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Epera Indian woman pumping from hand-dug community well, Puerto Indio, Panama.
Safe Water for the Epera Indians, Southern Darien Province, Panama
Funded by Lifewater International and private contributions
Principal Investigator: Michael E. Campana

Report on May 2000 Panama Trip


In March 1999, at the invitation of the Epera (formerly known as "Embera") Indians, Dr. M. E. Campana conducted a water resources survey trip as a volunteer for Lifewater International ( a Christian, tax-exempt, private voluntary organization (PVO), to Area Two of the Epera Indian comarca (reservation) in the southern Darien Province of Panama. (Click here to see an index map of the study area and a detailed map of the Comarca Area Two.) On the comarca, which is in the Rio Sambu drainage basin, there are over 2,200 Epera Indians, who live in 12 major villages and other small settlements.

The Epera are one of two groups in the Choco tribe (total: 40,000 individuals) of Panama and Colombia. They receive little help and sorely need reliable supplies of potable water. In addition, there are more Epera living off the comarca who have similar water needs. Dr. Campana tested existing water supplies -- surface water and water from primitive, unsanitary dug wells -- and found that while the overall chemical quality is good, the threat of fecal contamination is present (all PathoScreen tests were positive, indicating a high potential for fecal contamination from unsanitary practices and poor source protection).

The geology of the lower reaches of the Rio Sambu drainage basin, where most of the Epera live, appears quite suitable for the LS-100 drilling rig, a small, portable, inexpensive (basic model about $8000) mud-rotary drilling rig manufactured by Lone Star Bit Company ( of Stafford, TX. The LS-100 was designed expressly for deployment in lesser-developed countries. It can be air-freighted just about anywhere and is easy to use; "non-technical" people and those with little or no formal education have been taught to use and repair it.


We propose to teach the Epera Indians how to:

* locate good sites for water wells;
* drill wells with the LS-100;
* complete sanitary wells;
* test water for chemical and biological quality; and
* install and repair hand pumps.

In addition, in the two largest and only electrified communities on the comarca, Bayamon and Puerto Indio (total population = 720), we will assist the Epera in the installation of electric submersible pumps and community-wide water distribution systems. We will also investigate the feasibility of using wind- or solar-powered pumps in some of the more remote (upstream) communities.

The LS-100, PVC well casing and pipe, pumps, and inexpensive water-testing equipment will be donated to the Epera so that they can drill all their own wells and test water. In order to foster ownership, each community desiring a well will be encouraged to establish a local water committee, which would be responsible for: siting the well; providing labor to help with construction; maintaining it; and formulating rules for its use. If the community desires a water distribution system, and its construction is feasible, the water committee will be in charge of this facility as well.

Problems and Issues to be Addressed

This project is one of empowerment and training of indigenous peoples. The equipment and training will provide the Epera with safe, reliable water supplies for their communities and the ability to obtain and maintain these supplies themselves. The Epera will also acquire the means to start their own drilling business to provide well construction services to non-indigenous people, thus obtaining much-needed hard currency and a greater sense of self-sufficiency. The project will also provide a first step in helping the Epera quantify their comarca's water supplies so that they can better manage this critical resource, and mitigate the contamination of their rivers. It is an excellent opportunity to help people who are anxious to help themselves.

It should be noted that there are about 10,000 Epera in the Darien Province, so the project could have positive effects far beyond the boundaries of Area Two. And, there are also 30,000 more of the Choco tribe just across the border in Colombia, who have water needs just like their Epera brethren and could benefit from this work. This project would serve as a template for future similar projects among people, indigenous and otherwise, of Latin America and elsewhere -- projects that could help these people attain greater measures of self-sufficiency, resource awareness, and income.


Sufficient funds have been raised to purchase a drilling rig and ship it down to Panama. Another survey trip will be in January 2000, with a drilling/training trip scheduled for May 2000. Drilling will be performed in Bayamon and Puerto Indio, and possibly a few other villages, depending upon available funds.

A successful trip to Panama was completed in May. Click here to read a brief report about the trip (with photographs).

Additional funds are actively being sought to expand the project to more villages and to involve UNM Water Resources Program students in the work. Students would gain unparalleled hands-on experience in community development, rural water resources development using appropriate technology, and cultural sensitivity. We propose to train the Embera Indians to help themselves vis-à-vis water resources – training them to drill wells, test water, design water distribution systems, repair pumps, etc. Our approach will ensure that the Epera will develop their water resources with sustainability in mind.

After we left, the situation in the southern Darien Province deteriorated to the point that it was dangerous for Americans to be there -- the Colombian civil war was starting to spill into Panama and FARC guerrillas were rumored to be active in the area. We heard little from the Epera for over a year. In summer 2001, however, we learned that the drilling crew was still active. They drilled wells for the school and the hospital in the non-Indian village of Sambu, and are drilling more wells in Sambu. What's remarkable about this is that about 10 years ago, when the Epera were suffering from cholera because of unsafe water, Sambu would not give them water unless they paid for it. The Indians had no money, and as a result, some died. Now that the tables are turned, the Indians are drilling the wells for free because it is "the Christian thing to do".

Some more good news: the guerrilla activity may be waning, and we hope to return to the comarca soon to resume training.

Mailing Address:
Water Resources Program
MSC05 3110
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001 USA

Physical Address:
SSCI-Economics Building, #57
1915 Roma Avenue NE
Albuquerque, NM 87131

Contact Info:
Voice: 505-277-7759
Fax: 505-277-5226

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