29 December 2012

Help AguaClara Win a Katerva Award

AguaClara is honored to have been named a finalist for the 2012 Katerva award, and we will have the opportunity to also win a People's Choice award with your help. Voting for the People's Choice Award will be open January 14 - 29. See additional details from the excerpt of the press release below.

Katerva announces the 51 Finalists for the 2012 Katerva Award
51 new ideas that will change our world 

13 December 2012—The Katerva Award has been referred to as the Nobel Prize of Sustainability, highlighting the most innovative projects from around the world. 

"To solve the complex sustainability challenges we face as stewards of our planet, will require innovative solutions across a wide range of disciplines and economic sectors. Katerva provides a much needed and novel forum for this to happen, as evidenced by the innovation and entrepreneurship embodied by this year's 51 Finalists for the Katerva Award," states Antonio  J. Busalacchi, Jr, Director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland, USA. The Katerva Award Winner will be fostered through development stages by members of the Winner's Circle, a group of businesses and committed experts, with the aim of implementing the winning project for maximum impact. 

In a deliberation process which began in July, the Katerva nominees were submitted to rigorous process of examination by experts in each of Katerva's ten categories: Food Security, Behavioral Change, Economy, Ecosystem Conversion, Gender Equality, Materials & Resources, Human Development, Energy & Power, Transportation and Urban Design. The Katerva Award, now in its second year, draws upon a vast network of experts from science, business, academia and finance, and more.  Once a nominee has been submitted, the project is carefully screened for eligibility. Eligible, projects are then rated for viability, scalability and impact. Finalists are the top five projects from each of the ten categories. In 2012, there are 51 Finalists due to a tie in one of the categories. The Category Winners will be announced on 30 January 2013. Only one 
project will be the Katerva Award Winner, also announced 30 January 2013. 

This year the Katerva Award has a new feature: the People's Choice Award. All 50 finalists are eligible for the People's Choice Award. The public is invited to vote for the People's Choice Award from 14-29 January 2013 on the Katerva website, www.katerva.org.“Katerva is not just interested in 'good' ideas, the ideas we are after will create big changes in how we live on this planet,” said Katerva's founder, innovation guru Terry Waghorn. Founded in 2010, “Katerva's approach places emphasis squarely on action for a sustainable future—creating and implementing solutions to sustainability-related concerns,” he says. Katerva is the first truly open worldwide platform for change. 

Katerva comes from the Latin word caterva, meaning “crowd.” It's our belief that the wisdom of the crowd-- organized, holds the key to the world's most pressing challenges. 
For more information, see www.katerva.org or contact Barbara Erskine, barbara@katerva.org,
tel: +39 320 840 5805.

04 December 2012

Turbidimeter Updates

Our partner, WASH4all, has been making progress on a do-it-yourself turbidimeter. Check out the most recent update (a handheld, Bluetooth-enabled unit). http://wash4all.org/wp/prototyping-a-portable-bluetooth-enabled-turbidimeter-unit/

National Academy of Engineering Recognizes AguaClara

The National Academy of Engineering released a report on November 13 titled Infusing Real World Experiences into Engineering Education. The report "showcases 29 engineering programs at colleges and universities across the United States that effectively incorporate real world experiences into their curriculum and highlights best practices for schools seeking to create new programs". CEE's AguaClara program is featured on page 32.

The following is an excerpt from the Preface written by Charles M. Vest, NAE President:

The aim of this report is to encourage enhanced richness and relevance of the undergraduate engineering education experience, and thus produce better-prepared and more globally competitive graduates, by providing practical guidance for incorporating real world experience in US engineering programs. 


We are excited about the potential of this report to promote awareness and adoption of programs that incorporate real world experiences in engineering education. We believe the report will be useful to both academic and industry professionals interested in engaging and better preparing engineering students for the workplace and for competition in the global economy.

AguaClara was recognized as one of 29 programs that give students the skills to define the forefront of modern science. The hands-on, real world experience AguaClara students and partners have embarked on together has lead to the first feasible municipal-scale water treatment solutions for small communities, bringing clean water to tens of thousands of people who would not have had it before. We are producing the best critical thinkers, designers, and researchers. We are producing talent capable of challenging conventional engineering approaches to solving problems. Our alumni have the skills to change the face of industry.

28 October 2012

When Cornell tells its story about Public Engagement

Friday evening I was a guest along with two AguaClara team leaders at the Cornell board of trustees dinner. The dinner was a celebration of the Morrill Act that established Cornell as a land grant university. The celebration included a video that connects the Morrill Act with the modern vision for Cornell University as a publicly engaged institution.

