Puerto Rico’s Water Crisis Was Preventable

One month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, local officials say they’ve stabilized the water supply, but that’s not what people are experiencing on the ground. Observers claim that residents are still struggling to find clean drinking water, and it’s ushering in a serious public health crisis — one that some experts argue could have been prevented.

Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has been heavily compromised by storm damage. The island’s electrical grid, for example, is a mess, while roads in some regions are extremely difficult to traverse.

The water supply, key for public health, has especially  suffered under the strain of the storm. Residents are reportedly collecting water from hazardous waste sites, bringing filthy containers to water distribution centers, dealing with boil water advisories on tap water where it’s available and struggling to meet their water needs for bathing, drinking and cooking.

If you’re used to turning on a tap and getting fresh, potable water, the dire situation in Puerto Rico might seem a little abstract. We waste one trillion gallons of water every year with leaky faucets, inefficient toilets and other bad habits, because letting a few gallons disappear down the drain doesn’t seem like a big deal.

But it becomes a harsh reality when every ounce of water you drink has to be carried from a distribution point to your house — and when it may need to be boiled or treated with water purification tablets before you can drink it.

Lack of access to drinking water is dangerous, but not having water for hygiene can become a widespread crisis very quickly. This isn’t just about feeling grungy because you can’t take a shower, or finding the smell of your unwashed clothes highly unpleasant. Inadequate hygiene can facilitate the spread of disease, including diarrheal illnesses — a known problem in regions affected by natural disasters that disrupt the water supply.

Several issues are amplifying this public health crisis, and the first is the poor state of Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure before the storm. Long before clouds started forming over the Atlantic, communities experienced frequent interruptions to the water supply and poor water quality. And when a major storm strike fragile infrastructure, the result can be devastating.

Next, aid delivery isn’t going smoothly. It’s not coordinated, it’s slow and it’s doesn’t always meet the need on the ground. The Sphere Project, which has developed comprehensive humanitarian guidelines for responding to disasters, provides evidence-based recommendations delivering supplies and clean drinking water. This guidance hasn’t been met, even though the United States is an incredibly wealthy and powerful nation — and some members of Congress want to know why.

The water crisis is also an energy problem. Electric pumps move water from place to place and force it through filters, while other electrical equipment manages wastewater treatment and provides oversight for water delivery. But Puerto Rico is dealing with devastating damage to the electrical grid, insufficient fuel for generators and other challenges that make it hard to get these systems up and running again. The lengthy repairs required could have some communities waiting for months before they can easily access clean water.

But there are ways to prevent catastrophes like this, and Puerto Rico may be a lesson for your own community. Consider attending community disaster preparedness meetings and asking tough questions about how the water supply will be secured in an emergency — especially if you live in a remote area.

At the same time, be aware that Puerto Rico’s woes are also compounded by racism and the historic treatment of the island as a second-class citizen in the United States. It’s important to call your representatives to tell them you’re concerned about the need for long-term aid in Puerto Rico, especially given the president’s threats to terminate federal assistance. Remind your legislators to stay the course — we cannot abandon our fellow citizens.

Photo credit: Lt. Col. Dale Greer/Kentucky Air National Guard


Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thanks for the article

Jennifer H
Jennifer H6 months ago

Rump and Fema acted despicably. Shameful inaction.

Lenore K
Lenore K7 months ago


Eric Lees
Eric L7 months ago

Once again the lessen should be never depend on the government. When will people learn that more government is never the solution to problems caused by government?

Puerto Rico could be very rich if it were not for the burden of government and corruption. But they have less debt than us citizens living in the states as the federal debt does not apply to the USA territories.

Marija M
Marija M7 months ago

tks for sharing

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney7 months ago

Thump and his lies don't help either. Thank you for caring and sharing

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney7 months ago

Very interesting but sad article Thank you for caring and sharing

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney7 months ago

Deplorable and sickening Thank you for caring and sharing

Winn A
Winnie A7 months ago

:-( Noted

Kelsey S
Kelsey S7 months ago

Thanks for sharing