In Rural Puerto Rico, a Drive for Clean Water

Hurricane Fiona was just the most recent disaster to contaminate wells and cisterns across the island. Now, a water filter distribution program is hoping to help bring access to clean water to thousands.

Just a few months after responding to Hurricane Fiona In Puerto Rico, Team Rubicon is delivering a different kind of disaster relief to the island: Access to clean water.

While much of the country’s urban water system survived Fiona or was restored quickly after the hurricane, rural systems—where families typically draw their water from wells or cisterns—fared less well. 

“The issue here is that Hurricane Fiona came over and knocked a whole bunch of nasty stuff into wells and put in junk into cisterns, and now those water sources are polluted,” says Francois de la Roche, a Team Rubicon volunteer in Puerto Rico. “There’s only so long people can live on, or access, bottled water delivered by the office of emergency management.” 

To help remedy the problem, de la Roche and other Team Rubicon volunteers—or Greyshirts—are distributing hundreds of water filters across the island, much as they did in Honduras after Hurricane Eta and Iota in 2020.

While many water and sanitation,hygiene (WASH) initiatives rely on short-term solutions such as chlorine tabs, this clean water initiative in Puerto Rico is meant to provide at least one year’s worth of clean water and take advantage of gravity-fed water filtration systems, instead. 

Made by Sawyer, the filtration systems being distributed in Puerto Rico feature a reservoir bag for dirty water, a 2-ounce filter, and a hose. Self-contained, they can be hung from trees, rafters, or held in hand and remove more than 99.9% of bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera, and E.coli, and more than 99.9% of protozoa, such as giardia. 

Greyshirts aren’t only getting the Sawyer water filters into people’s hands, they’re also teaching families how to set the filters up and how to backwash the filters to keep them clean. The goal is to ensure every filter delivers 100,000 gallons of clean water over the course of its lifetime. In a country where the family water usage averages 62 gallons a day, one filter is enough to provide multiple families in a community with clean water for more than a year. And while the Sawyer filters are distributed to individual families, they are meant to be a shared community resource so that everyone has access to clean water.  

“Getting 100,000 gallons out of one filter might last four or five families a year, a year-and-a-half. And then in that time, hopefully things will get repaired enough to where they get access to fresh water,” says de la Roche.

A volunteer holds a Sawyer water filter in Puerto Rico.
Greyshirt Francois de la Roche delivers a Sawyer water filter in rural Puerto Rico. Photo by Carlos Chiossone.

Providing the water filtration systems is helping return some degree of independence to thousands across the island, but it’s not just recovery from Hurricane Fiona that’s being granted.

“There are people here who were affected by Hurricane Maria, who have not had a reliable water source since that event,” says de la Roche. 

Take, for example, the rural community of Villalba, which was without clean drinking water for years after 2017’s Hurricane Maria. In October, Greyshirts delivered 35 Sawyer filters to the village to serve 88 families. 

Since the program began in October, Greyshirts have distributed 375 water filters to families across Puerto Rico. Because those filters are being shared, that will mean clean water for an estimated 9,425 individuals for at least the next year.