When Cornell tells its story about Public Engagement it features AguaClara with images from Honduras. AguaClara was also featured in the artwork created to celebrate the Morrill Act with safe drinking water connected to Central America. The Cornell mission of being the land grant university for the world was again emphasized with Cornell's renewed focus on public engagement as woven into our DNA . 

The new AguaClara demonstration plant drew a good deal of attention from the dinner guests and there is strong pride that Cornell is engaging with global needs. I also had an opportunity to speak with Provost Kent Fuchs. Cornell has an ongoing connection with Tata in India. Tata has expressed interest in connecting with AguaClara and so there will be future conversations about how that relationship might evolve. Kent was surprised to learn that AguaClara is already connecting with the water sector in India and would have liked to have known that sooner.

These are exciting days. Thanks for all that you do to bring safe drinking water to planet earth.

12 October 2012

AguaClara in South Asia

I was invited by the World Bank to give a presentation on AguaClara at a conference in Nepal. The conference was attended by government officials from 7 countries in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan). Although this is the middle of my very busy fall semester I couldn't turn this opportunity down. I've long wondered what the demand for AguaClara would be in this highly populated part of the world.The total population of the 7 countries is 1.6 billion.
I scheduled my visit so that I was able to tour 3 water treatment plants that serve Kathmandu on my first day. None of the plants had the ability to dose chemicals in a way that allowed the operator to set the dose. The chlorinators at each plant had failed and the improvised systems were variations on a hole in bucket. The oldest plant was built by India in 1966 (and dedicated by Indira Ghandi). It had an odd combination of coagulation, sedimentation, and rapid sand filters and was missing the flocculation step. The influent water was relatively clean on the day I visited and they weren't dosing coagulant at any of the plants. 

I was most surprised to learn that none of these plants had a turbidimeter. The only record keeping maintained by the operators was the flow rate entering the plant and the flow rate exiting the plant. I learned that during the rainy season they sometimes have to backwash every 1 to 2 hours and that means that over 50% of the water is being wasted in backwash due to the inefficient performance of their flocculation/sedimentation system.
Advertisement for "talk program" to Nepali engineers

I used my connections to network to a well placed engineer in the Nepali water sector and he arranged for me to give a presentation to Nepali water sector engineers on my second day. 50 engineers showed up and my introduction to AguaClara was very well received. There was an hour of questions!

World Bank conference venue
The World Bank meeting began on the 3rd day with a focus on rural water supply and sanitation. I was the last speaker before dinner after a very long day of presentations filled with statistics, high level policy, and an emphasis of the role of community based organizations. I knew I had to do something to wake up the crowd and get their attention. And I only had 15 minutes to introduce AguaClara. I began by defining the difference between improved and safe water and then asked the delegates to stand if they drank the water from their tap in the city where they lived. About 7 people stood. I quickly realized that most of the people who were standing were World Bank personnel who weren't from South Asia and so I asked those who weren't from South Asia to sit down. That left two people standing of the 130 delegates. This little survey suggests that the need for safe drinking water in South Asia is likely very close to 1.6 billion, the total population of the region.

Abandoned chemical feed pumps at the
newest Kathmandu plant.
I made the case that technology matters and presented the 1x1x1x1x1x0=0 equation indicating that if ANY of the requirements for a sustainable project including technology are a zero, that the project will fail. I briefly presented AguaClara and emphasized our open source-zero patents, zero electricity, and online performance monitoring. The zero electricity got everyone's attention. Here in Kathmandu the power goes out many times per day and in the upcoming dry season they are expecting 19 hours of NO electricity per day. Electricity shortages are prevalent throughout South Asia.

After my presentation there were many very good questions, more than after any of the other presentations at the conference. And after my presentation delegates from each of the seven countries expressed a desire to see AguaClara in their country. World Bank officials and the representative from Australian AID were also keenly interested with informal discussions about the role of the Bank in getting the first demonstration plants built.

The delegation from Kerala State in India was the most direct in asking for a meeting and wanting to discuss details of what technical support we can offer and requesting a proposal from us in the next week to get this program started.

There are a couple of significant observations from this conference. First, I went to Nepal with the goal of “testing the water” to see what the level of interest would be. I also wanted to learn what the situation on the ground was like. I learned that the technology failure modes that we see in Honduras are much worse in Nepal and that there is a high level of excitement about our new technologies. A final observation is that water treatment across the region is not trusted, and at least in the case of Nepal, that lack of trust was earned. The opportunity for AguaClara Consulting Engineers to provide technical backstopping and retrofits for conventional water treatment plants that have failed is enormous. We could go replace pumped chemical systems with the AguaClara chemical dosing system and design improvements in the unit processes.

The high demand for AguaClara in South Asia suggests that AguaClara Consulting Engineers could become an economically viable organization much faster than we had previously assumed. We will need to act quickly and with a clear strategy to capture the momentum that we have created.

