Bringing Water up the Hill in Panama

No longer do residents of El Guayabo in Panama need to go down the hill to fetch a pail of water. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Bri Drake (PCMI student in Civil and Environmental Engineering) played a lead role in the design and implementation of a new water distribution system in El Guayabo. A portion of this town sits on top of a hill and used to manually draw all of its water from a well at a lower elevation. This meant that residents hauled water up the hill in containers every day for eight homes, a school, and a church. Working collaboratively with the local water committee in El Guayabo, Bri served as the project manager to install a solar-powered pump in the well, holding tanks, and underground pipes to buildings. “There were fifteen to twenty people out working on the project regularly as we built the structures for the tanks, installed the tanks, and dug trenches for the pipes,” explains Bri. Now complete, the Lorentz solar-powered pump uses 340 Watts of solar panels to lift water 30 meters up the hill to a 200 gallon tank for the school and a second 850 gallon tank for the homes and church. From the tanks, piped water now flows to all of these structures.

This project not only ended up being a great help to the people in El Guayabo, but Bri’s design makes a contribution toward water engineering knowledge. Gravity-fed water distribution systems are common in rural Panama and work quite well in places located at an elevation lower than the spring source. However some places, such as El Guayabo, are unable to adopt this technology without the added component of a pump. In a place as isolated as El Guayabo, diesel and gas are hard to come by as power sources. Sunlight, however, is plentiful. Working with her adviser, Professor John Gierke, Bri is writing up her findings on the efficiency of solar-powered pumping systems in rural Panama.

Bri completed her Peace Corps service in Panama in September 2013, but returned to Panama as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV) in January 2014 to work collaboratively with the NGO Water Lines, which funds many of the gravity-fed water systems in Panama. In this new position, Bri will evaluate past projects, work with local water committees, and organize trainings, continuing on the work that another of our PCMI students, Erica Jones, has been involved with in Panama. Erica just returned to Michigan Tech for spring semester to complete her M.S. in Environmental Engineering. When Bri completes her Peace Corps Response work in June 2014, she also plans to return to Tech to complete her master’s degree.

Within the first month of Bri’s Peace Corps Response work, she has reconnected with the community where PCMI alumna Julie Herrick served (2007—2009). Julie was thrilled to hear the news, “Water is still flowing in Quebrada Mina!” Their water committee is still active, and the water system is still functioning about five years later. In particular, Julie notes the contribution of the water committee secretary Miguel Mora. “He kept the meetings moving and took the lead whenever there was a gap. I'm so thankful for his leadership!” Julie was also delighted to hear that Miguel and his family are doing well.

Bri’s blog chronicling her Peace Corps service is available here: