What do we do in our free time you ask? Well, one of the things we do that we especially enjoy is working as volunteers for Operation Safe Drinking Water. This enterprise was founded by 71 year old philanthropist, Joe Bass and his wife Maribel.
There are 20,000 indigenous people who live on the islands of the Bocas Del Toro archipelago. Many of the native settlements on the islands in Panama don’t have access to clean water. For generations, the people here have subsisted on regional natural fresh water sources. Those may range from a spring, to a muddy hole in the ground, to a flowing river. Over the years, conditions have changed. Other people and animals are now sources of contamination for these sources. This causes a myriad of problems, including intestinal worms, anemia, dysentery, and malnutrition. This in turn causes the children to be absent from school and fall behind. The adults fall ill and cannot keep up with their duties at work and at home. The entire community is affected.
Since this area of Panama receives an average of 180 inches of rainfall per year, water catchment systems are an obvious solution. They are simple and low maintenance with only one moving part, the faucet. However, the native people are extremely isolated and have poor economic conditions. Generally, they don’t have the money to buy the water catchment tanks and the pipe and plumbing equipment. The concept is a new approach to and old problem so they need information and training to be able to set up the systems properly and maintain them. Joe’s team and the Peace Corp work with the community leaders, teachers and principals to teach the importance of safe drinking water and simple tank maintenance.
As part of their volunteer assistance program, the organization has also started an emergency boat service, which serves as an ambulance to get critically injured people off the islands and to medical help, preventing many unneeded deaths. It is the first of its kind on this remote peninsula called Bluefields. This location is over a one hours boat ride in a fast boat to the nearest hospital or airport. For the native people who trade or have jobs in Bocas Del Toro in is necessary to paddle the distance in one of their boats, called cayukas, that they hand-carve from trees. Through ocean conditions that are not always friendly or safe, it is a seven hour journey one way.
We volunteered our boat and services to take out the technicians to measure for the new tanks to be installed and to take the local “floating doctors” out to set up a medical clinic. Needless to say it has been an informative, interesting and heartfelt journey.