Puerto Rico: The Overlooked Communities and their Struggle for Safe Drinking Water

April 17, 2018 | Blog, Disaster, General RCAP News

Written by: Nathan Ohle

The effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico have been well publicized, and there is much work ahead. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) is proud to be one of the hundreds of organizations on the island trying to facilitate a path forward for the people of Puerto Rico. Often, our organization works with the smallest, most distressed communities across the United States, and our response efforts in Puerto Rico are no different. RCAP is a national network of non-profits that has been around for 45 years, working to ensure that small rural communities have access to safe drinking water and sanitary wastewater.

In Puerto Rico, RCAP and its partner, RCAP Solutions, are working with more than 40 non-PRASA (Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority) communities, some of the most overlooked and under-funded areas of the island. After natural disasters, rural communities with smaller populations often struggle to identify and access resources compared to their more urban counterparts. Puerto Rico’s situation is even more severe because of the scale of the overall need. Electricity and transportation issues have led to limited access to safe drinking water across the entire island, but especially in Puerto Rico’s many small, rural communities. More than 252,000 Puerto Ricans lived in communities with populations under 10,000 that make up more than half of the island’s land area, according to the 2010 Census of Population and Housing. One community RCAP Solutions is working with was only able to turn on their water system for an hour a day, as they had limited access to gas to run the water system while the electricity was out. Shortages like this deteriorate water systems’ ability to work properly over the longer term and are just one example of the difficult situations we find communities facing in response to the hurricane damage.

As the only rural-focused water organization with full-time staff on Puerto Rico, we have long-standing relationships with hundreds of Puerto Rico communities, many of which still need our assistance with restoring drinking water and wastewater disposal.

The beauty of the RCAP network is our ability to bring resources and expertise from across our six regional partners and take a holistic approach to building capacity within the rural communities we serve. We often begin working with a community through water or wastewater, but because we have staff that live and work in these communities, they often come to us as they look for economic development, housing or other capacity-building needs. RCAP delivers assistance so communities can benefit from long-term, sustainable solutions, and that means our work involves supporting economic development, housing, and many other issues as the community looks to rebuild. This holistic approach to rebuilding is even more important in an area like Puerto Rico, where there is an opportunity for a complete reset around long-term planning that will lead to economic prosperity, especially in the smallest and most rural communities.

RCAP continues to look for partnerships, like the one we created with Water Mission, an international NGO focused on solar and other alternative energy solutions for water systems. These partnerships allow us to bring unique connectivity to small communities, where trust is earned over time. Many of these communities were already struggling to sustain their water and wastewater systems before the storms and now face an uncertain future with a loss of population and significant infrastructure needs. RCAP provides in-person technical assistance that supports the technical, managerial, and financial viability of small water and wastewater systems throughout the country. This assistance is vital to the long-term sustainability of small systems throughout Puerto Rico, and we are proud to be on the ground doing this important work every day.