MPH Panama Practicum 2013: Water Treatment in Panama: Urban and Rural Water Differences

Adriana Morales

July 10, 2013

It is now day 4 in Panama, and I have already seen amazing things. Today was the first day in the field for the vector group, and we went to interesting places.

In the morning, we visited the water sterilization treatment plant. It was small, yet very efficient. It was amazing to be taken through the steps of what it takes to make river water fit for human consumption.

The men who run the plant could even run it with no electricity, since the water runs to the plant by gravity only and they could easily put in the chemicals by hand. Incredibly, they only provide this filtered water to those who live in urban areas, in other words, those who are more affluent. In communities with less than 1,500 residents, the rural areas, they are not given potable water. They are given a large tank of untreated water that they must chlorinate themselves.

The problem with this is that the residents often do not have the money to pay for the chlorine. It often comes down to choosing either to feed their family or to chlorinate the water. Obviously they choose to feed their families, so they often drink water that has not been treated.

The incidence of diarrhea and gastrointestinal diseases is much higher in the rural areas than in the urban areas for this reason. But in the urban areas there are incidences of these diseases as well. The problem with this area is that people do not have the funds to pay for a plumber when the pipes break, so they choose to fix them themselves. Because they are not experienced plumbers, they will often use glue that removes the chlorine or do not tightly seal the pipes correctly, causing contamination to leak into the water.

The director of the water treatment area, Francisco Camarena, explained to us his frustrations. Doctors will call and say that patients are sick because of the water, but in reality it is their management of their water that causes the illness, not the water itself. If they leave water out uncovered it can allow larvae to be in the water that cause malaria or dengue. The glue and unsealed pipes allow diseases to also enter the water they are consuming.

It was a very interesting experience to see the problems that arise because of lack of economic stability in the communities. Simply having clean water is a major problem for these communities. Perhaps some sort of policy changes that allow more funding for these communities would be appropriate, but I do not know where these would even come from since everyone is seriously underfunded as the professionals in the field told us.

We were told that even if someone does not pay for their water, the government has the responsibility and obligation to provide everyone with water. But it seems deplorable that they are not responsible to provide everyone with clean water. Some type of funds or chlorine delivered to the communities that are rural would help them to prevent diseases, instead of focusing on only treating the disease when it already has occurred. A shift to more prevention is necessary rather than being focused on treating the diseases when it is already too late.

About the MPH Panama Practicum

A group of University of Southern California graduate students are researching public health in Panama City, Panama, for a two-week international practicum, organized by the USC Master of Public Health (MPH) program. This post was excerpted from View all posts in this series »