11 October 2012

Safe vs Improved Water in South Asia

I am in Nepal at the South Asia Regional Conference on Rural Water Supply and Sanitation. Yesterday I gave a brief presentation on the AguaClara program. My presentation was late in the afternoon and everyone was tired from too many presentations. I knew that I needed to mix it up and get some audience participation. So I first asked the delegates if they knew the difference between safe water and improved water. About 10 of the 140 participants said that they knew the distinction. I found it interesting that this confusion that was created in the Millennium Development Goals runs so deep that government officials charged with providing water and sanitation in their respective countries don't know this distinction. All of my students learn that "improved" water includes dirty river water that comes out of a pipe in your house. "Improved" water is about access to water, but does not include any quality requirements.

I then asked the delegates to stand if they drink the tap water from their tap. Seven people stood up. As I looked at who was standing up I realized that most of the people who were standing weren't from South Asia. So I asked everyone who wasn't from South Asia to sit down. The result? Two people remained standing, one from Bangladesh and one from Afghanistan. Given that there are 1.6 billion people living in South Asia, this poll suggests that only a tiny fraction of those 1.6 billion have access to safe drinking water.

At the end of my presentation there were many very good questions and a clear expression of interest in the AguaClara technologies by delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Bhutan. Next step is to create a plan for how to roll out the AguaClara technologies in South Asia.

07 October 2012

Reflections on Live Performance Monitoring for AguaClara Plants

Johns Hopkins geography and environmental engineering PhD candidate Chris Kelley discusses the new OpenSourceWater system that is being used to monitor performance of six AguaClara plants live.

16 September 2012

AguaClara Inc.: Seize the day

AguaClara is out of the box

It is no longer the best kept secret. We are receiving requests for designs from more and more countries. It is time to seize the moment. This is our time to make a difference. It is time to create AguaClara Inc. AguaClara is seeking impact investors who will make it possible to open a central office with a staff to begin networking and providing support services for implementation partners. In the coming weeks we will also need to identify the individuals who will provide the skill set, leadership, and experience necessary to establish AguaClara as the drinking water treatment technology of choice.

We've been preparing for this day!

I have been dreaming for many years of the day when news about AguaClara would spread globally and more importantly, that rapidly increasing demand for AguaClara technologies would leave us scrambling. My goal was to be as ready as possible for that moment so that AguaClara could scale quickly. Over the years we've had various ideas of how the spread might happen. Given our strong presence in Honduras we explored the possibility that the spread would be regional with an initial focus on Central America. Two years ago during the summer of 2010, I gave a short course at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and I expected that it would result in the construction of AguaClara plants in Guatemala. Perhaps that short course was premature given that it was a stretch for us to provide adequate detail in our designs. We also didn't have a system in place then to provide technical support for a new partner to build AguaClara facilities. In any case, construction has not yet begun on AguaClara facilities in Guatemala. If we weren't ready in 2010, why do I think we are ready now?

Now we are ready!

Here are a few factors that suggest that scale up can begin. 2012 is a year of rapid transition for AguaClara.

  • For the first time Honduran towns are paying Agua Para el Pueblo for AguaClara facility designs.
  • I was invited to give a presentation to water sector professionals at the World Bank headquarters in Washington this spring.
  • Arturo Diaz, subdirector of Agua Para el Pueblo, will be presenting the AguaClara program at the CLOCSAS (Latin American community based water and sanitation) conference in Cuenca, Ecuador next week.
  • I was invited to present the AguaClara program at a World Bank conference in South Asia in early October.
  • Our designs are now easily accessible.
  • AguaClara plant performance data is available in real time.
  • Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia is preparing to build an AguaClara plant to serve the campus community and to be a model.

Observation 1: The spread of AguaClara technologies is not going to be based on geographic proximity. The ease of communication and our strong presence on the internet means that the spread of AguaClara will be based on our rich network of connections rather than on geographic proximity.
Conclusion 1: AguaClara should prepare to spread globally and not just regionally.

Observation 2: Publicity about AguaClara is spreading at three levels. In Honduras the word is spreading among towns and cities. The word is spreading at the level of institutions that have the potential to become implementation partners. Finally the word is spreading within the development banks and at the level of policy makers. The AguaClara design server is receiving several requests from new countries every week.
Conclusion 2: The global spread has the potential to happen very quickly.

Observation 3: AguaClara technologies will only be implemented successfully with strong technical support. One of the reasons that AguaClara facilities have not been built outside of Honduras is that infrastructure is expensive and that new implementation partners are not willing to take the risk of adopting a new technology unless there is engineering support and institutional backing.
Conclusion 3: Services that include site specific design customization, capacity building, fabrication methods, certification, and ongoing technical support will be essential if AguaClara technologies are going to be widely adopted. AguaClara Inc. is needed to provide these services.

