They asked us to go to the Dominican Republic, so we did.
A travel report about our scoping exercise; facts, impressions, reflections.
By Tom McKeon, Erica DePalma, Michelle Barakat, and Liz Pyshnik
We are four young professionals who are passionate about volunteering and we are grateful for our connection with the Global Water Alliance (GWA). When the GWA requested we do a scoping report on the water supply of Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic (DR), we accepted without hesitation. The DR, known for its beautiful white-sand beaches, vibrantly blue ocean waters, tropical trees, and rum-based cocktails, is a great place for tourists. Yet it is also a country with deep regional health disparities, with many people having limited access to clean reliable water and good sanitation. Moreover, the DR is part of the island of Hispaniola, the only island in the Caribbean that still has endemic malaria.
Many projects arise from the passion of one person’s desire to make a difference in the world. That person in our project is Catalina Hunter, a native of Enriquillo, living in North Philadelphia who has done youth-related work before in her native city. She is a member of the North Philadelphia Rotary Madrugadores (RM) club; a service club which has an interest in doing service work in the Caribbean and recently adopted a WASH (water, access, sanitation, and hygiene) theme for their projects. Given this newly adopted theme and the fact that the water supply system in Enriquillo is in need of improvement, Catalina proposed a project to formally assess the water supply system of Enriquillo. RM members have significant expertise in the medical and educational field, they don’t when it comes to water management. Hence the club connected with the Global Water Alliance to facilitate a partnership to identify keys issues and possible solutions pertaining to Enriquillo’s water supply system. When it became clear that there were simply not enough data available, GWA and RM collaborated to finance a scoping exercise.
Given Catalina’s deep connections to Enriquillo, she facilitated the connection with the community and its leaders. Her friend Claudio, president of his local neighborhood association, became our host and put together a hosting committee. The committee consisted of a school headmaster Luis, (also Catalina’s brother); Rafael, a member of the local water authority; pastor Ezequiel; and the Mayor. Before our departure Claudio and the team established main foci questions to facilitate our research: What does the water supply system look like? What technology is used? Who operates the system? How safe is this water to drink? How many people can be reached by this water supply? What is their willingness to pay? Does the supply meet the community’s demands? How can the water supply system be improved? Why is this river’s water volume dwindling? There is no shortage of questions.
With our questions and passports in hand, we went to Enriquillo; a coastal city of 13,000 inhabitants, located about 232 km (144 miles) southwest of the capital, Santo Domingo. From July 20th to July 29th, 2018 we tried to investigate the drinking water supply network, infrastructure, health disparities, willingness-to-pay, cultural habits, school system, neighboring communities, and hospitals, all the while strengthening partnerships with local stakeholders. The team prepared and administered household surveys, collected GPS data points for informative maps, and documented our interviews and activities1.
Our first impression of the coastal town of Enriquillo is that it is a truly vibrant and beautiful city overlooking the blue Caribbean Sea; the picturesque beauty becomes more nuanced and more alive the longer one stays. Life felt beautiful. Mornings began with boisterous roosters crowing, modern Latin music bumping from the cars around town, and a level of hospitality from our hosts that went above and beyond anything we experienced before. Even the trees offered their fruits without hesitation; avocados, coconuts, guanabana, mangos, and other fruits unfamiliar to us.
As our eyes adjusted, we learned more and more about the unique idiosyncrasies which distinguished our new home for the next nine days. What would have otherwise been shabby looking street dogs in the United States—unleashed, unfixed, unforgivingly independent; had a home somewhere. The animals and people seemed to have the same kind of attitude: not in a hurry but definitely on the way to somewhere for something. Little corner stores, known as colmados, offer goods as well as social gathering points. Children playing baseball on the streets and gathering together to spend time was a common sight. Invitations to join in and play were always open. Overall, the town’s population is rather poor; average annual household income stands at 10,000 pesos per month (about 200 USD), and economic prospects for the town seem relatively stagnant. But that does not stand in the way of what we experienced in the socially vibrant atmosphere.
Our ears and noses soon alerted us to an air pollution problem. Motorcycles buzzed all day, fuming with unregulated diesel and mixed gasoline emissions. Along with risks of contaminated water, air quality is consistently degraded by exhaust and openly burned garbage. Indeed, a picture may be a thousand words, but nothing rivals the personal experience where all senses are engaged.
Part two. What we found and how we found it.
We collaborated with our local host team to gather different water-related perspectives. We learned of the local chapter of INAPA, an acronym for Instituto Nacional De Aguas Potables Y Alcantarillado or “National Institute of Drinking Water and Sewerage” This institute is a national organization, of which 21 active members are involved in managing the current water system in Enriquillo. Pastor Ezequiel of the Iglesia cristiana ministrio escogido de Dios, guided us through town and assisted us with administering surveys to his congregation. We visited the town’s mayor who had granted us permission to gather information and ask questions. Our host Luiz is the director of the school district, who oversees the education of 7,882 child and adult students. Many students are poor and, at school, rely on the river water as their drinking source. During a tour of one school Luiz explained that the source of water at that school is uncertain and the water that students are using from fountains may be of poor quality.
We interviewed the town’s only hospital, learning they hardly see any water-related illnesses such as diarrhea; only about three or four cases a year. This suggests diarrhea is often underreported and self-cared for, with little thought paid to the source of the sickness. The hospital receives the same water source as the rest of the town, but officially orders drinking water canteens just like anyone else who has the money to afford this expense. With only 20 hospital beds, the hospital is small and busy. While there was literature available in the hospital to educate visitors about safe drinking water habits, it was placed in a seemingly unused room behind a mobile chalkboard.
