Collecting rainwater in Panama and Cambodia

May 08, 2009
Reed Palmer

Employed by Hazen and Sawyer, a water treatment and water supply planning consulting firm in Raleigh, N.C.
Peace Corps volunteer, Panama, 2000-2003
Master’s student, environmental sciences and engineering, 2004-2006
Engineers Without Borders, Cambodia, 2006

Reed Palmer (right) butters bricks in Panama.

Reed Palmer (right) butters bricks in Panama.

Reed Palmer graduated from the University of Virginia in chemical engineering in 1996. The year before, he had already decided that he wouldn’t be working at a chemical plant after graduation — he and his colleagues had taken a field trip to visit one, and “I knew,” he said, “that it wasn’t me.”

He moved to California and took a job there for three years. He was dating a woman from UNC who had studied abroad and wanted to continue her travels.

“I’d been to Canada and Mexico,” he said, “but traveling with her was my first opportunity to travel at length abroad. It opened my eyes to the fact that the way we live in the U.S. is not the same as the way people live elsewhere, and perhaps the way we live is not superior.”

He decided he needed to live abroad before responsibilities tied him down. Also, he wanted to be able to use his skills while he was out of the country, and Peace Corps gave him that opportunity.

I could write a lot about why I chose to become a Peace Corps volunteer, but it boils down to this: For me, being a volunteer was an opportunity to show the world my gratitude for being blessed with good health and good education. It’s as simple as that.

— Reed Palmer

Palmer arrived in Panama in 2000, in a town called Agua Fria #2. “It was a very rural, isolated community,” he says, “with a curious name — it was definitely not cold (fria), and there was only water (agua) about 50 percent of the time. The town was served by an aqueduct that fed into ancient PCV pipes. The pipes carried the water a very long distance and were in bad repair. Frequently, there was no water for five or six days, sometimes for up to two weeks.”

His charge in the Peace Corps was to teach English and environmental education, but it wasn’t long, he says, before the importance of water “leapt to the forefront of my consciousness.”

His biggest project was to organize the parents and teachers to who wanted to build a rainwater collection for the school. Households used 55-gallon drums to collect water during the eight or nine months of rainy season. Such an arrangement wasn’t sufficient, however, for 120 children at school to have water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and other tasks.

The community met together and decided that rain collection for the school would be a priority focus. They had the will, Palmer says, and fortunately, he knew a bit about “the way.” His math and engineering skills came in handy. “Here, we pay taxes so people can be hired to do maintenance and special projects at schools,” Palmer says. “But in Agua Fria #2, parents took turns cleaning, cooking and working on special projects, like the school garden. In addition, the principal was a very motivated woman who had envisioned and brought into being this great garden. It didn’t provide all the calories the students needed, but it was a great source of agricultural education.”

Palmer’s tour of service was to end in 2002, but that year, the Peace Corps opened a water and sanitation section in Panama — focusing on the kind of work he had wanted to do all along. So he signed on for an additional 15 months as a team leader in Panama City, training new volunteers in water and sanitation. Following that, he was a paid employee of Peace Corps for six months, conducting training in Panama City for $8 per hour.

“World water is so important,” Palmer says. “From the research I’d done, I knew by that time I wanted to work in water resources management.”

So in August 2004, he began his master’s program in environmental sciences and engineering at UNC. He liked that UNC combined engineering with a public health focus. “That was unique — that the training was not just about technology,” he says.

When he finished his degree in 2006, he had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders. Dr. Joe Brown, now a faculty member at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, then a doctoral student at UNC, had started the local EWB chapter. “I went with Joe to work on rainwater collection since that was an expertise I’d developed,” Palmer says.

Now Palmer works at Hazen & Sawyer, a consulting firm with an office in Raleigh, N.C. The firm designs water treatment systems and does water supply planning. “In the space of five years,” he says, “I went from rain collection in Panama to being responsible for planning water resources in New York City, one of the world’s largest and most complicated water management systems.”

Why do so many people who serve in the Peace Corps find their way to the UNC public health school?

“The essence has to do with worldview,” Palmer says. “You can’t come back from the Peace Corps without an awareness of the commonality of humanity around the globe. The School has a global focus. The faculty is interested in international issues. I know when I was looking for the right program to develop my skills, I asked, ‘Do the faculty members have an international focus? Are they going to be interested in the issues that are important to me?’ And they did — and they were.”

Read about Reed and his work in Cambodia in a story from a previous issue of Carolina Public Health.

View more photographs of Reed Palmer’s Peace Corps experience on Flickr.
See videos about the Peace Corps / public health connection at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit