The majority of Puerto Ricans have been experiencing power outages after Hurricane Fiona first made landfall on September 18, 2022. Not only has the hurricane plunged the islands into darkness, but it has also created another devastating emergency. This has left Puerto Ricans asking, ‘how do we access clean water?’
Even though Fiona was only a category 1 hurricane as it struck the islands, it moved slowly and left 30 inches of rain in some areas. This had almost the same impact on residents as category 4 Hurricane Maria in 2017.
According to Puerto Rico’s emergency portal system on September 20, “more than 760,000 customers of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority had no water service or were suffering significant interruptions.” Puerto Rico’s water agency, known as the AAA, is the only water service on the islands. The AAA serves roughly 1.2 million clients. This has resulted in only 40% of households having access to clean running water. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey also found that after the hurricane “50% of Puerto Ricans reported that their households could not get enough clean water to drink.”
In addition to power outages, water supplies have also been impacted by flooding as “most rivers are too high” according to AAA President Doriel I. Pagán Crespo. Since the majority of Puerto Rico’s 112 filtration plants are supplied by rivers, the islands’ water system is in a precarious situation. Hurricane Fiona’s heavy rains caused many rivers to overflow. It will take time for the flows to return to normal levels. The sheer amount of debris impacting intake structures, where the water enters the treatment plant, must be manually removed. All pumps and parts must be tested to ensure they are operational before use. This will take time, leaving many residents without clean drinking water for much longer than they hoped.
Contrary to popular belief, the hurricane is not the only reason that many Puerto Ricans are unable to access safe drinking water. There has been slow progress in modernizing Puerto Rican water infrastructure. This is another reason why many residents are now reliving the water deprivation they experienced post-Hurricane Maria. After Maria, several water filtration systems across the islands were inoperable. The same thing is occurring post-Fiona with heavy flooding and outages causing murky drinking water or electrical failures. According to the president of Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, Doriel Pagán, more than half of the water authority’s dams and filtration plants have also been impacted by the storm.
Currently in Puerto Rico, 100 of the 240 community aqueducts equipped with tanks run on solar power. Those supply thousands of residents with potable water. Yet, these systems are often too expensive. This is preventing many residents from affording the transition. This has left thousands of Puerto Ricans without potable water. It also has a disproportionate impact on lower-income Puerto Ricans who rely on cheaper public infrastructure.
Many Puerto Ricans across the islands are still struggling to access potable water. Officials are continuing to look for ways to replace and repair the aging infrastructure with more affordable and sustainable solutions. Progress needs to be made to ensure that residents do not lose access to safe drinking water again.