On our third day, riding on the backs of motorcycles, we reached a farm, lined with a variety of fruit trees and sugarcane. Farm animals roamed everywhere. At the farm, we took in a majestic view of windmill-covered mountains gathering renewable energy for distribution throughout the Dominican Republic. On the farm, owned by the energy company EGE Haina, was the intake point of the water pipeline that supplies the homes of Enriquillo. We went there to geographically record the water system’s pipeline, points of interest and points of chlorination. We noticed two chlorination stations, one in Llena Vela, the other at a site called El Chorreron, along the Chorreron River, where a generator-powered pump works to distribute the “treated” water.
Hiking through the slippery, rocky river, we learned from our guides that a lot was going on upstream. It was plain to see that farm life was everywhere, with cows near the river and whole mountainsides turned into orchards, but we also noticed “suspected” pipelines sucking river water to neighboring hamlets. With these stresses present, this small river is severely impaired.
We tested spring and river water, which flowed into a submerged water holding tank, for pH, TSS (total suspended solids), temperature, hardness, alkalinity, nitrate/nitrite levels and coliform.
After the water passes through the inlet grate, it enters a small holding tank, and then the aqueduct system. Wading downstream for about 2 kilometers, we tested an additional 7 locations, took GPS points and video recorded statements from our partners. The infrastructure was deteriorating There were some sections of the pipe where the stream had eroded the bank behind the concrete pillars that hold the pipe in place, leaving the infrastructure suspended and vulnerable. During the rainy seasons, heavy rains and flooding are a growing problem in Enriquillo. When the main river, the Rio Sito, floods, it often puts those who live in the floodplain in great danger. We saw gabion walls constructed in many places along the river and witnessed residents rebuilding cement walls to both stabilize their houses from previous damage and to prevent further damage from future floods. Little did they seem to know that by channelizing their river, the more likely it is to flood.
We found several glaring problems afflicting the water supply in the city. With neighboring communities siphoning water away for other usages, Enriquillo’s water supply isn’t available to everyone every day of the week. Most neighborhoods receive water two days per week, for two hours at a time, if they receive any water at all. The two treatment tanks that each hold a little over 3,000 gallons have no clear protocols for chlorination and are filled and treated manually, without any measuring equipment. A map of the distribution system of water throughout Enriquillo is non-existent so the exact route of the pipes is not known. Nevertheless, our partners described that the town’s biggest need is for one additional holding tank to bring water to a neighborhood that currently receives none.
Unstandardized methods in administrating chlorine, proximity to agricultural runoff, proximity to cow pastures with clearly visible dung, and unmonitored public waste discharge all contributed to water contamination— risking health risks. Enriquillo and towns upstream have open sewers which discharge waste water onto the sides of the streets, eventually making its way back into the river, and into the ocean. The use of these open sewers that line the streets allow children and household pets to play and walk through the wastewater that exits the houses upstream, acerbated during periods of heavy rain. Enriquillo indeed faces the many challenges of an open sewer system in which raw sewerage from the home is piped out of the home and into a concaved, open drain along the impervious street.
In addition to the aging infrastructure built into the mountains, we noticed a lack of infrastructure in the city itself. All this leads to make shift solutions. The water in many homes is stored in large plastic barrels, whether from the supply system of from rain water catchment, and used as needed for washing dishes or other domestic uses. Those who can afford bottled water at 35 Dominican Pesos for a five gallon container or ten pesos for a 500 ml bottle did not drink the water sourced from the river. For those who cannot afford this fee, the river water was their only source for consumption.
Typical water distribution set up outside of stores in Enriquillo. Water trucks from the municipality pump treated water into these 5 gallon containers. Once the water is purchased and consumed, customers can return their container to be filled.
It is clear that the residents of Enriquillo have great pride in their community and take care of each other. Yet the community’s understanding of science, environmental health, and water management specifically, needs to be vastly improved. We learned from our thirty surveys, administered throughout the course of the trip, how the community perceives water and their water supply. Most people do not have confidence in their drinking water supply, about half of the surveyed population discards their trash directly into the river, and many community members are willing to pay more money every month for constant access to cleaner water. However, despite the understanding that “Agua es Vida” (Water is Life), there is a lack of municipal resources, financial, knowledge, willpower, or “carrying capacity” to provide such things as clean water. For example, we learned that even the Red Cross building for emergency relief (as in hurricanes) is drastically understocked.
Moving forward, we will present our findings with the intent to suggest solutions in partnership with the community of Enriquillo and see how we can create an enhancement proposal in partnership with the Global Water Alliance and the Philadelphia Madrugadores Rotary Club. We hope to enhance scientific and environmental literacy among the community, especially using schools, focusing on water harvesting, storing and distributing; and organizing waste handling at the community level. We hope, working with GWA’s seasoned professionals, to provide more resources (manpower, knowledge, structure) for the municipality, including infrastructural support and improved mapping and maintenance routines. We started a project; we started a partnership with Enriquillo, its residents, we started a friendship.
1The team consisted of Erica DePalma, Research Program Manager of the Water Center at Penn and master’s student studying hydrology; Michelle Barakat MS, hydrogeologist; Thomas McKeon MPH specializing in environmental health; and Elizabeth Pyshnik, stormwater specialist and master’s student studying environmental microbiology.