It is time for the count down!

The time to create AguaClara Inc. is now, before the end of 2012. AguaClara Inc. will make it possible for AguaClara technologies to spread globally. It is an opportunity to bring safe drinking water to hundreds of millions using technologies that are sustainable. It is an opportunity for graduates from the Cornell AguaClara program to use their engineering skills to make the world a better place. It is an opportunity to create a new standard for sustainable infrastructure based on simplicity on the other side of complexity.

We need your help to launch AguaClara Inc. We need wisdom. We need money. We need the best people we can assemble. Please contact us with your ideas and connections to help AguaClara Inc. launch successfully.

Contact us at AguaClara@cornell.edu or add to the discussion below!

27 August 2012

Program-Wide Workshop in Honduras Brings Operators and Water Boards Together

On Saturday, August 25th Agua Para el Pueblo put on the first program-wide workshop on AguaClara technology. Plant operators and representatives of the water boards from Támara, Cuatro Comunidades, Marcala, Alauca, and Agalteca converged at the new plant in Atima, Santa Bárbara to review the fundamentals of plant operation, see the evolution of the AguaClara technology since the construction of their respective plants, and share experiences.

19 August 2012

Fall 2012 Challenges Posted

Research challenges for Fall 2012 have been posted on our wiki.

Each semester, the AguaClara team is divided into subteams that tackle the research, design, and development challenges posed in these documents. Quarterly reports on individual pages document each team's progress (i.e., Demo Plant). Check back at mid-semester for updates, or follow our progress on Twitter: @CUAguaClara.

05 August 2012

The Floc Blanket Quest

AguaClara has a mission of creating high quality safe drinking water using sustainable, low cost water treatment plants. Since 2008, we have been researching and attempting to add floc blankets to our suite of safe drinking water technologies. A floc blanket is a fluidized bed of flocs that are maintained in the bottom of an upflow sedimentation tank. It looks like a snow globe with too much snow. The highly concentrated suspension acts like a filter (or flocculator) that intercepts incoming clay particles and thus reduces the turbidity of the settled water. The performance improvement created by a floc blanket can be quite dramatic. The settled water turbidity can be reduced by a factor of 10, for example, from 3 NTU to 0.3 NTU. Our goal was to add the floc blanket without significantly increasing the cost of an AguaClara plant. Last week Drew Hart confirmed that we have floc blankets at the new AguaClara plant in Atima! The water in the top of the sedimentation tanks is crystal clear!

23 July 2012

Announcing a New Open Data Project

Our new SMS-based data reporting program is in its pilot stage in Honduras

Lack of reliable, up-to-date data on critical infrastructure has always been a serious roadblock in the path of development. Anecdotes might make great PR pieces, but ultimately decisions - which program to fund, which technology to employ, which community's technicians need training - are based on data. A dearth of trustworthy data makes planning more difficult and more arbitrary, with unpredictable results.

15 July 2012

AguaClara is like this summer rain

I'm sitting outside on my deck in a long awaited thunderstorm watching a hummingbird feast on our flowers. A few hours earlier I had corn on the cob from a local farm through a connection facilitated by our local grocery store. I'm feeling rather lucky. Perhaps in this game of life where a good summer day is defined by a gentle thunderstorm, a hummingbird, and corn on the cob; I'm winning and as far as I can tell, there are few losers. Of course, there are some in Ithaca who had to adjust their outdoor plans to compensate for the rain. A small "loss" for the good of the parched earth that has been waiting for rain for weeks.

08 July 2012

Alissa's story

We recently asked AguaClara alumni to share reflections on their involvement with AguaClara and how it has influenced them. I asked Alissa Diminich if I could pass along some of her reflections. Alissa rose through the ranks of the AguaClara team in the early days when we were developing our design approaches. Alissa tells the story best...

30 June 2012

SVN 5K: Evolution of the Automated Design Tool

The Future of the Automated Design Tool

Some years ago, AguaClara program director Monroe Weber-Shirk was asked when the Automated Design Tool would be capable of producing completed designs. He responded by saying it should be "pretty perfect" by revision 10,000. As the future design team leader at the time, I decided the design team would make it well beyond halfway to "pretty perfect" before revision 5,000.

24 June 2012

8th AguaClara Plant Inaugurated

Yesterday on a small knoll on the outskirts of Atima, Santa Barbara in Honduras, a crowd gathered to celebrate the inauguration of the 8th AguaClara water treatment plant. There were speeches by Jacobo Nuñez of Agua Para el Pueblo, Rotarians from Baltimore and from Santa Barbara, and the mayor of Atima. Town residents toured the new water treatment plant and all enjoyed a celebratory meal together.

