Project 2: Majé de Chimán, Panama – 2013-present
The indigenous community of Majé de Chimán located in eastern Panama has suffered from ongoing issues with their water distribution system and quality of water. The system does not provide any water treatment or supply enough water to meet current demand in the community. This is of increasing concern as the community’s population is expected to almost double in 20 years.
There is broad community support for this initiative. The community leadership has promptly and eagerly answered our questions and has provided us with maps and information from prior water initiatives. Moreover, the local congress of Majé de Chimán and the Panamanian Ministry of Health has approved of the community’s plans to implement a new water distribution system.
The community has also identified other desired improvements to education, sanitation (latrines), and economic development. These additional concerns will be evaluated throughout the program to identify potential solutions.
We recognize the community’s goals and look forward to offering the community a viable, sustainable solution to their water quality and distribution issues. We plan to achieve this by conducting an initial assessment trip to strengthen relations with the community, collect data, detail the goals of the program, and assess the current issues at hand. If after the initial assessment the project is deemed feasible and a mutual agreement is achieved between all parties involved, our team will continue into the design phase. Throughout this partnership, we will be committed to the development of sustainable solutions that address the needs of the community as defined by their stated goals.
The community of Majé in the Chimán District is located 95 km east of Chepo, Panama.
View Majé de Chimán on Google Maps
Though a road to Majé from Chepo is established, it is often flooded or otherwise impassable. Our travel teams go between Chepo and Majé by boat. The boat ride to Majé takes the team down the Chepo River, through the outlet of the Chepo River into the Pacific Ocean, along the coast, and up the Majé River.
Over 960 indigenous Wounaan people reside in the community of Majé de Chimán. A government assessment taken in 2007 to estimate the future population states that the population will exceed 1,700 people within 25 years. The entire population speaks Spanish and Woun Meu (an indigenous language). Members of the community sustain themselves economically through farming, fishing, and the sale of artisanal crafts.
In-Country Support (i.e. NGO)
La Iglesia Evangelica Unida (United Evangelica Church) maintains a presence in the community in the form of a local congregation. The church has been instrumental in supporting and completing developmental and social initiatives in the community. They have access to many resources to aid in the completion of the project.
In the past the community has hosted groups from various organizations that have worked on a range of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of community members. A team of students and professors from Michigan Technological University recently visited the community and noted the community’s desire and willingness to support infrastructure improvements. The community hosted a Peace Corp volunteer in the past that began mapping both the current and proposed water distribution systems.
The community lacks access to an adequate and sustained supply of quality drinking water. The current system has never been able to provide sufficient water even during its initial implementation. During the summer the supply is severely limited or non-existent. Additionally, the current system does not utilize any form of chemical or physical water treatment. This is worrisome due to the presence of illnesses in the community that could have potentially come from this untreated water source. Moreover, a farm nearby leads to concerns of potential water contamination.
Majé de Chimán has an established Water Board called JAAR (Junta de Acueducto Rural) that oversees the administration and maintenance of the current water system with support from the Local Congress of Majé de Chimán. They will be responsible for maintaining and administering any additions to the current system. Training in the operation and maintenance of all newly implemented technologies will be provided by Mizzou EWB.
The goal of the project is to increase the supply of water and to improve the quality of the drinking water. The community proposes to expand the current distribution system to include a new source of water, the Zapatero River. The river flows through virgin forest, reducing the potential for agricultural contamination while providing enough water to meet the community’s immediate and future needs. Ideally, the community will continue to utilize both the current and proposed water systems. Additionally, water quality will be improved through the application of adequate chemical and/or physical water treatment.
Assessment Trip #1
August 9 – 18, 2014
Our travel team of 7 successfully completed the first assessment trip of this project. They were able to establish a relationship with the community. They analyzed the current water system that the community is using and collected data on water quality, consumption, supplies. They also mapped the community and the water sources in the area.
Assessment Trip #2
August 9 - 18, 2015
In August 2015, a Mizzou Engineers Without Borders travel team consiting of Jake Sanders, Seth Fennessey, Jessica Cochran, Thomas Nabelek, Annelise Zeltmann, and Gary Cunningham, headed to Panama for our second assessment trip in Majé.
After landing in Panama City on August 9th, we met Alan Foster, a NGO (non-governmental organization) contact; Kenneth Orozco, whom we hired along with his son to help with transportation and translation/language interpretation, but who was also very helpful with completing our tasks in Majé; and Sebedeo Piraza whom we had worked with in the past. From the airport, we proceeded to the town of Chepo. In Chepo, we gathered some supplies – mostly food, and made sure that our boat was ready for departure the next morning from a port near Chepo. We stayed in a hostel in Chepo for the night.
On the morning of the 10th, we loaded everything into our boat and the Mizzou EWB travel team, Kenneth, Judah, José (a partner of Kenneth), our captain, and another guy who helped guide the boat, headed down the Chepo River. After passing through the outlet of the Chepo River into the Pacific Ocean, traveling along the coast, and heading up the Majé River, we made it to the community of Majé about three and a half hours after our departure from Chepo. There we met Felix (71 years old) who is the leader/chief of three communities in the region and whose hut we stayed in during our time in Majé.
