks or months rather than days.
How are we coping?
As I write this, it’s been a week since we found out.
Two days after we learned of the problem, I heard a noisy, incessant honking down the street. I looked out and saw a large truck. Curious, I walked out my front door and saw my neighbors approaching the truck with buckets and pails.
It was a water tanker, distributing water to anyone with a container(s). Quickly I grabbed a 2-1/2 gallon jerry can and joined the queue. I’m not comfortable drinking it, but it’s great for washing dishes!
The following day, a case of 12 one-liter bottles of water appeared at the end of our driveway.
That day we also received an email from the US Embassy here in Panama, informing us of the problem. Better late than never, I guess.
Two days later, another truck came through the neighborhood, this one manned by Red Cross volunteers, distributing water into containers again. Since then we’ve had another visit from tanker trucks, and two more bottled water distributions.
We’re fortunate to have friends whose water comes from other sources, so we’re able to refill our jugs if we run low. If we want, we can take our towels over and shower.
Here’s another water use that I would usually take for granted.
Normally I go twice a week to a nearby pool for aqua aerobics and gossip. A friend who’s fluent in Spanish visited the pool to learn where its water comes from. The answer? From a deep well, not from IDAAN. Their regular showers are supplied by IDAAN water, but the young man who manages the facility could provide a hose from the well.
We happily met in the pool that afternoon to exercise, then hosed off afterwards with the “good” water.
A reader contacted me this morning to ask for recommendations on places to stay in the area. She and her husband plan to be here during the second half of July. My recommendation was for a place outside the “bad water” zone.
I’ve been in situations before where the water was temporarily unsafe. “Boil water” alerts are pretty common, at least where I lived in Florida. Not knowing whether it’s safe to bathe in this water has me unnerved, though. I’m ducking in quickly, then turning the water off while I lather up, just to limit my exposure.
Out of the Loop
One of the risks of living in a foreign country is that you’re out of the information loop. Local people know how and where to get news about such things. We do not. One friend, who has lived full-time for eight years in a community that she served previously as a Peace Corps volunteer, speaks fluent Spanish and has extensive community ties. Yet she was surprised to learn that the Mayor had called a public meeting to discuss the water crisis.
“How did you find out about the meeting?” she asked.
“I got a text on WhatsApp,” her neighbor replied.
How would you find out about it if you don’t use WhatsApp? she wondered. I wonder too. . .
What’s the Solution?
There have been protests. I’ve seen pictures of marchers on the bridge over the river at La Villa de Los Santos.
In the meantime, this water problem pervades everything we’re doing. We don’t dare go to a restaurant because we don’t know if they’re using safe water to cook the rice, wash the vegetables, etc.
We take our own drinking water with us if we’re going to be away from the house for any length of time.
Hardest of all is the realization that Panama is still a third-world country.
Despite the growing middle class, the expanding economy, technological advances like the new Panama City metro and the Canal expansion, there are still people here who dispose of dead cows by tossing them into the river that provides drinking water for over 100,000 people. (Yes, this was documented.) Or who apply dangerous pesticides without proper training in how to protect themselves or their neighbors.
The air isn’t as clean as it should be because farmers still burn off their fields, and dumps still burn the garbage, including all the plastics.
The solution won’t be simple or fast. It will take education and time, and I hope they get there sooner rather than later. I’m not sure I have the patience to stay and watch.
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
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