Jacobo Nuñez demonstrates the difference between the
dirty water entering the plant and the safe drinking water
produced by the plant.
The Atima project was several years in the making. An early potential bilateral donor turned down the project in part because the AguaClara plants don't use electricity and the bilateral donor thought that since Atima has electricity that we should use their "locally available materials". (Including electricity...). Eventually Dan Smith made connections with Rotarians and that turned into a strong relationship. The Rotarians funded the project, Atima provided labor and local materials, Agua Para el Pueblo provided the local design, construction supervision and capacity building, and AguaClara at Cornell provided the plant design. A partnership that is truly win-win-win-win with everyone contributing what they can and together doing what no one could do alone.
Atima marks a transition for the AguaClara program. AguaClara water treatment plants now produce over 100 L/s (more than 3.5 billion liters per year) and serve over 30,000 people. AguaClara is now a significant player in the world of safe drinking water. And AguaClara has technical capabilities that give us an unparalleled opportunity to scale up.

For the last seven years AguaClara has been synonymous with innovation. We've developed a whole suite of technologies and every plant that was built included multiple innovations. We used the power of feedback to drive continual improvements in our technologies and our implementation methods. AguaClara facilities were built at the rate of about 1 per year and even at that pace it was challenging to update our designs to include the new technologies for each new plant. I remember in 2007 when we were designing both Tamara and the retrofit plant at Marcala and the design team clearly stating that designing two plants in one year was too much. Since then the design team has developed amazing scalable design capabilities with our automated design tool. Beginning a few months ago we now maintain a stock of standard designs ready for use by implementation partners.

Atima marks the transition from full focus on technology development to a shared focus on deployment of the AguaClara technologies. Atima will likely be the last AguaClara plant to be built without a stacked rapid sand filter. Of course, innovation and technology development will continue! We have many years of productive research ahead to optimize plant performance and reduce construction costs. But now we have a new focus on taking the technology to scale.

We have an opportunity for a friendly competition between implementation partners. Where will the 9th AguaClara plant be built and who will build it? The 9th plant could be built in Colombia by AguaNova, in Guatemala under supervision of INFOM, in Nicaragua by CARE, In Ethiopia by Bahir Dar University, or in Honduras by Agua Para el Pueblo.

Help us take AguaClara to this new level where we methodically add new implementation partners who can build AguaClara plants.

17 June 2012

Praxis: Innovation through Feedback from Reality

Paulo Freire defined praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." Praxis and the scientific method are both about learning how the world works and when used wisely are powerful tools to make the world a better place. Learning about how the world works is a concept that is infused throughout the AguaClara program from the research laboratory to the classroom to the Agua Para el Pueblo (APP) office to the plant operators who run the AguaClara plants. Our emphasis on learning and a desire to know what is really happening rather than what we wish was happening is part of the magic of AguaClara.

I was recently reading the report from the WASH sustainability forum and found this remarkable statistic. 
"Over the last 20 years, 600,000-800,000 hand pumps have been installed in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which some 30% are known to fail prematurely, representing a total failed investment of between $1.2 and $1.5  billion. Less than five percent of projects are revisited after project conclusion, and far less than one percent have any long-term monitoring."

Organizations that implement projects and don't follow up miss an important learning opportunity. They never learn what works well and what causes problems and thus they never get the feedback necessary to improve either the technology or their method of implementation. This isn't Praxis.

At AguaClara we work hard to learn from both success and failure. We collaborate with APP and communities to test at full scale the ideas that we develop in the laboratory. We constantly evaluate the interface between humans and technology and work to make that interaction as positive and empowering as possible. 

Michael Adelman summed it up this way. "AguaClara needs to disseminate...
  • not just a technical model
  • not just a governance model
  • but a RESEARCH model - where the inclusion of the "real world" accelerates the innovation process
Just like we need to convince engineers not to fear gravity, we need to convince researchers not to fear reality."

Imagine what Cornell will become as more researchers accelerate their innovation by engaging with communities and partners in the "real world."

