UC Berkeley students work to finish running water project in Panama

Emily Paszkiewicz/Courtesy

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In January 2016, a team of UC Berkeley undergraduate students went on their first trip to Panama at the start of a project to provide running water that would take the next five years to complete.

Students from the UC Berkeley chapter of Engineers Without Borders, or EWB-UCB, collaborated with Footprint Possibilities, an organization that helps fund U.S. student projects in Panama, to help solve health issues in El Valle de San Francisco caused by contaminated water storage.

The project, which began in 2015, is expected to be officially closed in late spring 2021, according to campus junior and EWB-UCB Panama project lead Cayla Anderson.

“The projects that we work on are, first and foremost, the communities’ projects,” said EWB-UCB president Kevin Sun in an email. “They always have the final say in any design decisions, and all of our work goes through them.”

The Panama project consists of two networks of water tanks. Each network has three tanks, each with an 8,000-liter capacity, connected to communal taps, according to Anderson.

The team also worked with members of the El Valle de San Francisco community to ensure that the networks benefited the community culturally and politically as well, Sun said.

“One thing that I’m really proud of … is we work really closely with our NGO and country and we also have really strong relationships with the community we work with,” Anderson said.

The EWB-UCB team collected data and made plans during a series of assessment trips from 2016 to 2017, according to the team’s professional mentor Rod Jung.

In summer 2017, the team finished constructing the first network during their implementation trip, according to Jung. In January 2018, the team built the second network.

“The way that our club does the EWB projects, in general, is that we don’t come in expecting to know anything other than the very, very technical aspects of our project,” Anderson said.

Community members formed a water committee on their own to be responsible for the distribution and maintenance of the water tanks, according to Anderson.

After the team’s trip in January 2019, the main Panama City water purveyor, Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales, connected the community to a larger water system using the pipe networks constructed by the EWB-UCB team, according to Jung.

“We have seen a decrease in the number of community members reporting their #1 issue with their water system is intermittent supply over the course of this project,” Anderson said in an email.

After seven trips to Panama, the team had planned its last trip to take place in March. The trip, however, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Contact Joy Ma at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dcjoyma.