Our Thoughts

Puerto Rico: TGE Potential On Small Island Developing States (SIDS)


Finding Water in Isolation

The “unique and particular” challenges for small island developing States (SIDS), are inherently captured by their title. Their small geographic size, relative to larger or land-locked States, ultimately limits the size of their domestic economy. Unless a particular SIDS is blessed with specific resources, talents, or products that can compete within the global marketplace, their potential to create a diversified economy and achieve economies of scale is limited. As an island, SIDS depend upon trade agreements, trade partnerships, and open sea and air lines of communication to conduct trade and support the generation of wealth beyond the limited capacity of their domestic economy. In contrast, small land-locked States have the luxury of leveraging their geographic proximity to more robust markets and logistics hubs to protect them from, and bolster their response to, unforeseen economic shocks. Their status as a developing state connotes the economy is under-performing, relative to their global competition, thereby making them vulnerable to economic shock variables. In the absence of a robust economy, the relative geographic isolation of SIDS makes them more vulnerable to scenarios where economic shocks adversely impact the fundamental requirements to sustain life; food, water, energy, and shelter.

The combined effect of being small, an island, and a developing State, makes SIDS particularly vulnerable to enduring and recovering from man-made, or climate change-induced economic shocks. Pre-shock systemic weaknesses are magnified, as safety nets fail under the weight of their incompetence. These shocks to the system are felt most acutely by the rural poor, farmers, women, and other vulnerable demographics.[1]

In the wake of an economic shock, any external assistance effort must overcome the logistic challenges of delivering necessary aid to an off-shore and potentially remote location. Recent hurricane activity in the Caribbean highlights the challenges associated with providing rapid-response and humanitarian relief services to island States; even if the SIDS is geographically close to the sources of aid and the provider is preeminently qualified and prepared to provide the aid. The myriad obstacles to logistics, magnified by the tyranny of distance, create chokepoints and delays in the relief effort.

For islands like Puerto Rico, enabling the flow of support, equipment, food, water, and medical aid into the country, as well as facilitating the evacuation of citizens to the mainland, required the island to regain minimal operational capacity at their airports, seaports, and military bases. Until then, though limited humanitarian assistance and disaster relief was being provided, the local population was largely forced to rely on whatever limited resources survived the storm or could be sourced organically.

Having exhausted local resources, supplying water and power to people in need has become the focus of effort.

Pre-hurricane water infrastructure.

Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) is responsible for supplying municipal water to the island. Though other, smaller, water production operations exist, PRASA shoulders much of the responsibility to maintain and provide municipal water supplies for the 3.5M people on the islands. Prior to the hurricanes Irma and Maria, PRASA was producing 598 million-gallons-per-day (GPD) and had a 98M GPD capacity deficit. The antiquated system was plagued by extensive Non-revenue water (NRW) issues; responsible for more than 351M GPD (58.7%) of water loss. Even with an estimated $6.9B in proposed capital improvement projects being proposed prior to HURRICANE MARIA, to fill as much as 61M GPD of the identified 98M GPD capacity shortfall, a persistent capacity gap would have existed.[2] [3]

The combination of variables made investment in improving the PRASA system highly risky. NRW repairs are both time consuming and capital intensive. Without addressing the NRW challenges first, performance-based water production contracts were impractical. As of May 2017, Puerto Rico’s drinking water system was staring into the abyss of crisis. Contaminants in the water supply, including elevated levels of lead, bacteria, and other chemicals, made the water system the worst in the United States. PRASA had 64 safety violations and 24 health violations, in 2015, with 70% of the system failing federal health standards. [4] Further complicating the issue was a cocktail of complex and inter-related variables tied the persistent debt crisis. An insidious intellectual “brain drain” trend had pulled human capital from the island; impacting on-site water resource engineering, design and management capacity. The role of nepotism and political influence within strong labor unions, as well as other systemic issues, appeared to have a choke-hold on the Puerto Rican economy.

In short, PRASA and the PRASA system was extremely vulnerable and exposed to the shock of a natural disaster. Hurricane Irma had provided the set-up jab to the system and Maria delivered the knockout blow.

Post-hurricane economic impacts.

Infrastructure failure was comprehensive and devastating. In the aftermath of the storm, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers arrived to assess the damage. Both the Puerto Rican Energy and Power Authority (PREPA) and PRASA operations were knocked offline. 95% of all telecommunications capability was out of service. The San Juan seaport and airport were unable to receive ships or aircraft. The United States Navy, having navigated clear of the storm, was steaming towards the island, but would not have the luxury of pulling into port to conduct more robust humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR) operations. Already an island, Puerto Rico was even more isolated by the impacts of the storm.