10 June 2012

The Magic of AguaClara

Alauca residents visiting their water treatment plant
Dan Smith used the phrase, "the magic of AguaClara" in a conversation about design alternatives and the need to keep plant operation simple and easy.I've been reflecting on the essential magic of AguaClara. It is easy to sense that magic when talking with community members or members of the water board. Antonio Andara, president of the water board in Alauca (7th AguaClara plant), eloquently expressed his passion for making the world a better place:
"If we continue to deforest our land, then our children will be forced to farm the desert. We have time to overcome the errors that our grandfathers made. They have passed the bill on to us, and it's our turn to pay it. Now, thanks to God, man has given us this technology, this plant. I feel very proud that I've given something good to my children. They will have clean water, treated water."
-  Antonio Andara
Cornell alumni refer to AguaClara's magic, too:
 "...[AguaClara] was a fantastic example of how developmental work should be done. I have tried to get involved with other programs ... , and they really don't measure up both in terms of what the students are providing the communities and in what the students are learning." 
- Cornell AguaClara alumni
The magic of AguaClara is seen in the successful operation of the AguaClara facilities in stark contrast with the failures in both high tech conventional plants and low tech multiple stage filtration plants. What is the magic of smart tech, of simplicity on the other side of complexity? What is the underlying magic of our design philosophy? I propose that the AguaClara magic begins with

  • empathy for people who live without access to safe drinking water
  • a respect for people's desire and capacity to create a better world for their children. 
  • belief in the the wisdom of a group and the power of collaboration 
  • humility in understanding that it is a short walk to the edge of knowledge and that our partners (plant operators, communities, Agua Para el Pueblo) bring a complementary wealth of knowledge

AguaClara is a people centered Research, Invent, Design, and Empower (RIDE) cycle. It is this respectful cycle of learning that is so magical.

I welcome your comments on the magic of AguaClara!

03 June 2012

Knowledge: It is a short walk to the edge

Last Sunday was Cornell graduation and one of my students, Yiwen Ng, handed me a note with her artwork of one of my favorite sayings. My students all know that "It's a short walk to the edge of knowledge."

I had never noticed before that the "edge" is right inside knowledge. It really is a short walk to the edge and perhaps the first step towards wisdom is recognizing how close we are to the edge.

The success of the AguaClara program has been in our ability to recognize the edge and then conduct experiments and test new ideas both in the laboratory and at full scale. We discovered that much of conventional wisdom about water treatment technologies is scaffolding built beyond the edge. We stepped back off of that shaky scaffolding and back on to the solid edifice of knowledge and began extending knowledge brick by brick.

In the past 7 years we have added bricks in chemical dosing, flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration. With Agua Para el Pueblo we've also added bricks of knowledge in governance and construction of water treatment plants. As we look ahead to the next 7 years, may we add many more solid bricks!

27 May 2012

AguaClara plant at Alauca turns chocolate into pure water

We knew that the water supply in Alauca was terribly contaminated. We now have the evidence. This is why CARE international knew that simply providing access to water wasn't enough. Can you imagine managing a household and attempting to keep your children healthy with the water on the left?
Water on the left was raw water coming into the AguaClara facility. Water on the right is the safe water produced by the plant.

I've been reflecting that the experts in the development world are often unaware of water quality and the incredible impact that poor water quality has on health and on a community's outlook. Of course, hand washing and sanitation are important. AND safe drinking water is essential. Safe, clear drinking water brings pride to women and to the entire community.

Support AguaClara and help us develop the technologies and the capability to spread sustainable AguaClara plants to more communities!

AguaClara plant at Atima, Santa Barbara is producing clean water!

The Atima plant is AguaClara's 8th plant and the 7th Honduran town to have clean water from Cornell AguaClara technologies. Antonio Elvir announced the successful results of the inaugural run yesterday.
"Con mucha alegria y satisfacion les informo que la planta en Atima esta funcionanando muy bien, las primeras pruebas fueron exitosas. Desde ayer (Thursday, May 25) a la 1: esta en funcion y la NTU es constante entre 40 y 60 ya que no ha llovido y saliendo menos de 3. Me imagino que las mejoras al diseño estan funcionando."

Atima plant under construction, April 20, 2012. This 15 L/s plant begin operation on May 25, 2012. The flocculator channels are in the foreground and the 5 sedimentation tanks are in the middle of the photo.
"With much happiness and satisfaction I report that the Atima plant is performing very well and the first tests were a success. Since yesterday (Thursday, may 25) at 1 pm the plant is online. The raw water turbidity is between 40 and 60 NTU because it hasn't been raining. The effluent turbidity is less than 3 NTU. It seems to me that the improvements to the design are functioning." - Antonio Elvir

30,000 people now receive safe clean drinking water from AguaClara plants!

30 March 2012

The Ethiopia Connection

Over the past year Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, has encouraged me to explore options for taking AguaClara to Ethiopia or Kenya and build on existing relationships that Cornell has in those countries. Last week I traveled to Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the blue Nile, in Ethiopia. I traveled with Tammo Steenhuis who has been collaborating with faculty at Bahir Dar University for the past 3 years. I had a wonderful time and the trip served as a very good introduction. Of course, I have much to learn about this very different context. I benefited from the strong Cornell connections with Bahir Dar University and my graduate student, Matt Hurst, is working with an Ethiopian graduate student, Mamaru Moges. Mamaru was extremely helpful at making connections and in setting up logistics for traveling to multiple rural communities as well visiting the water authorities for 2 cities. We were able to inspect numerous water supply systems including a surface water treatment facility for Gondar (population around 250,000) and we visited the manager of the Bahir Dar water supply system.

