No Water In Sight A View From The Island of Vieques

21 miles long by 5 miles wide.

This is the area that enchants and captures the mind of any soul that has the privilege to step foot on Vieques, Puerto Rico.

It is a remarkably unique island in the Caribbean that knows no bounds when connecting culture and the environment together in daily life. But it is one of the first places of what will be many that have learned that in today’s world; water is no longer a renewable resource.

Surrounded by water, the closest landmass is Puerto Rico, the island seen in the distance, which Vieques is an extension of. So, like Puerto Rico, it is considered a territory of the United States.

It is this distance from both mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico that makes Vieques a microcosm of the growing global water crisis. The island is surrounded by water, yet when Hurricane Maria hit in September of 2017, it rendered the island's inhabitants without clean, drinkable water.

Vieques relies on a very fragile system of pipes that pumps water from Puerto Rico through the ocean to the taps of the people. When the hurricane hit this system was interrupted and the island stopped receiving outside water and were left to rely on the water they had available and any outside aid. The problem is, there is very little water available. This can be seen as a consequence of three different environmental factors.

The first factor is the lack of naturally occurring water.

Because of years of deforestation for agriculture, the naturally occurring brooks and rivers are all but gone, save a few trickling streams, like the one waterfall on the island on the left. Although the island is naturally buffeted by rain almost all year long, the people are used to relying on the water from Puerto Rico. As a result of this reliance, it is not part of the culture to collect and save the rainwater as it might be on other Caribbean islands. This only exacerbates the water crisis on the island.

Rain in the distance.

The second factor is that half of Vieques was used as a bomb testing site for the U.S. Navy until 2003.

The land in these areas, as seen on the right, are extremely dangerous both to step on and draw water from. Due to the debris and bombs left undetonated, there is the danger of stepping on a sleeping bomb. In addition, if the Viequense were to draw water from the land there, it would be serverely toxic because of the heavy metals. Although there are massive cleaning efforts underway, it has been affecting the people of Vieques and the environment for decades.

An explosive warning sign.

The third factor is the impact that the horses, both wild and domestic, have had on the environment.

The horses were brought to the island, and with them came the invasive plant called mesquite, that they have spread around the island. The plant outcompetes native flora for natural resources including water. The plants have roots that can only be described as nets: long, and thick, and are known for exhausting any water in the surrounding area. The horses also cause concern for water quality because of the sheer amount of feces the population produces. When the rains wash the feces into the groundwater the quality can be affected because it has certain nutrients that have been known to cause disastrous algal blooms.

A Viequenzie and his horse.

Since the day of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Vieques has never been the same. Taking these factors into account can show how vulnerable Vieques was to such a high-impact storm on a day to day basis. In addition the problems of transportation both to the island and on the island drastically affected the ability to get clean water to the island's people.

One of the most exciting draws of Vieques is the remoteness, but this makes it difficult for the island to receive aid.

To get to the island from the U.S., there are two options: to fly to Puerto Rico and then catch a ferry from a town named Ceiba, or a puddle jumper flight, such as the one seen here. It's not hard to imagine how these kinds of transportation can be easily interrupted by a storm the magnitude of Maria, and the aftermath.

Passengers trying to fit themselves and luggage into the small plane.

After the hurricane, the food, water and medicine that was sent as aid arrived on Vieques through flights such as these. Most flights are incredibly tiny, fitting six to eight people, and the small size of the planes puts it into perspective how small of a quantity they were able to deliver.

Another transportation problem was the roads of Vieques.

Because the island is small and remote, the roads follow the same characteristics. They are mostly one-way streets that are surrounded by some of the most dense tropical vegetation that the island has. Horses have also been known to favor the easy transportation on the side of a road, as opposed to the brush, like they are in this picture.

Brush overhanging the road.

On a normal day, getting through the roads is difficult, on a day after a Category 5 hurricane they were impassable. Getting the little aid such as clean water that was afforded to the island was nearly impossible, and again proves that water is no longer the renewable resource to take advantage of. Their relationship with water had changed.

But all this information is just words on a screen unless you do something about it. It's important to recognize that regardless of where you are right now, in the country or the world, you can make a difference now and in the future. A plan is just a piece of paper unless you have the intention of seeing it through.

It's always easy to point fingers and complain at the large governmental organizations for the role they play in natural disaster relief, but what is more important is that we hold them accountable.

Some organizations approach disaster relief with ideas already in mind, but we have to hold them accountable, and tell them what the realistic needs of the community are. We have to insist that they build a relationship with the community first, like the people in this picture did. Then they can help them in the ways the community has expressed need for, not the ways that large organizations decide they need help.

Not every person can have a drastic affect on a relief organization, but many go on vacations, and very seldom realize the positive the impact that tourism could have on the community, if done correctly.

When setting a destination for your vacation, such as this picturesque beach, keep in mind where your money will go in the community. Consider staying at an Airbnb or in a guest room at a Bed and Breakfast, and make sure all of these options are owned by locals rather than corporations. This way the money filters directly into the community and your money will always mean more to them and their livelihoods.

It's also important to realize the environmental impact of vacationing. When going to a remote island, like Vieques, adopt the “leave no trace” mindset. Because of the John Act of 1920 there are very strict regulations on what ships can dock in Vieques. If you add these regulations with harder transportation after Hurricane Maria, it leaves the island struggling to gain access to water and food, so consider bringing your own of both. When talking about water, though, it's important to understand that the waste management facilities on Vieques are limited, and if you’re going to bring things like plastic water bottles, make sure you carry them off the island with you.

Believe it or not, the struggles are not over for Vieques, as climate change is only causing storms to increase, and there's been talk of needing to add a Category 6 level of hurricanes.

After Maria, it was said that the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico were very resilient. While I've found this to be true, like how the community bounced back from the hurricane resiliency is a term used to describe things over short periods of time. In addition to resilient, I believe the community to be resistant. Each year they go through hurricanes and tropical storms, and they still have a colorful thriving community. This is what it means to be resistant. The people and their island are resistant to whatever is thrown at them, and people all around the world can learn from this. In the face of one of the worst hurricanes to hit their island, they are still there, and have found ways to survive and flourish, such as building their homes out of concrete, as pictured here.

"Vieques Rise"

If we all take this lesson and apply it to not only our individual lives, but to the way we approach environmental problems, there is a lot to be learned. We can begin not to only solve problems for the short term, but find permanent solutions for reoccurring problems.

“People are resilient because they have to be resilient. They don’t have an option not to be.”

Kaira Fuentes, SUNY ESF Ph.d Candidate 2018, Born in Puerto Rico.

These photos and the story represent the collaborative experience of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's students, faculty, and friends. In January of 2019, each of the people in this picture wanted to make a difference and traveled out of their comfort zones to Vieques. We spent a week asking the community what they needed and getting involved. While doing so we fell in love with the island, and continue to maintain a collaborative relationship in every way we can.

We got involved. Will you?

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