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Restoration versus transformative adaptation of community drinking water systems after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico

Victor Dionel Ruiz-Aviles, PhD Student, David Pijawka, David Manuel-Navarrete, Dave White, Cecilio Ortiz Garcia


Hurricane Irma then Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, exposing the heightened vulnerability of the island’s Critical Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISPs) and putting the resilience of some of the most impoverished communities to the test. Being one of these CRISPs, the island’s centralized drinking water system operated by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority suffered heavy damage leaving over 200,000 people off-grid for months. Decentralized community aqueducts were also affected. However, most were able to sustain operations, with only 15 percent incapacitated during the first few weeks after Maria.

Of the 205 community aqueducts serving low-income communities in the island’s central mountainous areas, only 35 failed. This article explores how and why these systems failed and what actions the communities should take to recover in a relatively short time in comparison to the centralized system. It defines the factors that account for the differences, the systems’ capacity to meet water quality requirements, and potentially transformative adaptations generated to face future disturbances. We were interested in understanding (a) how system capacity was affected by the restoration process, (b) if adaptation resulted in significant operational changes, and (c) community member engagement. Finally, we explored governance transformations that increased stakeholder’s participation, including community aqueducts representatives in decision-making and policy-making.

Data collection included interviews with water system managers, government, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives who regulate these systems or assisted communities in recovering their systems. We also surveyed water systems that had operational problems within the first 3 weeks. The data revealed a diversity of actions along the disaster cycle through which communities prepared for, restored, recovered, and cocreated transformative adaptations to their systems. Findings reflect that despite economic deficiencies and lack of emergency plans, many communities were able to improvise and restore their water systems soon after the disaster. As part of their post-disaster organization, communities increased their collaborative networks with governmental and NGOs to cocreate improvement projects to enhance resiliency. Adaptations included (1) increased community autonomy, (2) system redundancy, and (3) improved capacity to participate in government discussion forums related to their systems.


critical infrastructure, resiliency, impoverished communities, Puerto Rico, transformative adaptation, drinking community water systems

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