As expected, Ethiopia proved to be very different from Honduras in so many ways. Some things never change. People still need water; most people don't have access to safe water, and without access to the Cornell/AguaClara technologies there are no good sustainable options for providing safe water to communities. The Bahir Dar water supply manager is considering purchasing a package water treatment plant that is similar to the package plants that Honduran towns acquired in the last 15 years. Those package plants have been a disaster because of their poor design, high demand for electricity, and need for replacement parts that can only be obtained from the manufacturer. In Honduras, 50% of the 20 package plants installed between 2003 and 2008 have already been abandoned.

I was able to present the AguaClara option to faculty at Bahir Dar University, representatives from UNICEF, the regional headquarters of the Water resource and Energy Bureau, and the Bahir Dar water supply manager. There is significant interest in the AguaClara option based on the fact that connections were made quickly once I began presenting the AguaClara technologies.

Ethiopians have already identified the need for technologies that are designed for their context and they have been looking for technologies that they could use to treat the contaminated water sources. This provides an excellent opportunity for Cornell to demonstrate that the Cornell technologies are widely applicable in very different contexts. We have an opportunity to develop a global program providing technologies and capacity building for safe drinking water and the ability to establish Cornell as the leader in this field of growing importance. The most recent estimate is that there are 1.8 billion people who do not have access to safe drinking water.

I propose that Cornell expand our relationship with Bahir Dar University to include the capacity building essential for bringing the AguaClara technologies to Ethiopia. Bahir Dar University would serve as the academic partner and would provide a basis for connections with the relevant government ministries at both the regional and national level. The major hurdle is designing, building, and operating the first AguaClara demonstration plants. The first plants will serve as a demonstration of the technologies and will make it so much easier for Ethiopians to obtain funding for more AguaClara water treatment plant projects.

Developing a network of relationships and building capacity will take time and will require an ongoing relationship between Cornell, Bahir Dar University, and the AguaClara program in Honduras. I anticipate that the funding required for a 3 year program to demonstrate the AguaClara technologies and build the capacity for an ongoing program managed by Ethiopians will be on the order of $1,500,000. This is similar to the funding that we leveraged to develop the program in Honduras.

The program budget would include exchange of graduate students, placement of AguaClara Engineers in Ethiopia, summer salary, travel, exchange between Honduras and Ethiopia, and two AguaClara demonstration plants. One demonstration plant would likely be built in Bahir Dar to treat contaminated well water and the other would perhaps be built in a rural town to treat irrigation water for drinking water.

Funding for safe drinking water in Africa will be much easier to obtain than it has been to obtain funding for developing the AguaClara technologies in Honduras for two reasons. While we were developing the technologies it wasn't possible to obtain adequate funding because few donors believed that what we were proposing to do was possible. Now Cornell has proven technologies that are higher performing than conventional state of the art technologies and thus obtaining funding should be much easier. Secondly, international development funding is focused on Africa and the need for safe drinking water has never been greater.

Scaling up the global engagement of the Cornell AguaClara program is directly in support of President Skorton's call for increased global engagement. The program will engage and expanded number of undergraduates and graduates in a meaningful way and will continue to attract top students to Cornell because none of our peer institutions have comparable programs.

One of the big advantages of building an AguaClara program in Ethiopia is that it will clearly establish that the Cornell AguaClara program has global relevance for solving one of the biggest infrastructure challenges we are facing. I will continue working with Alice Pell and others at Cornell to explore funding options to make this expansion possible.

A few reflections on the Ethiopian Context

Although groundwater and springs are the primary water sources in Ethiopia, there is still an urgent need for sustainable surface water treatment technologies with over 60% of the water sources unsafe to drink. Surface water treatment technologies remove sediment (turbidity) and pathogens from surface water and from ground water that is under the influence of surface water.

There are three types of systems that would benefit from sustainable water treatment in Ethiopia. The first is springs and wells that are contaminated with surface water due to infiltration near the well head or in karst conditions where surface water can flow underground without adequate filtering through aquifer material.  An example of this need is the spring that supplies water to Bahir Dar and the wells on the flood plain of Lake Tana that produce highly turbid water during the rainy season.

