La Tierra Prometida: Panama’s waterless Promised Land

By Andrew Donovan & Natalia Vanegas

LA TIERRA PROMETIDA, Panama – Tucked away among the rolling hills of Panama’s impoverished Sector C countryside rests a small and secluded village known as La Tierra Prometida.

Just a 30-minute drive from the sultry skyline of Panama’s thriving cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, La Tierra Prometida – translated means “The Promised Land” in English – represents a far different world than that of the country’s well-known capital city.

Rotting wood and rusting scrap metal adorn the small, dirt-floor shacks that line the rocky and winding dirt roads of this seemingly forgotten shantytown in southern Panama.

However, this represents only part of the cruel irony of the place called The Promised Land.

The approximately 500 men, women and children who inhabit the close-knit community of La Tierra Prometida live most of their days without running water.

Water only flows through the village’s pipes once every three to six months and the government car that brings water during the dry times only comes every eight days, if at all, resident Maritza Correa said. Even when the car does show up, that water lasts only two or three days before it becomes contaminated and unusable.

Without the proper means to store and conserve the transported water and without a dependable supply of fresh water from the pipes, citizens of La Tierra Prometida have done their best to cope, but continue to endure unending problems.

Residents collect rain water in large barrels for drinking, taking showers and washing clothes, but due to changing climates and insufficient storage procedures, this water source is not reliable and undrinkable.

“During the winter, we have fewer problems, but during the summer, sometimes it doesn’t rain,” Correa said. “And even when it does rain, the water only lasts two or three days before it starts to smell bad. This has affected the kids. It gives them diarrhea, vomiting and fever.”

Hoping to prolong the water’s useful life, one resident added Clorox to the rainwater, hoping to clear up the black residue that had accumulated at the bottom of the barrel. The residue cleared, but the resident, Clara Santos, was left with rashes throughout her body after bathing in the improperly-treated water.

“Look at me how I am,” Santos said, painfully revealing several scars spread across her forearms.

Like the rest of the people of La Tierra Prometida, Santos is fed up with the waterless conditions.

“For a whole week, my grandson had a fever and diarrhea, and he was vomiting,” she said. “There are no more options. The water from the rain is making us sick.”

“When there is no water from the water car, from the pipes, from anywhere,” Correa said. “We have to go to the stream to shower. The stream is in the woods and there could be snakes or other animals. That’s dangerous.

“Aside from that, there are people with bad intentions living in the woods. They can take a girl and take advantage of her,” she added.

From the car, to rain water, to the streams, Correa said the people of La Tierra Prometida have tried tirelessly to come up with a solution, but have yet to find one.

“I have been living here for seven years and the problem is still not over,” she said angrily. “We have tried in everyway to solve this issue, but they haven’t solved our water situation.”

“They,” according to Correa, is the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN), the country’s national aqueducts and sewage institute.

“We’ve ask the IDAAN to do something about it, but they haven’t solved our problem,” Correa said.

Their pleas to the IDAAN – the country’s water distributor – have gone unanswered other than the time some of the villagers banded together in protest, creating a human roadblock on a nearby street.

“When we did that, we got water,” Correa said. “And what does that tell us? That tells us that there is water available because the day we closed the street, the engineer from the IDAAN came here and the next day we had water, and a lot of it.”

But, within days, the village’s pipes were again dry, leading Correa and other residents to believe their situation is the result of a lack of compassion and competence on the part of the IDAAN rather than an issue of supply.

IDAAN officials do not deny the accusations of the village’s residents. However, officials say they have no foreseeable solution to the problem and they do not know when running water will be consistently available to the area.
“The people that live in the metropolitan area have different conditions of service of potable water,” IDAAN official Catalina de Guema said. “There are zones in the city of Panama that always have the flow of water.

“There are other zones that have it sporadically.”

La Tierra Prometida is located in one of those zones and its lack of water is due to the nature of its establishment said fellow IDAAN official Julio Cefar.

”Those are zones that were not planned and the communities are growing without the government being able to keep up,” Cefar said. “Because of that, we cannot always cover those areas with water.

“Despite that, I believe we have one of the major coverage areas of potable water based on population in all of Latin America,” Cefar said. “That’s what the statistics say.”

But, it’s not the statistics that matter to the people of La Tierra Prometida.

“They always tell us to wait and it seems that we are going to stay waiting,” Santos said. “Nobody listens to us or comes here to see the situation. We’re totally abandoned.”

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