While in Majé, we suggested improvements to the community’s three tank water filtration and storage system by showing them ways to maximize capacity and improve maintenance. We worked with Anibal, a member of the community who is in charge of managing the tanks, to make sure he understood the changes we were suggesting. We conducted a health survey of the community to collect information about water use and reliability, and the health effects of drinking the community water or water sometimes gathered from the river. We met with the water committee and the community as a whole to let them know the current status of our project and to address questions and concerns. On August 12th, some of the team, along with Anibal and two other guides wielding machetes, hiked through the jungle to the old water source (~6 km each way) to evaluate the current water supply pipeline and collect information about possible improvements to the source. Kenneth, Judah, and a few guides hiked the proposed route to a new water source (~10 km each way) and collected needed information along the way.
We had the chance to interact with many community members and to see how the people of Majé live their lives. It was a very enriching experience.
On the morning of August 15th, the team and companions woke up around 4:30 a.m. to depart Majé at high tide. We returned to Chepo where we took some time to experience the community a bit more and to purchase and ship piping supplies back to Majé for the permanent implementation of an experimental pipeline we constructed between tanks.
On August 16th, we returned to Panama City and spent that evening and the next day exploring and experiencing a different side of Panamanian culture.
Finally, on August 18th, after many hours of travel, the team returned to the United States.
Primary tasks completed on this trip were:
- Suggested improvements to the community’s three tank water filtration and storage system by showing them ways to maximize capacity and improve maintenance
- Worked with Anibal, a member of the community who is in charge of managing the tanks, to make sure he understood the changes we were suggesting
- Conducted a health survey of the community to collect information about water use and reliability, and the health effects of drinking the community water or water sometimes gathered from the river
- Met with both the water committee and the community as a whole to let them know the current status of our project and to address questions and concerns
- Hiked to the current water source to evaluate the water transmission pipeline and collect information about possible improvements to the source
- Hiked (hired team and community members) the proposed route to a new water source and collected needed information along the way
March 24 - April 1, 2018
During the spring break of 2018, a group of 10 students traveled to Majé in hopes of starting to build this project. We were able to take EWB members Kennedy Tunks, Matt McMahill, Chandler Olmsted, Kim Rau, Zach Backes, Brandon Lee, Trent McQueen, and Brody Bauman. We also took two former members Jake Sanders and Josh Hester along with our professional engineer Gary Cunningham and faculty advisor Dr. Chris Costello.
We landed in Panama City on March 24 and met Sebedeo Piraza with his family at the airport. He was able to arrange a bus that would take us to our hotel for the night in Chepo. We awoke early, eager to get to Majé and begin our work. Two Chivas transported us by road to Torti where we bought our groceries for the week and were able to meet with our NGO, Alan Foster. We arrived in Majé around 2 P.M. and were able to set up the sleeping arrangements for the week. Before bed, we met and introduced ourselves to the whole community and discussed the plan for the rest of the week.
Our third day in Panama our group split in half. Six of us went into the jungle to map out our pipe route and explore the new source. These members included Matt, Zach, Kim, Brandon, Brody, and Dr. Costelo. These members would hike the 9 km to the source on Monday, then they would hike back to the village on Tuesday when our pipe was supposed to arrive. The other six stayed back in the community to work on the tanks and get filter prepped for the new pipeline. Alan was also traveling into the city to make sure our pipe was still coming in on Tuesday.
After waking up on Tuesday, the second group that stayed back met with Alan to discuss when the pipe would be arriving and what we would be doing once it arrives. As we soon found out, the driver we hired to transport the pipe to the village had taken another job instead of doing ours. Alan was able to find more trucks to bring our pipe to the village but they would be arriving the next week. This meant that we could not begin construction on the pipeline at that moment. By the afternoon the first group had arrived back in the village and we broke the news about the pipe. The group discussed the options we had left and what we could possibly do until we leave on Friday morning. After much deliberation, we decided to prepare the people of Majé the best we could to build this pipeline. The whole group also decided it would be best if we left Majé a day early on Thursday. March is in the dry season for Panama and the reason we were in the country was to give water to people who ran out of water during the dry season. The village was struggling to keep water flowing to each house and we were just thirteen extra bodies to hydrate.
The next day was a day of mingling with the community before we departed the next day. We played soccer with the kids, talked and laughed with the adults, and even spent an hour on the beach. We immersed ourselves in the Panamanian culture, an experience no one on this trip will ever forget.
We were out of Majé by 9 AM the next day. The Chivas took us back to Chepo where we rode a bus to Panama City. We spent the next couple days there exploring the city.
Finally, after a couple plane rides and a fun time through customs, the team arrived back in the States.
During this trip, the team was hoping to accomplish a lot more than what was actually accomplished. We did what we could and the project is in the hands of the community. The team has 100% faith in the community, they want this project finished just as much, if not more than we do.