The second application of AguaClara treatment technologies is to convert irrigation water into safe drinking water. Irrigation is increasingly used in Ethiopia to extend the growing season and enhance crop yields. This provides an opportunity for multiuse water systems. The impoundments created for irrigation water provide a source of surface water that could serve as a water supply with appropriate treatment.

The third application is surface water treatment of streams and rivers that flow year round and that provide excellent water supply sources if treated.  There may be a few regions in Ethiopia where surface water streams are perennial and where those streams could be used for community water supplies.

20 February 2012

Why AguaClara?

Past and current Cornell students discuss their motives for joining the team

A recent survey of past and current AguaClara team members shows that AguaClara attracts students for a variety of reasons, ranging from passion for water quality to applying classroom skills in real-world experiences.

In the words of Tori Klug ’14, current Design Team Leader, “AguaClara has given me an opportunity to learn beyond my classes and the normal undergraduate education. It’s an amazing way to make great friends who share similar interests and an awesome way to get involved. I am very passionate about water so it seemed like an excellent combination of what I care about.”

While Klug joined to satisfy her passion for water and become further involved on campus, others join to find fulfillment in their work. William Maher described his participation on AguaClara as “being a part of something meaningful in the Engineering College. I wasn't in love with the engineering school because I don't like the idea of completing assignments that will all end up in the garbage once final grades are submitted, so I thought AguaClara was a productive use of time that wasn't like any other class. The work done by AguaClara has lasting effects.”

A clear example of how AguaClara not only affects the beneficiaries of the water treatment technology but also leaves lasting impressions on the team members comes from Ted Segal, an AguaClara alum. After his Cornell graduation, Segal worked in the field of high-end technical design and engineering. He commented that while “the work was technically challenging, the social aspects of the projects were not satisfying. The work I did with Aguaclara made me think carefully about the social aspects of the work that I do. I went back for my PhD so that I can pursue work that I really care about.”

While researching with AguaClara provides a learning experience beyond the traditional lecture course, being a memberopens students’ eyes to the human side of the global water crisis. According to graduate John Erickson, AguaClara taught him “the people of Honduras are very smart, talented and dedicated yet do not have the resources available for clean water. When provided the opportunity they are highly engaged to fix the community. Working with AguaClara helped me better understand the developmental problems these communities face.” As AguaClara continues to grow, members continue pushing the limits of design and innovation. Members always strive to “Do Good Work and Do It Often.”

by Monica Kuroki

15 February 2012

Where are they now?

AguaClara alumni reflect on life after Cornell and their experiences with AguaClara

AguaClara attracts a variety of students every semester, who each come and leave with unique experiences. When asked about their experience with AguaClara at Cornell, alumni offered insight into what the program personally meant to them and how it has influenced the courses of their lives.

Although Cornell’s diverse AguaClara alumni have ventured into various fields since participating in the program, they seem to have a consensus of opinion. Of those interviewed, all expressed an appreciation for AguaClara and the positive influence it had on their time at Cornell as well as their perspective on life and work.

To Alissa Dimnich, who spent her first few semesters on the design team and her last as a student team leader, AguaClara was unique because “you and your team’s decisions affected real life situation ... It’s not your standard textbook problem solving.” Dimnich now works with GHD, an engineering consulting firm, in Cazenovia, NY, mostly on wastewater treatment plant upgrade projects.

"It’s not your standard textbook problem solving."

Other alumni may not have continued specifically with water related work, but AguaClara’s influence can still be seen in their lives.

Peter Crysdale, who graduated in 2006, worked on AutoCAD modeling and contributed to design. For Crysdale, the annual trip to the Honduras was the highlight of his experience with AguaClara. There, the project was no longer “theoretical or technical;” it was “a project that actually related to the real world, that had practical, lasting implications.” He learned about the culture of the Honduras and the daily needs of the people, which is a crucial part of the program’s success because the water treatment plants are individually designed for the communities that will be using them for years to come.

AguaClara worked its influence further into Crysdale’s life after graduation, encouraging him to spend three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where he worked primarily on agriculture projects.

AguaClara’s not-for-profit nature appeals to those who appreciate the opportunity to simply help others. Patrick Farnham, who started working with AguaClara in the fall of 2009 and continued until the fall of 2012, found that the trip to Honduras put him in perspective for his upcoming move to New York for work. Knowing he was soon headed to work for a multinational environmental engineering firm, Farnham took the trip as time to remind himself not to become “unhealthily absorbed into the for-profit world for the rest of [his] life.”

The program has seen many faces come and go, but no matter where AguaClara’s former students have found themselves, they say working on AguaClara’s program has influenced their perspectives tremendously. Alumni look back with favorable eyes, appreciating the chance to work on “solving a problem over the course of entire semesters, years, and in some cases, probably lifetimes.”

by Grace Seo