A water transmission system, a network of pipes which brings water from its source to consumers, is the standard method of water distribution. However, natural disasters can disrupt this system, requiring the implementation of other methods to distribute clean water. During Hurricane Maria, people in Puerto Rico went an average of 64 days without traditional water service, but this number was much larger for people in rural areas. [1] As water is an incredibly basic need, we propose that steps be taken to ensure all individuals have access to clean water in the event of a natural disaster. These steps include: 

Maintaining Power in Water Distribution and Waste Management Centers

Water distribution centers need power to pump water to homes, maintain pressure in the pipes (which prevents water contamination), and treat water. [2] When waste management centers lose power, waste is released into the environment which can contaminate water and lead to disease. Ideally, water distribution centers and waste management centers should never lose power during a storm. 

This can be accomplished by prioritizing the maintenance of private generators owned by water distribution and waste management centers on the island. Many of these generators are very old, but they should be used to their full potential, as a huge budget would be needed to supply all water distribution and waste management centers on the island with new generators. There are 114 water treatment plants and 51 wastewater treatment plants in Puerto Rico. [3] Though power needs vary by center, an average center would need a 40 or 50 KW generator, which corresponds to a minimum cost of $25,000. [4] Consequently, a minimum of $4.1 billion would be needed to provide all water distribution and waste management centers with new generators. There are currently more pressing issues that need financed, such as the improvement of Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure. As a result, the maintenance of private generators should be prioritized to lengthen the life span of these generators. Steps to ensure this include:

Figure 1: One water distribution center was using a submarine engine to power a generator for their center (Kozacek, 2017). [5]

a) Generator Repair. A kit containing common parts necessary for generator repairs should be provided to every water distribution or waste management center and stored with the generator so the parts can be quickly located in the event of an emergency. Though generator types and models vary greatly by center, some items would be useful in the repair of any type of generator. Examples include a voltmeter, motor oil, and spare spark plugs. [6] Generators which have not been used in awhile are likely to malfunction when restarted due to the break down of spark plugs or the dilution of oil and consequent formation of oil sludge overtime. [6] While some problems with generators may be more complex and require outside expertise to be fixed, a kit containing these tools allows simple problems like those listed above to be fixed almost immediately and removes reliance on outside help. 

b) Outside intervention after a storm. A group of individuals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed the states of 400 generators after Hurricane Maria and repaired over 100 of them by December, 3 months after the storm. [5] This allowed many water distribution and waste management centers to function. More emphasis should be put on projects like these which utilize available resources on the island. By fixing generators currently located on the island instead of waiting for generators to be sent from the mainland, this is a much faster way to provide power to water distribution and waste management centers.

However, generators cannot serve as a long term power supply for water distribution and waste management centers. Some rural areas in Puerto Rico went 11 months without electricity after Hurricane Maria. [7] Obviously, it is not sustainable to provide generators with diesel fuel for 11 months. As a result, energy microgrids may be a more sustainable source of power for water distribution and waste management centers in rural communities which are likely to spend long periods of time without access to electricity. This idea was implemented after Hurricane Maria by Water Mission. The group successfully restored water service to forty communities in Puerto Rico using solar-powered microgrids. [8] Clearly, energy microgrids have great potential to provide water distribution and waste management centers with power after a hurricane and thus provide a reliable source of clean water to citizens in rural areas. The feasibility and implementation of energy microgrids in Puerto Rico among rural communities, specifically solar and wind powered energy microgrids, is discussed in more detail on the Alternative Energy Resources page.

Distribution of Water-Filtration Systems

After a hurricane, it is inevitable that some water distribution or waste management centers will not function. As a result, alternative methods are needed to serve as back-up plans for providing individuals with access to clean water. Most commonly, this means the distribution of bottled water after a natural disaster. However, the cost of transporting bottled water is extremely high as water is very heavy. Additionally, huge quantities of it are needed. A family of four needs at least 4 gallons of drinking water per day, which equates to 32 water bottles a day, and this estimate does not account for the water needed for cooking or basic hygiene. 

A cheaper, more effective solution to providing clean water after a hurricane is the distribution of gravity-powered filtration systems. Gravity powered water filters, like the ones shown below, cost around $160. [9] They can filter between 10 and 48 gallons of water a day, meaning that only one would need to be provided to each family who is without access to clean water. [9] Over 64 days, the average length of time a household went without water service after Hurricane Maria, a household of 4 would use 2,048 water bottles solely for drinking water. This corresponds to a cost of $482 when calculated using current wholesale prices for bottled water, a cost triple that of a gravity-powered filtration system. 

When the correct filters are installed, a gravity powered filtration system removes 99.99% of all contaminants and pollutants, meaning that individuals can safely drink water collected from any source. [10] When individuals regained access to water after Hurricane Maria, for many people, the water coming out of their faucets still wasn’t clean. [9] If gravity powered filtration systems are provided to families after a storm, they can use them to purify the water coming from the faucets in their house, ensuring they have clean water.

Figure 2: Two different gravity powered water filtration systems and a model of how they work (Jenkins, 2019 and The Berkey, 2019). [9][10]

This idea was put into practice after Hurricane Maria through a program by the The Puerto Rico Science, Technology, & Research Trust. [11] About 33,000 water filters were distributed to individuals in Puerto Rico who did not have access to clean water. [11] The Puerto Rico Science, Technology, & Research Trust found that the program was a success; the filters were successful in removing all the contaminants in the water and there was a high rate of satisfaction among the individuals served. [12] 

To ensure that all individuals in Puerto Rico have access to clean water after a storm, this idea should be implemented on a larger scale which reaches all the communities of Puerto Rico. This can be accomplished by stocking community centers with an adequate number of water filters (one for each household in the community) before the storm. This ensures that when a storm hits, the water filters can be quickly distributed to community members and no individual goes without clean water. The filters only need to be replaced once a year, by which time individuals should certainly have regained access to clean water. [10] In addition to ensuring that all individuals have access to clean water, this solution is more allowing of a self-reliant community.