Hello and greetings from Panama!
I’m an OSU mechanical engineering grad student in the HEST program currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Coclé, Panama. My work here in Panama is to design and build the distribution system of a buried, gravity-fed aqueduct system that will bring clean water to the 30 homes that make up the rural community in which I currently live. Coclé rests in the foothills of Panama’s largest mountain range, the Cordillera Central, which necessitates the 15-kilometer-long water system to cover several sharp altitude variations and their resulting pressure differentials.
I learned in my classes at OSU and my training as a Peace Corps volunteer that sustainable development happens best when we truly understand the needs and wants of the communities in which we serve, but, before coming to Panama, I could have never imagined what that really means. Now, after spending almost two years in site, I’m just now beginning to understand—sustainable development is a give-and-take, trading your own views as a designer and engineer for those of the beneficiaries of the project and constantly pressing up against that line between what you personally think will work best from an engineer’s standpoint and what the community knows will work best from their experience in site to create something that truly fits the needs of the community in a practical and sustainable way.
Before moving to Coclé, or even thinking about beginning the technical work required to design and build the water system here, I spent two months in the capital training in Spanish, Panamanian culture and history, common water systems in Panama, and common issues in Panama specifically for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project. Then, after moving to Coclé, I spent my first three months living with a host family and integrating into the community: walking to distant houses to introduce myself and learn the jungle paths, attending community meetings, helping the moms cook lunch at the school, learning regional words and improving my Spanish by constant use, and taking part in everyday life here. While difficult and time consuming, I believe these five months of preparation were what gave me the understanding of the community and credit with community members that led to the success of the project.
In my everyday life, I work with a water committee composed of six community members elected to serve as the leadership for the water project. We make decisions such as where the main waterlines should go, when to schedule workdays to bury the lines and preform maintenance, when and what type of fundraisers we should coordinate, and to plan meetings with the full community, especially when we want more input or commitment on a particular decision. The water committee also schedules “cuadrillas” or groups of four community repairmen that serve for a month each, providing constant maintenance and urgent repairs. Since the community has had so much influence and leadership throughout the design and implementation stages of the project, now that we are finishing the build, I feel confident they will continue improving and maintaining the system long after I complete my Peace Corps service and return back to OSU.
While I believe the Peace Corps model of sustainable development works, I’ve also found it immensely challenging. On a personal level, I’ve found it challenging to live in a rural community without electricity, reliable cell signal or really any infrastructure outside of the new water project, a two-room schoolhouse, a small chapel, a small store that mainly sells beans and rice, and the dirt-and-mud road that connects it by a 3-hour hike to the closest paved road and an hour drive to the closest major town. I love my community and treasure the work we’re doing here, but I still cannot help questioning my decision (in some small way) every time I find a tarantula or scorpion in my house or get a fever and need to hike out to the hospital or just really crave pizza or ice cream or anything that requires a refrigerator or oven to make. Yet, this also is the give-and-take required for sustainable development, a very personal give-and-take: giving up a little bit of your personal comforts and desires to help meet the needs and desires of so many others, all the time learning more about yourself and becoming a stronger person. All 30 houses in my community are going to be connected to clean drinking water for the first time because of my service here and others who have served before me, but, more than that, these houses are going to stay connected because the project included community members from design to implementation to maintenance and empowered the community to oversee their own project. I’m still learning how all of this works, but this is what I’d call sustainable development.
For pictures of the project and life in panama, feel free to check out my Instagram @mfi2ndinda as well as the Peace Corps Panama official page @peacecorpspanama on Facebook and Instagram.
All the best,
OSU HEST Class of 2020