Poor water quality and inadequate water distribution systems are more than a rural problem, with communities of varying sizes across the globe struggling to provide clean water for their inhabitants. Enter AguaClara - a water treatment project originating from Cornell University currently tackling this challenge in Honduras. I recently got the chance to talk to AguaClara’s founder, Monroe Weber-Shirk, about his work to date and plans for the future.
This Big City: Tell us about AguaClara!
Monroe Weber-Shirk: I worked in Central America in the 1980s in refugee camps and learned to know Jacobo Nuñez who went on to form Agua Para el Pueblo (Water For People) – an NGO in Honduras which builds water distribution systems for rural communities. They’ve been doing that for 25 years, and when I reconnected with Jacobo Nunez in 2004, one of the questions he asked me was: ‘What can we do about the fact that we’re piping contaminated surface water to these communities?’ The water supply systems they were building took a water source, such as a mountain stream or river, piped it down to a distribution tank, and then down to the houses in the town. He was concerned about water quality, and they didn’t really have any good options for cleaning up that water. My background is Environmental Engineering, I’ve been very interested in water filtration and water treatment in general, and when I heard that question, I realised that I didn’t know how to solve the problem in that context. I knew how to solve it in Ithaca, New York, but not in Honduras in resource-poor communities without reliable electricity.
TBC: Can you give us a brief overview of the technology behind it?
MWS: We add a coagulant to the water that comes into an AguaClara water treatment plant, which essentially coats the particles in the water and makes them sticky, like a glue. We send the water through a flocculator, where the particles collide with each other and stick together, hence they grow in size and become large enough so you can see individual flocs. A floc is an aggregate of many particles, and flocs look kind of like snow in the water – they grow to be more than a millimetre in size. They have a higher sedimentation velocity, so when you send the water to a sedimentation tank, the flocs settle quickly and you end up having clean water coming off the top of the sedimentation tank. That clean water then goes through a filter, and then finally we add chlorine to disinfect the water. Chlorine is only effective in clean water.
Oh, and we do all of this without electricity! Water enters an AguaClara plant 1.5 m higher than it leaves the plant, and this difference in elevation is the potential energy that powers the water all the way through the plant. We had to invent a new type of filter, a Stacked Rapid Sand Filter, in order to add filters that can be backwashed without electricity. Operating without electricity means a huge cost savings every year a plant is operating. It means significant infrastructure that has almost no carbon footprint. And, it means our plants are really lovely and quiet without the din of motors and pumps.
TBC: What kind of changes have you witnessed in areas where AguaClara has been implemented?
MWS: Tamara is a good example. It is a community of about 3,500 people, and it’s home to an AguaClara water treatment plant which was built in 2008. One of the things the Water Board was able to do was to increase the water tariff. The Water Board is a community organisation elected by the townspeople and has legal status in Honduras. They are only able to raise the water rates with the explicit approval of the community. A rate increase means community members were prepared to pay more for water after they started receiving clean water. That is really significant – people are willing to pay more for clean water. That’s what makes this whole system sustainable. The tariff was raised more than one time, completely changing the Water Board. It used to be essentially bankrupt, and there were community members who refused to pay the tariff. Now with higher quality water that people value, the water board has the guts to cut off the water for nonpayment, so people pay. Compliance went way up. The Water Board started operating with excess capital. They bought more land to protect their water source. They started investing in infrastructure, doing things like improving the distribution network in the town. They were also able to invest in AguaClara’s newly invented Stacked Rapid Sand Filters in 2011 using the money they had raised from the increased tariff.
The more profound change for communities is the improvement in health. Community members used to carry diarrhea medicine in their pockets because they were sick so often. Time and resources were spent caring for sick family members. Now they drink water from the tap instead of having to buy bottled water.
TBC: Could AguaClara be deployed on an urban scale?
MWS: Yes, this can be used on an urban scale. There is nothing technical preventing us from going larger, and I fully expect this to happen. It turns out the technical challenge is going smaller. We currently have plants that are serving communities between 1,500 and 15,000 people. Knowing how to do this for 15,000 people is achievable, but knowing how to do it for 1,000 people is hard.
TBC: I think it’s great that your designs are open source and available for free online. Can you tell us some more about this aspect?
MWS: Open source means that all developments in AguaClara are published on our wiki. This simplifies things for us as we are inventing things at a pretty high rate, and not having to invest in patent law makes our lives simpler. It also earns us friends! When we walked in to the government ministry in charge of water in Honduras, their first question was ‘Is it patented?’ The reason for this is they have been screwed so many times by patented technologies, that they don’t want to use them again. Open source means anyone on the planet can go on to our website and get a full design for a municipal water treatment plant. Currently, only students from Cornell, where AguaClara is being developed, can contribute to this Wiki, but the information is open to all. I would love to collaborate with other universities. We post a long series of challenges every semester and it would be exciting to have multiple teams working on different campus to solve those challenges.
TBC: What about members of the 8 communities that have AguaClara water treatment plants? Can they contribute?
MWS: Yes! We get ongoing feedback from the existing plants, which immediately affects research and design teams here at Cornell. There’s a good deal of knowledge sharing also happening in Honduras. Agua Para el Pueblo is developing an association of communities that have AguaClara plants. One of the challenges of maintaining water supply systems is that they require some level of technical assistance forever. One way of achieving that is by developing an association of communities that have AguaClara plants.
TBC: Do local people benefit from training to maintain the system?
MWS: The system works because the communities built these plants, they own them, and they hire employees to run the plants. Agua Para el Pueblo provides training for those plant operators, and it’s all done locally. Local ownership and relationships built on trust are the key concepts that makes this system sustainable.
TBC: How can other students and young entrepreneurs take their ideas from a concept to a marketable product?
MWS: What has made our system of evolving technologies work is, first of all, we have a large student team. Knowledge is shared from one generation of that team to the next by having students work on the team for a year or more, and students help train the next generation. There has to be a sharing of knowledge, and peer to peer learning is critical. Developing technology that’s good enough to fly in the real world requires something really good. It’s easy to make junk. Making something that can be scaled up and be something really significant requires doing a really great job. That doesn’t happen in a year. You can’t build a project in a semester and somehow save the world. I provide long-term continuity on this project. I’m going to hang around and keep working on this, and that’s part of what makes this work.
TBC: What does the future hold?
MWS: My dream has always been huge. The need for safe drinking water is huge. More than 1 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. We did very rough calculations that there are hundreds of millions of people that would benefit from AguaClara-style technology. If our goal is to eventually reach that many people, we have to figure out how to disseminate that knowledge globally. Currently we’ve got eight plants in Honduras and it’s a tiny project, but we have the ability to deliver designs in an automated fashion. Just like Henry Ford delivered cars out of his factory at an incredible pace, we can deliver customised CAD drawings and designs at a rate of about 1 every 10 minutes. In the foreseeable future, we could provide all the designs that the planet needs. The challenge is identifying partners who can build these facilities. In Honduras it’s Agua Para el Pueblo. We’re seeking partners in other countries to take these technologies and begin implementing them.