Puerto Rico’s Water and Sanitation Crisis: How the Government is Failing to Ensure this Basic Human Right?

By Jennifer Natoli, Contributor 

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In the shorter term, Puerto Ricans remain wary of their water. Residents that can afford to purchase water from local stores say that they will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

According to the United Nations, access to clean water and adequate sanitation are integral human rights that governments, which are commonly referred to as ‘duty-bearers,’ should provide. Puerto Rico —a U.S. territory — is failing to guarantee this right to its citizens.

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto. Soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that bacterial testing had been conducted by the Puerto Rico Department of Health in response to the hurricane. In its request for disaster recovery assistance, the government of Puerto Rico noted that over 70 percent of the island’s water treatment and distribution systems were negatively affected by Maria. The report concluded that over two-thirds of the population —approximately 2.3 million people — were at risk of exposure to bacterial contamination.

The tests were conducted during October and November 2017. At least forty-two cities had a water sample that tested positive for total coliforms. Coliforms are a family of bacteria which indicate that water may not have been disinfected properly, therefore disease-causing organisms may be present in the water. One of the cities that tested positive was San Juan, the island’s capital, which supplies water to over one million residents. Additionally, five cities had sample tests which were positive for E. coli, which is an indicator of possible fecal contamination in the water. While many cities drew negative samples, some cities fluctuated between positive and negative. A positive E. coli sample does not automatically constitute a violation of the Total Coliform Rule, under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

Interestingly, concerns over safe drinking water in Puerto Rico are not confined to the post-Maria period. According to a May 2017 report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the island’s water infrastructure has been crumbling for decades. This leaves the island incredibly vulnerable should a natural disaster strike. In 2015, Puerto Rico had the worst water in the nation, with 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans being served by water systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and 69.4 percent being served by sources that violated the SDWA’s minimum health standards. Some of the violations included contamination with bacteria or chemicals, failure to properly treat the water, and failure to conduct water testing or to report results —all of which are required by federal guidelines.

A year after the hurricane, new concerns are spreading over another contaminant: lead. In January 2018, the National Science Foundation funded a small set of studies to test the water on the island. One such study required a team of scientists to go door-to-door, gathering bottles of water from people’s bathroom sinks. Although the scientists were testing for bacterial contamination, they found high levels of lead. The scientists attempted to trace the lead levels to their origin. Unfortunately, they ran into obstacles because Puerto Rico’s major water utility, PRASA, had not been testing the water for several years, a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. These requirements have become even more stringent in the wake of the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Puerto Rico has not adhered to these rules.

Many experts agree that in order for Puerto Rico to address its water issues, the island needs massive investments in its drinking water infrastructure. In April 2018, Eli Diaz-Atienza, the director of PRASA, requested $2 billion in infrastructure spending over the next five years. Hopes for the funds are high because, earlier that same month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved $18.5 billion in community block grants for the island to rebuild and improve housing and infrastructure.

Brent Fewell, a water lawyer based in Washington, D.C., and a former senior official at the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water, agrees that funding for infrastructure is necessary, but cautions that the bigger issue is negligence. “What I would say is, money is not going to fix the culture… If you’ve got a broken culture, [employees] that don’t understand the law or simply do things their own way, extra funding is not going to fix that. What will fix that is leadership,” Fewell said.

In September 2018, the EPA announced it is funneling $10 million in technical support and financial assistance to small, independent, rural systems that have struggled to treat and test drinking water. “We have an opportunity now to change decades of communities struggling to bring drinking water to their people, and that is what we are doing today with this energized and powerful partnership of government, non-profit, and private organizations,” said Pete Lopez, EPA Regional Administrator. “The time is now to change the equation and seize this opportunity to transform communities and make these systems more sustainable and resilient,” he said.

Yet, this is a long-term project with many investments being dispersed over the span of years. In the shorter term, Puerto Ricans remain wary of their water. Residents that can afford to purchase water from local stores say that they will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

About Author: Jennifer Natoli is a Rutgers Ph.D. Candidate, Division of Global Affairs and Teaching Assistant, Political Science Department.

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