As the wind and rain subsided, the assessment of the economic shock to the Puerto Rico system started to occur. Agricultural losses were estimated to have cost farmers over $780M. The recovery for some farmers, like one plantain grower who saw an immediate economic loss of approximately $300,000 from the destruction of more than 14,000 trees, would take at least 10-years. [5]

Large-scale critical infrastructure systems, like the Guajataca Dam, were thought to be on the brink of collapse. If a breach occurred, it would have put more than 70,000 people at risk, as it dumped an estimated 11B gallons of water from the reservoir. [6]

Power lines hobbled the electrical grid as well as hindered ground transportation. Roadways were further cluttered by debris and downed trees that would take weeks to clear. These variables limited mobility and resupply of water, food, and fuel. Within the seaport, delivered relief supplies began to pile up, standing idle because of impassible roads, limited fuel, and isolated truck drivers. [7]

The total water-related impacts on PRASA’s system are still being assessed. Linked to PREPA’s ability to supply power to the water production and wastewater treatment facilities, PRASA’s recover has been slow. FEMA and the US Northern Command have installed emergency drinking water units and generators to help ease the pressure. Private enterprise has been engaged, with Elon Musk has contributing renewable energy assets.

Puerto Rican water resources.

Overlooking the water quality issues PRASA was contending with, in 2015 PRASA was providing water services to approximately 43% of the population. Approximately 1.9M people were sourcing their water from sources outside of the PRASA system. Additional capacity was being created to enable the servicing of 70% of the population by 2020. To put it simply, access to water resources was an enduring challenge for most Puerto Ricans.[8] In their 2015 report, PRASA indicated a willingness to explore all possible solutions to their water production needs. As well, their capital investment strategy showed a high level of awareness to the importance of addressing NRW challenges. [9]

Drought exacerbated water-related issues with excessive groundwater extractions being widely observed. Over-pumping groundwater wells can be rationalized, given the limitations of PRASA’s distribution capacity and the enduring nature of supply-side shortfalls. [10]

Puerto Rico Groundwater.

The country’s documented groundwater wells have accessed shallow water resources that are recharged within the local watershed. The following diagram shows the various water basins within Puerto Rico:

Groundwater wells are well documented and categorized by basin. Traditional groundwater models assert groundwater flows are dictated by the geography and geology within each of the basins. [11]

An evaluation of the geology of Puerto Rico shows favorable conditions for renewable groundwater resources at depth. Within these geologic formations, major fault lines are observed that are conducive to the collection and transmission of groundwater resources.

Reviewing the Transformational Groundwater Exploration (TGE) variables on Puerto Rico, the Power 7 Science Team has determined the island has ideal preconditions for the successful development of renewable groundwater resources.

The development of renewable groundwater resources on SIDS, like Puerto Rico, has the potential of reducing the shocks of extreme weather events by increasing the resilience of the water production system. As Puerto Rico validated, shocks to the system are felt most acutely by the rural poor, farmers, women, and other vulnerable demographics. Through the development of multiple integrated TGE groundwater wells and distribution systems, in the rural areas of the island, end users will not be as vulnerable to the catastrophic failure of centralized water production and pumping facilities. Further enhanced by renewable energy power supplies, water distribution systems have a smaller energy footprint that is not reliant on the central power grid. This ensures isolated or vulnerable communities are more resource independent and have their basic human needs supported during the critical days and weeks after a devastating storm.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS) – (8)

Cabo Verde Comoros Guinea-Bissau
Maldives Mauritius Sao Tome and Principe
Seychelles Singapore

Caribbean – (16)

Antigua and Barbuda Bahamas Barbados
Belize Cuba Dominica
Dominican Republic Grenada Guyana
Haiti Jamaica Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia Saint Vincent and Grenadines Suriname
Trinidad and Tobago

Pacific – (13)

Fiji Kiribati Marshall Islands
Micronesia (Federated States) Nauru Palau
Papau New Guinea Samoa Solomon Islands
Timer-Leste Tonga Tuvalu

Non-UN Members / Associate Members of Regional Commissions – (20)

American Somoa Anguilla Aruba
Bermuda British Virgin Islands Cayman Islands
Commonwealth of N. Marianas Cook Islands Curacao
Guam French Polynesia Guadeloupe
New Caledonia Martinique Montserrat
Sint Maarten (Dutch) Saint Martin (French) Niue
Puerto Rico Turks and Caicos US Virgin Island


[1] United Nations,

[2] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October)

[3] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October), Figure 3.1





[8] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October)

[9] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October), Figure 3-3

[10] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October)

[11] PRASA, Puerto Rico Water Resources Management Plan 2015 (October)