Contaminated Water Everywhere, Not a Drop to Drink

Potentially Contaminated Water

Can You Drink It?

Here in the Azuero Penninsula many of us feel like “The Ancient Mariner” right now.  Most of the area has been without potable water for a week. On June 30, Panama’s IDAAN declared the water here “unfit for human consumption” anywhere that it is obtained from the La Villa de Los Santos River.

What happened? Well, the river was contaminated.

But how? Well, it involved a sugar cane farm somewhere along the river. On that much everyone agrees.

From there, one story says that the farmer was using rat poison in the field and the hired help threw what was left over in the river. Or maybe they threw the dead rats in. Or maybe some cows ate it and the farmer threw the dead cows in.

Or maybe it was a herbicide. And maybe they threw that in.

Or maybe they put the herbicide on the field and then it rained and washed in.


And now that the government has started communicating a bit, it turns out the farmer was using atrazine, a seriously heavy-duty herbicide heavily restricted in the US, but still in casual use elsewhere (specifically, here).

Atrazine is an ugly substance. From the Cornell University Extension Toxicology Network, we learn that “Atrazine has been classified as a Restricted Use Pesticide (RUP), due to its potential for groundwater contamination.” The section on chronic toxicity (that’s what would happen to people drinking the water for any length of time) is particularly interesting: “Long-term consumption of high levels of atrazine has caused adverse health effects in animals, including tremors, changes in organ weights and damage to the liver and heart.” You can read the full report here.

It’s worth noting that the government SHUT DOWN the contaminated water supply on June 30, but that wasn’t when the situation started, was it? It was when it became bad enough that they noticed.  Uh-oh.

But enough finger pointing. That’s water under the bridge, anyhow. (Coff. Sorry.) What now? Will the population perish of thirst? How long can people go without water anyway?

Dina Spector writes in “Business Insider”“The maximum time an individual can go without water seems to be a week — an estimate that would certainly be shorter in difficult conditions, like broiling heat.

“The week limit is based on observations of people at the end of their lives, when food and water intake has been stopped, Randall K. Packer, a professor of biology at George Washington University told Maggie Fox of NBC News last year.

“However, one week is a generous estimate. Three to four days would be more typical.”

Wow. We’ve already been without water for a week. But our new president is on the ball. Official warnings went out to 150,000 residents in the affected areas not to drink, cook with or bathe in tap water. (We gringos even got a couple of notes from the US Embassy representatives.) Schools and some businesses were closed for the crisis. The grocery shelves have, of course, been stripped of bottled water, but tanker trucks filled with drinking water have been making the rounds and letting people fill their jugs and buckets. It looks like that could continue for a while as, even though the level of atrazine in the river is decreasing, it may be up to two months before this is resolved.

The President said he “will have to review all agricultural practices carried out in the basin of the La Villa river as well as a quality control review of the purification of water in Chitre and Los Santos.”

Classes are starting up again. President Varela bought 50,000 cases of bottled water for distribution, and has ordered 50,000 more to help out in the schools.

According to Rick Griffith, the Azuero Warden for the US Embassy, “These are the areas/communities directly affected by the contamination ..:  Los Santos Cabecera, El Bongo, Los Olivas, Llano Largo, Santa Ana, Guarare Cabecera, Las Tablas Cabecera, El Cocal.

The following areas/communities can use the water from the tap for human consumption and cooking as their water supplies come from deep water wells: Santo Domingo, El Sesteadero, El Carate, La Espigadilla, La Laja and Las Palmitas.”

I and my immediate neighbors in the little barrio (subdivision) where I live are blessed. We have our own water supply taken from a deep well on the subdivision property, way below potential atrazine contamination. So the impact on us is minimal. I have, of course, offered to help friends who don’t share our good fortune by giving them water. And our barrio is also very fortunate that May’s extensive work on our turbine and pipes was completed in early June. It was caused when a part of the well liner collapsed. But all is fully functional now.

Whew. Timing is everything.