Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, left millions of residents without food and basic resources, and killed thousands, 16.5 million full, unused water bottles were found on farmland in Puerto Rico, according to a reporter for CBS. Photos of the bottles taken by news agency AFP have raised questions as to why the bottles weren’t given to Puerto Ricans who desperately needed water in the wake of the storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confirmed on July 29 that the bottles were meant for hurricane victims but expired and were unusable. A FEMA spokesperson declined to respond to the Hill’s request for comment on why the bottles were permitted to expire and said the matters are “under review by the legal department.”
The bottles were sent to Puerto Rico in 2017 in support of Hurricane Maria and were placed in a FEMA warehouse in anticipation of being needed for future disaster responses, a FEMA spokesperson told Global Citizen.
“In response to Hurricane Maria, over 120 million liters of bottled and bulk water were distributed; however, a surplus of water on the island remained,” the spokesperson said. “Our pre-existing inventory of bottled water had a two-year shelf life and while some of the residual water was able to be used in preparation for the 2018 hurricane season, going into the 2019 season, a lot of it was nearing or past its shelf life.”
The government agency is required to offload bottled water within 120 days of its expiration date. All surplus water is posted on the General Services Administration website for excess transfer, donation and then sale to other federal agencies, state governments, local agencies, and non-profits, the spokesperson said.
“As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, FEMA attempts to do this in the least costly way possible — both on the front end when purchasing perishable commodities in preparation for and response to disasters, as well as when disposing of excess items," the spokesperson said.
In April 2019, FEMA entered a contractual agreement with Puerto Rico Drilling & Supply’s, Inc. to dispose of the water, and on April 9 the company started taking the bottles for disposition and recycling, the spokesperson said. The water is now being used to irrigate fields, a Puerto Rico Drilling & Supply’s, Inc, a spokesperson told CBS.
The situation seems like “a grand mistake,” John Mutter, a professor of earth and environmental sciences of international and public affairs at Columbia University, told Global Citizen.
“It sounds fairly implausible that FEMA would buy that many bottles of water sometime after the event instead of immediately after,” Mutter said.
It’s common for large shipments of bottled water to be delivered in the aftermath of natural disasters that destroy infrastructure, but the timing of when FEMA received the bottles doesn’t line up, Mutter explained.
“Why would you stockpile something that’s going to expire in a couple of months in anticipation of a hurricane that won’t happen for another year?” he asked.
Several actions are underway to improve management of supplies to disaster-affected areas, the FEMA spokesperson explained, including –– minimizing future loss of short life water stock, extending shelf-life of packaged water by purchasing both boxed and canned water with up to a 10-year shelf-life, and increasing bulk water alternatives.
One month after the hurricane hit, 1 million Puerto Ricans didn’t have access to running water, and deaths from water-borne bacteria and disease spiked. A year later, 50% of Puerto Ricans said people in their households still could not get enough water to drink, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
With 3 million people living in Puerto Rico, each person on the island could have received roughly five of FEMA’s now-expired water bottles.
This isn’t the first time a massive amount of water meant for Puerto Rico’s residents went to waste. About 20,000 pallets of water bottles shipped to Puerto Rico sat on an airplane runway in 2018 and became too contaminated to drink.
But Puerto Rico’s water crisis runs deeper than Hurricane Maria, according to Mekela Panditharatne, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Puerto Rico had the worst drinking water of any state or territory in America before the storm in 2017. Nearly 70% of residents were served by water sources that had tested with unsafe levels of contaminants or water sources that had not been treated by federal standards, she explained.
“The crisis lingers, even today,” Panditharatne told Global Citizen. “The island's largest water and wastewater utility recently found that more than 5,000 facilities still need to be repaired or rebuilt in the wake of the storm. Small water systems have been particularly hard hit, and are in desperate need of an infusion of resources.”
To help prevent sickness and disease on the island, the Water for Puerto Rico Foundation is accepting donations for water filters. The organization Move On is also gathering signatures for its petition asking the United States House of Representatives and Senate to stand with Puerto Rico and ensure all residents have access to clean water and sanitation.
UPDATE Aug. 6, 2019, 12:12 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include comment from FEMA.