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.