Delrin, the migrant who supplies water to the Darien
Delrin Chavarría is a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist at UNICEF Panama..
It is 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning in Darien. The sun is not yet burning when Delrin Chavarría begins the routine he obsessively follows every day at this hour: he writes from his cell phone to his team's technicians to check if the water pumps are working, if there is enough water stored for filtering and if there is potable water available for drinking. He mentions things like "decantation", "filtration" and "chlorination" as he gets into the car and heads in the direction of Lajas Blancas, one of the three Migrant Reception Stations (ERM) where in a few more hours hundreds of migrants will arrive, after crossing the jungle for days, dodging the wild rivers, impossible hills, wild animals and armed gangs that abound in the natural border between Colombia and Panama.
"The people, especially the children, arrive here exhausted, without strength, sick after so many days in the jungle, barely eating, and drinking contaminated water from the rivers," says Delrin as he enters the ERM, tinted by the golden morning light. "They need drinking water, attention, to be received with some humanity."
Delrin is a tall, friendly man who arrived here in June 2021, hired by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to do what he does now: maintain and create a system to make water drinkable for migrants in Darien. Born in Karatá, Puerto Cabezas, an indigenous community on the margins of Nicaragua, and a migrant himself, he knows about deprivation and moving in search of a future. In the community where he grew up - a haven of natural beauty in the Nicaraguan Caribbean - they collected rainwater because there was no other way to get it. There was no school beyond elementary school either, so at the age of 12 Delrin left for the city.
"It was like another world," he recalls with a smile. "In my communities you go to school barefoot and in shorts, in the city you had to wear shoes."
Since then, he has not stopped moving or studying: a scholarship allowed him to go to university in the capital of his country, another one allowed him to study a master's degree in Risk Management and, after some work in humanitarian assistance and conservation that took him all along the Caribbean coast, he crossed the ocean to continue his training in Europe.
"I am part of this migration because I am looking for better opportunities for happiness, wellbeing, joy," says Delrin. "Being indigenous, opportunities are few, in my area drug trafficking is very high and I had ambitions, and a curiosity to go out and see the world. I didn't want to stay here, to stagnate."
And he did not remain stagnant. In 2018, Delrin traveled to Spain to pursue a postgraduate degree in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene with a focus on emergency contexts at the University of Alcalá. Then he went to Milan, Italy, for a master's degree in cooperation with a focus on development, water and sanitation. The last stop, before arriving in Panama, was South Sudan, where he led a study on water. Water is one of his obsessions: he grew up without it and knows it is fundamental.
"That was what my grandmother, who raised me, suffered the most every year," he says. "In the community there is no water source, so in summer, when it doesn't rain, they have to go in a cayuco for about two hours to where the river is, fill the buckets and then head back for another two hours."
So when Delrin arrived in Darien in mid-2021, the territory seemed familiar to him: a geography surrounded by indigenous communities like his own, to work with migrants like him on the issues that his most obsessed about: water and sanitation. Within a few hours he understood that this was part of the broken continent, without infrastructure: there are communities without drinking water, searching in the nearby river is a bad idea because it is not clean and the rain is abundant but it is not stored or filtered.
"It was terrible," he says. "The children would arrive, as they do now, with colic, skin fungus, gastrointestinal problems and they had no water to drink or to wash themselves."
To assist migrant children and adolescents and their families crossing the Darien jungle, in 2019 UNICEF brought other organizations to get involved, and established a cooperation agreement with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project was then born, with the installation of an emergency water supply kit.
UNICEF has been in Darien since 2018 with health, nutrition, child protection and recreation programs, implemented with partners and in coordination with government institutions to guarantee the rights of children and adolescents in Panama, regardless of their nationality, where they come from or their migratory status. UNICEF has been providing services in the Darien to ensure access to safe drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, training and delivery of menstrual hygiene kits, maternal and child health, protection against all forms of violence and psychosocial support, with recreational activities and child development in Child Friendly Spaces for the last 3 years thanks to funds from the United States Government. The European Union has recently joined this effort. But the demand has increased very rapidly.
People crossing the border went from 9,222 in 2018 to nearly 24,000 in 2019 and more than 120,000 this year (2021), of which about 26,000 were children. The migration flow multiplied, so UNICEF and its partners in 2020 converted the emergency team into a medium/long-term Potabilization Plant. A year later, they hired Delrin as a specialist. Together with the team working with him, he ensures that all the clean water that migrant and host community families need for hydration, bathing, cooking and brushing their teeth is produced.
"They need to rest, to heal, to regain their strength," Delrin says. "They need to be treated with dignity and humanity."
The hours are ticking away in Lajas Blancas, it is almost midday and Delrin has just finished coordinating cleaning actions with the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), in charge of the ERMs. In addition to access to drinking water, WASH includes cleaning actions such as waste recycling, sanitation and hygiene: showers, portable toilets, hand-washing stations.
In Lajas Blancas there are many trash cans, tents scattered in areas where families rest, feed their children or cook, and a health care center where there is now a waiting line. For all that they need water. Sitting in front of a tent, near the showers, is Mia, a Haitian woman who arrived from Brazil and arranges things to go and bathe her son.
“I was longing for water" she says, holding her child. "It was very hard to be in the jungle for so many days without water and it is refreshing to find it here. Water is life and now we can go on."
A little further on, near the water treatment plant, Delrin checks to see if there is enough water stored that can be made potable so that Mia, her son and hundreds of other migrants can bathe. He checks, picks up his cell phone, opens an application and enters into the humanitarian software they use to keep statistics: 12,474 liters of drinking water for 732 people today, with 28 portable toilets and three washing points functioning. Result: All those who arrived were able to drink and wash themselves.
"Seeing the children here bathing, drinking water, running and enjoying themselves gives me a unique sense of pride," says Delrin. "I am happy that they can continue into the future."