San Mateo residents get help in purifying their contaminated drinking water

Friday, December 14th, 2012

On Saturday December 8th, a group of San Mateo residents gathered at their local community church ready to learn how to purify their often contaminated drinking water. The San Pedro Sun has widely reported about the troubling water contamination issues in the disenfranchised community located just north of the Barry Bowen Bridge.

While most islander have heard of San Mateo, many residents have not been there personally and are always shocked to witness and learn that the children and residents of San Mateo often become ill from the bacteria present in their drinking water. In addition, San Mateo residents regularly have to walk through the wetlands that surround their homes to get to the street; in many instances this causes infection of open wounds due to contaminated water that has been further exposed to raw sewage in the surrounding wetlands.

Belize Water Services (BWS), the town’s potable water provider has desalinated water known to be pure and completely safe for consumption. So how could clean water be such an issue in San Mateo? Although BWS water is plumbed to some of the homes in San Mateo, the pipes pass through the sewage-laden wetlands beneath their homes. At times fecal bacteria leach through leaks in the pipes, contaminating the otherwise pure BWS water. High bacteria counts have also been found in the rainwater samples collected at the residents’ homes. Many residents rely upon rainwater they collect as a source for their drinking water. Many residents don’t have access to the BWS water supply which also contributes to the many issues affecting the community.

Ann Kuffner is just one of many ex-pat residents that has been very moved (and upset) by the many articles written of San Mateo. She had spent over 30 years working as an environmental engineer in the USA, before moving to San Pedro. Kuffner explains that after reading in The San Pedro Sun about the water issues San Mateo faces, she decided it was time to volunteer to assist in solving this problem. She was confident that she could find a simple filter that residents could use to remove bacteria from contaminated drinking water.

During her generous efforts to bring help to San Mateo, Kuffner met with several active volunteers to seek advice. She contacted Professor Kim Shackelford, also a well-known San Mateo champion and activist from the University of Mississippi. Shackelford has effectively worked with the San Mateo community for over ten years and she encouraged Kuffner to spend considerable time in the community, to better understand their needs and issues. She took this advice to heart.

According to Kuffner, a good friend of hers connected her with Sheree Fukai, a Rotary Club member in San Ignacio. Kuffner met with Fukai, who’d successfully written a grant for Sawyer Water Filter Systems to give to schools in Belize.Through that meeting Kuffner was able to obtain a few of the initial Sawyer Filter Systems and managed to train the San Mateo community leaders and asked them to test the filters. According to Kuffner, she understood that it was critical to first be sure the residents of San Mateo would support the water purification approach.

According to Kuffner, the Sawyer filters are perfect for the needs of San Mateo. They remove 99.99% of the bacteria from the water. They can last from 5-10 years and they are easy to use and to clean. Kuffner explains that she got to meet Lisa Tillett, the island’s Health Inspector. The two quickly forged an alliance and began to work as a team. They jointly met with San Pedro’s Mayor Daniel Guerrero early on in the project to obtain his support.

With the help of Dr. Marcello Coyi, of the Belize City Rotary Club, Kuffner was able to secure 200 filters for the San Mateo community. Dr. Coyi visited San Mateo in late November and presented one of the training programs.“So now there are enough filters for up to 200 families in San Mateo to purify their drinking water,” said Kuffner, who along with her husband Mike Brunette, have organized three Sawyer filter training and distribution classes. Each attendee learns about basic hygiene. “They are taught how to use the filter and how to properly clean it. They only need to attend training and donate $5BZ to obtain a Sawyer filter treatment system,” added Kuffner. To date nearly 70 filters have been distributed and the program will continue through the first quarter of 2013. The goal is to give every San Mateo family that needs a filter the opportunity to be trained and to receive one.

According to Kuffner, in January 2013, a chapter of the Engineers Without Borders (EWD) will visit San Mateo. The visiting group will be assisting Kuffner with transferring and training residents to use the Sawyer filters. This EWD Chapter has also begun to research potential simple engineering approaches to treat the sewage being discharged directly into the wetlands. This is only the first step to address the source of this long-term problem.

According to Kuffner, the San Pedro Town Council (SPTC) is clearly aware of the many issues affecting San Mateo and supports the idea of helping the area residents in the absence of proper water and wastewater lines to San Mateo. SPTC has been very clear that until the roads in San Mateo are upgraded, there is not much that can be done to help the residents of the area. Not only will it be expensive but will also take time to install the water and sewer lines in this community hence the Sawyer filters will provide immediate, pure water to the residents of San Mateo.

Story written in collaboration with Ann Kuffner.

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