From Crises to Solutions: Tackling the Water Challenges of an Island Paradise
Article by Nicole Ortiz. La versión en español se encuentra aquí.
Isla Colón has historically faced water supply challenges due to limited sources of freshwater, increased demand from tourism, and problems with infrastructure and water management. With mounting pressure from the community, the local government took action and secured funding for infrastructure improvements and water treatment facilities.
The Institute of National Aqueducts and Sewers (IDAAN) awarded a $10 million contract to the construction company Riga Services, S.A. for the “Study, design, construction, operation and maintenance of improvements to the components of the aqueduct in Isla Colón, Province of Bocas del Toro.”
The new 24-hour water supply system will benefit a population of approximately 17,000 inhabitants. Once installed, the plant will have a distribution capacity of around 2 million gallons of potable water, which will reinforce the supply of this vital resource in Isla Colón.
The increased availability of potable water should decrease gastrointestinal disease rates on the island. Additionally, the project will generate approximately 30 jobs in the community due to the hauling of materials, mobilization of personnel, and transfer of equipment.
The IDAAN project takes on the task of improving the drinking water system that goes from the IDAAN plant to the town and surrounding communities. The four current wells will be cleaned and adapted to improve the generation and increase the water supply. Four additional georeferenced walls will be drilled, new adduction and conduction lines will be established to improve interconnection and distribution and lastly, the installation of a water storage tank with a capacity of 500,000 gallons.
According to Víctor Serrano, regional director of IDAAN in Bocas del Toro, the project is 60% complete to date. With a budget of $6 million, the first phase includes the wells and the construction of a 500,000-gallon storage tank. This will supplement the current reserve of 200,000 gallons, increasing the total reserve capacity to 700,000 gallons of water.
The wells will be used to fill the new storage tank which, thanks to its height and position, will be able to pump water by gravity to the line that has already been built.
Serrano said the storage tank is almost ready and the next step is the construction of housing units for all the wells and the purchase of pumping equipment.
Additionally, the project seeks to improve the intake from the Big Creek reservoir. With the current system, residents receive rainwater from the reservoir during the morning for a while before shutting off; then water service returns one more time, at noon, only to shut off again later. The idea of this project is to establish a water service that operates 24/7, as it does in Changuinola and Almirante.
The current production of water on the island goes from 800,000 to a million gallons per day at its maximum capacity. With the eight wells operating daily, production would increase by almost 2 million gallons more.
After the Environmental Emergency was declared on November 8, 2022, the government decided to invest another $5 million into a second phase that would include the construction of a desalination plant, improvements to the water treatment plant, and water dispensers. Serrano confirmed the funds have been received by IDAAN for the plant and added that it will not be permanently connected, instead it will serve as a backup in case of emergency or when there is a greater demand on the island.
There is a big difference in the quality of the water that comes from the lake and the water that comes from the Boca del Drago wells. For one thing, the lake’s water is shallow, causing it to change color over time due to sediment. As it has more complex characteristics, chemical products must be applied to make it drinkable. On the other hand, the wells have a natural filtration system which is the layer below the earth’s surface. In other words, the water is subjected to natural filtering, resulting in exceptionally high-quality water.
Serrano said the water will be potable when the project is 100% complete and it will not require filtration.
At some point, the new system will mix the water from the lake with the water from the wells in the public supply. However, the plan is for IDAAN to test if the 2 million gallons obtained from the new wells are enough to meet the town’s regular demands.
In regards to the water discharges on the beaches near the IDAAN hill, Serrano stated that this water is treated and not sewage water. He added that, once the new aqueduct project is finished, the new plant will not have water discharges to the beach since it will be incorporated into the into the wastewater system to be treated again.
He clarified that the algae arrive onshore with the sea current rather than caused by the discharge. According to Serrano, the algae situation is a product of climate change and human activity; during the pandemic, IDAAN never stopped processing water and yet the algae situation had improved. He also mentioned that the bad smell is due to algae decomposition.
Regarding mitigation measures, with the help of MIAMBIENTE (Ministry of Environment), it is planned to reforest around the tank, which was the area that was mainly impacted.