Project 2: Majé de Chimán, Panama – 2013-present

We took up our second major project in 2013 with the community of Majé de Chimán. The goal of the project is to provide clean and reliable water to Majé year-round. The team conducted assessment trips in 2013 and 2015, then implemented the project in 2018. We plan to conduct a monitoring trip later in 2019.

The indigenous community of Majé de Chimán, located in eastern Panama, has suffered from ongoing issues with their water quality and distribution system. The system cannot meet the current needs of the community during the dry season. This is of continually increasing concern since their population is expected to almost double in the next 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.

Location

The community of  Majé in the Chimán District is located 95 km southeast of Chepo, Panama.


View Majé de Chimán on Google Maps

During the dry season, the community can be reached by truck via a dirt road. During the wet season the road is impassable and our project teams must ride a boat down the Chepo River, along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and up the Rio Majagual.

Population

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 (The United Evangelical 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, and their resources proved tremendously helpful in the completion of our project as well.

The community has hosted groups from various organizations in the past that have worked on a range of initiatives to improves the lives of community members. These included a team of students and professors from Michigan Technological University who noted the community members’ desire and willingness to support infrastructure improvements and a Peace Corps volunteer who began mapping both the old and new water systems.

Community Needs

Majé lacks access to adequate clean drinking water. During the dry season, their current system is unable to provide enough water to fulfill the community’s needs.

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 our project is to increase the community’s year-round supply of quality drinking water. We identified the Zapatero River as an ideal source – it flows through virgin forest, reducing the potential for agricultural contamination, and its flow volume is more than adequate to sustain Majé. The community plans to utilize both their new and old water systems simultaneously for maximum affect.

Assessment Trip #1

August 9 – 18, 2014

Our travel team of seven successfully completed the first assessment trip of this project.  They were able to establish a relationship with the community. They analyzed the old water system that the community was 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, Mizzou EWB sent a travel team consisting of Jake Sanders, Seth Fennessey, Jessica Cochran, Thomas Nabelek, Annelise Zeltmann, and Gary Cunningham to Majé for a second assessment trip.

After landing in Panama city on August 9th, we met Alan Foster, our non-governmental organization (NGO) contact; Kenneth Orozco and his son, whom we hired to assist with transportation, translation, and fieldwork in Majé; and Sebedeo Piraza, a previous inhabitant of the community who we had worked with previously. From the aiport we proceeded to the town of Chepo where we gathered supplies and prepared for our departure the next morning. We stayed in a hostel in Chepo for the night.

On the morning of the 10th we loaded our supplies into a boat and departed down the Chepo River. We passed into the Pacific Ocean, traveled along the coast, and headed up the Rio Majagual, arriving at the community about three and a half hours after our departure from Chepo. There we met 71-year-old Felix who was the leader/chief of three communities in the region and whose home 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 performance. We worked with Anibal, a community member in charge of managing the tanks, to ensure he understood the changes we were suggesting. We conducted a health survey of the community to collect information about water use and reliability as well as the health effects of drinking the system water and the nearby river water. We met with the water committee and the community as a whole to convey the current status of the project and address questions and concerns. On August 12th, some of the team was led by Anibal and two other locals on a hike through the jungle (~6 km each way) to evaluate the old water system and collect information on possible improvements to the source. Kenneth and a few guides hiked the proposed route the new water source (~10 km each way) and collected necessary information en route.

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.

Implementation Trip

March 24 – April 1, 2018

During spring break 2018, ten Mizzou EWB members traveled to Majé to implement the project. These students were Kennedy Tunks, Matt McMahill, Chandler Olmsted, Kim Rau, Zach Backes, Brandon Lee, Trent McQueen, Brody Bauman, Jake Sanders, and Josh Hester. Traveling with them were professional engineer Gary Cunningham and faculty advisor Dr. Christine Costello.

We landed in Panama City on March 24 and met Sebedeo Piraza with his family at the airport. He arranged for a bus to take us to our hostel for the night in Chepo. We woke early and traveled by truck to Tortí where we bought supplies and met our NGO contact, Alan Foster. We arrived in Majé around 2 P.M. and settled into our home for the week. Before bed, we met and introduced ourselves to the whole community and discussed the plan for our time with them.

The next day, our group split in half. Matt, Zach, Kim, Brandon, Brody, and Dr. Costello went into the jungle to map the final pipe route and explore the new source. They hiked to the source on Monday and back to the community on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the rest of the team stayed in the community to work on the tanks and get the filter prepared for the new pipeline. Alan also traveled into the city to ensure the pipe would arrive on time.
On Tuesday, Alan returned with the news that the truck driver meant to deliver our pipe had become side-tracked with another job. Alan found other trucks to deliver the pipe, but they were not available to do so until the next week. This meant we could not begin construction while in the community as originally planned. When the hiking group arrived back in the community, everyone discussed the best solution to the problem at hand. After deliberating, it was decided that the team would prepare the people of Majé as best as possible to begin construction the next week and leave the community a day early. The trip took place during Panama’s dry season, so even an extra twelve people put a great deal of stress on their water system.

The next day was one of mingling with the community before departure. We played soccer with the kids, talked and laughed with the adults, and even spent an hour on a nearby beach with some of the locals. We immersed ourselves in their culture, an experience no one on the trip will ever forget.

We left Majé by 9 A.M. the next day. Trucks returned us to Chepo and a bus carried us back to Panama City. We spent a few days exploring the city before returning to the United States.

Project Documents