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Solar Self-Sufficiency: Using solar technology to enable community access to water, power, and economic resilience in central Puerto Rico

Installing solar units to bring water and power to the central Puerto Rican highlands, and training women in solar technology maintenance.

Photo of Leah Varsano

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Many rural communities in the central Puerto Rican highlands are disconnected from the national power grid since Hurricane Maria damaged or destroyed the majority of the island's infrastructure. These communities rely on small aqueducts for water, which use electric pumps for filtration and distribution. Without power, these communities are left without a safe water source. This project has two parts: 1. Installing solar-powered water systems to power rural aqueducts in the central highlands. 2. Training local women in solar technology maintenance to ensure the functionality and sustainability of the solar units. The lack of safe water has led to serious public health issues in rural Puerto Rico, including widespread leptospirosis. It has also had a significant negative impact on women’s livelihoods and domestic burdens. In rural Puerto Rico women do a significant amount of housework, food preparation, and caretaking of children and the elderly. In the absence of water and power, women’s daily tasks have become complex and time-consuming. Oxfam staff in San Juan is supporting a unique alliance of technical experts and community organizations, dedicated to creating resilient and self-sufficient communities by rebuilding with renewable energy and green technology. This alliance is installing solar-powered water systems in multiple communities in the central highlands. The alliance takes its direction from the community leadership of Bosque Modelo, an organization with deep roots in the region. Oxfam is serving as a convener and technical adviser to the alliance. Many solar projects fail due to a lack of local technical expertise for ongoing maintenance. By equipping local women with the skills to install and maintain solar panel systems, the likelihood of the project's sustainability is increased; focusing on training women enables them to gain critical livelihood skills and become key agents in the recovery process.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

This project directly benefits families living in rural communities in the central highlands of Puerto Rico. Most families in this area are low-income, and unemployment rates are high. The initial phase of the pilot is targeting 3 communities and will affect 243 families (approx. 911 people) - the whole pilot will reach 7-10 communities. Reliable and safe water from the community aqueducts will alleviate many women's daily domestic burdens, reducing both the physical hardships that come with lack of water (doing laundry in rivers, boiling and carrying large amounts of spring water), as well as the serious levels of stress and depression that many women report. The 28 women who become trained during the pilot will benefit from having a critical skillset and an additional source of independent income. Increased access to safe water especially benefits individuals with chronic illnesses, many of whom are elderly, who have been especially vulnerable to water-borne diseases

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Oxfam's Local Humanitarian Leadership (LHL) initiative aims to shift the international humanitarian system from one where international agencies hold most of the power and resources to one in which local actors are able to lead effective disaster response, preparedness, and risk reduction efforts. This project is in accordance with Oxfam's LHL and gender empowerment initiatives. Instead of following an agenda set by the Oxfam America HQ, the local Oxfam team based in San Juan (all Puerto Ricans) is working closely with on-the-ground partners to develop innovative solutions to systemic problems. Rather than distributing generators with high carbon emissions, this project applies green and sustainable technologies, which results in local self-sufficiency. While many local NGOs are based on the perimeter or in the San Juan area, this project focuses on the area where the hurricane’s impact was most severe, poverty levels are high, and services are still not fully restored.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Oxfam is a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty. Oxfam's international confederation is made up of 20 organizations working together with partners and local communities in more than 90 countries. The team in San Juan was hired in the months following Hurricane Maria, and is part of Oxfam America's United States Domestic Program.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Camacho Colón lives in a small community that relies on a local spring-fed aqueduct. After the hurricane, her husband worked hard to repair the pipes that brought water to their home. He quickly developed symptoms of Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease transmitted through contaminated water, and lack of access to adequate medical care led to his tragic death not long after. Now a widow, Camacho urges her children and grandchildren to use only bottled water for cooking, drinking, and washing.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Prosperity: Prior to Hurricane Maria’s landfall, Puerto Rico had an unemployment rate between 10-12%, higher than anywhere else in the US. 45% of Puerto Ricans were living at or below the poverty level and 60% of the island was receiving Medicare or Medicaid. Since the storm, unemployment has increased and tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland. Reliable data doesn’t exist, but the rate of unemployment in the central highlands is much higher than the island's average. Planet: Many municipalities in this area are running on generators, which are inefficient and often not environmentally friendly. Electricity in Puerto Rico is costly (nearly $.30/KWH); the cost of producing solar electricity has plummeted in recent years and is increasingly a viable and mainstream alternative. Lack of power has also meant that people in the highlands have to drive longer distances (using more fuel) in order to procure basic necessities.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

During the pilot, the alliance includes Bosque Modelo, the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, and Oxfam. The role of the alliance is to work with communities in the central highlands to provide support for repairing and restoring their community aqueducts in order to guarantee a supply of adequate, sustainable and safe water for the whole community; address any technical needs, providing support and training to strengthen their administration and management; and ensure that gender concerns are addressed. In addition, Water Mission is serving as a technical partner, and Barefoot Alliance is assisting with the training element. A community outreach and support team composed of two staff from Bosque Modelo, one Oxfam staff (Carlos Talaba), and one engineer from the Puerto Rico Community Foundation (Carlos Adorno), under the supervision of the Community Foundation (led by Javier Rivera), has been established. Brenda Guzman from Oxfam will also support the coordination of the alliance.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The level of community cooperation that Puerto Ricans have demonstrated since the hurricane has been astounding. Over the last eight months, community members have helped each other, looked out for their vulnerable neighbors, and worked together to develop innovative solutions to overcome challenges. This central highlands area, although it has high unemployment, has a relatively high level of education and skill (most residents have finished school through 9th or 12th grade).

Geographic Focus

Communities in the rural central highlands of Puerto Rico (not connected to the national water grid)

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

The pilot phase is underway, and is scheduled to last 6 months and reach 7-10 communities. The whole project could be completed in 18-24 months.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jaci Braga

Dear Leah,
Since Puerto Rico has been completely neglected by the US, this project is so critical for communities to gain access and control of their vital resources including water and power. Creating an affordable and sustainable means of doing this could also be replicated across the world, especially in areas where people are struggling to end their dependence on expensive and harmful fossil fuels and we would love to bring more renewable energy and solutions like this to Brazil. Good luck and best wishes!

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