Víctor, the water guardian in Villa Caleta
A UNICEF-supported project guarantees safe-drinking water in ten communities impacted by migration on the Panamanian border. Today more than a thousand people have access to potable water.
In the midst of a blazing sun and almost one hundred percent humidity offered by a country with two seas like Panama, the canoe arrives in Villa Caleta, an Emberá indigenous community at the edge of the Tuquesa River - one of the many affluents that run through the province of Darién, bordering Colombia.
Only a few meters from the landing dock stands Victor, a long-standing community leader.
A man of few words, dressed in a blue sweater and a coppery skin that bears witness to long days under the sun, he takes us on a tour of the village where he was born, where he lives and where he was once president of the local congress.
The town of Villa Caleta is a scattered village. It has a little more than 300 inhabitants spread out in wooden and zinc houses. There is only one school and an ancient memory of what was once a health center. Victor walks a few steps to the water pump to measure the PH and chlorine level, something he does on a regular basis. Then he goes to his next stop while a girl and her mother wait for the chemical test to be completed before filling a bucket with water from the communal tap.
Lunchtime is approaching. The women prepare a stew with rice in the heart of the village, which is a field where everyone gathers for almost everything. Victor arrives at noon to chair the monthly meeting to follow-up on the water project in Villa Caleta.
This is precisely the work of the Juntas Administradoras de Acueductos Rurales (JAAR), the local water committees e made up of community leaders under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. Victor Cabrera, who is the president of the JAAR of Villa Caleta, explains that he is aiming to get more solar panels and batteries to cover the demand for water 24 hours a day. The local water committee is responsible for the chlorination of the water that is extracted from the river with a pump and then filtered and stored in tanks, all done with solar energy, as this community has no electricity.
"We no longer consume water directly from the river as we did before", says Victor while recalling the constant vomiting and diarrhea they suffered from drinking unfiltered water. Despite being on the banks of the river, the water is not safe for human consumption, a situation that has worsened in recent years due to the migration crisis that impact several communities along the path of the various affluents of the river, such as Villa Caleta.
Migration through Panama has intensified over the last five years. To migrate from South America to the North America, many migrants cross the Darien jungle, the most dangerous stretch of the journey located between the borders of Colombia and Panama. In 2022 alone, more than 248,000 people crossed through the jungle, while others did not survive.
The host communities, through which an average of 1,000 migrants pass per day, are located within the Emberá-Wounaán indigenous comarca territory, which is one of the most vulnerable regions of the Central American country in terms of access to basic services such as water, sanitation and hygiene.
"Migration is contaminating the rivers in these indigenous communities along the Tuquesa and Membrillo rivers, which have ancestrally been their water sources," explains Reinaldo Rodríguez, a Global Brigades technician, UNICEF's implementing partner for the Baido project. In the long term, the feces, waste and garbage dumped directly into them can jeopardize the water's drinkability even if it is treated. "It is not the same to purify water with organic matter such as tree leaves and mud as it is to purify water with feces and corpses found in the river," Reinaldo explains.
Currently, UNICEF is financing and supporting Global Brigades in the implementation of the Baido project (which means water in the Emberá indigenous language), which seeks to mitigate the serious lack of access to safe-drinking waters in the 10 communities impacted by migration in Darién, nine of which are indigenous.
"UNICEF provides access to water in migrant host communities in different ways, from the construction of water treatment plants to the provision of storage tanks to increase the access of water to everyone," says Jhon Tovar, UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene specialist in Darien.
Precisely in the midst of the response to the migration flow on the Colombian-Panamanian border, the UNICEF team detected that due to the high level of contamination, drinking water directly from the river exposesthe communities to gastrointestional diseases leading to vomiting and diarrhea, as explained Raúl Isamará Ají, health technician of the Villa Caleta Health Center, one of the 10 communities where UNICEF supported the improvement and expansion of the water purification and storage system "The water is now 85% cleaner after filtering," he said.
In addition, according to Jhon, collecting water from the river exposes children and adolescents to stings and bites and other risks, while reducing the quality of life of women, who, as caregivers, endure long distances carrying the weight of several liters of water on their shoulders.
Thanks to the flexible funds donated by the U.S. Government, UNICEF is able to bring development projects to communities impacted by migration; this strategy, known as Nexus, contributes to strengthening local capacities while addressing a humanitarian emergency.
UNICEF's goal with Baido's projects is to go far beyond building infrastructure and technical operations; the purpose is to work with the communities to merge their ancestral knowledge with the technical aspects and create empowerment processes in the communities so that they can instill among the new generations the awareness of managing their territory by guaranteeing access to water for the community. "Having access to safe-drinking water at home, improves physical and cognitive development and therefore more opportunities for children to envision a different territory in their future," says Jhon.
Victor embodies this process. He used to drink water from the river, but suffered the consequences on his health. Today he leads and works for his community to have more and better access to drinking water in their own homes, something he is sure will benefit the development of his hometown. When we ask him, is he the guardian of Villa Caleta's water? He blushes.