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.

A plant operator's bread and butter is managing the two chemical systems: the coagulant, which allows dirt to aggregate and ultimately be removed from the water, and chlorine, which inactivates any pathogens that escape capture during the physical treatment process. AguaClara technology will not produce high-quality water for any significant period of time without an operator present who can run these systems well. Saturday's condensed program focused on basic concepts, calculations, and practical considerations in working with chemicals in AguaClara plants. We also covered basics of the "floc blanket" feature of the sedimentation tanks, ways to measure plant flow rate, differences between existing plants, the new online performance monitoring system, and some maintenance procedures for the most recent built version of the technology.

APP administration, water board members, and operators receive the
theoretical portion of the program in Atima's library.
To the extent that we were able to impart a practical level of knowledge on the topics of chemical dosing, floc blankets, performance data, and general maintenance in a single day, this was a chance for everyone involved to either brush up on deficiencies or get their foot in the door with the basic concepts. Water board members need to be able to check up on their operators' work and make informed decisions about investments in improving and maintaining their system. APP staff want a firm idea of how the product they're working with functions at the basic level. Even the veteran operators like Wilmer Banegas of Marcala and Antonio Cerrato of Támara continue to develop their understanding of the chemicals and the plant processes.

Operators, water board members, and APP staff watch Antonio Elvir
work through an example of how to calculate the coagulant dose
 that's being applied in the plant.

In all respects there was a multi-directional learning process. Experienced operators would offer critiques of methodology used by others. Administrators would motivate certain themes by putting them in the broader context of community health and stressing the point of view of regulators, donors, and professionals of the sector. Operators would offer personal experiences and problems they've run into as they related to each topic presented, putting the theory in context and stimulating the discussion of details that otherwise would have been overlooked. Having a critical mass of operators present made a big difference in the level of contribution from the audience. We as the educators also had a chance to learn about where we were deficient in communicating key concepts and what aspects of the technology were suffering as a result. The coagulant dose controller is one example.

AguaClara's chemical dose controller in Atima, installed just three weeks ago, is the closest we've come to achieving all of the goals of that system. The team has wrestled with the challenges of the gravity-powered semi-automatic chemical doser since AguaClara's birth, improving the system each year. Six years after the first plant was built, every AguaClara chemical dose controller has worked empirically, but the complete purpose of its design was never realized due to the sensitivity to errors in design, assembly, and maintenance. The operators have gotten so used to working empirically with the errors of the existing systems that it was difficult to communicate why the new system was better at all. All the work that AguaClara teams in Ithaca and Honduras have done to develop accurate, reliable solutions to chemical dosing problems is worth little if the end users do not have a grasp on what it's intended to do and how it works. This weekend reinforced the fact that this is not a trivial step in the process, even as we finally have technology that we believe will behave as we want it to.

Monroe has called AguaClara technology "simplicity on the other side of complexity", referring both to the elegance and ease of operation that we aspire to in our product and to the often quite complex development and design process. Working on the development side, it's easy to get used to thinking in terms of the technical challenges and forget how things look to non-engineers. As implementers, training those working on the practical side, we have to be careful not to take the basic science and the most fundamental goals for granted. While I believe we have a technology that's more transparent and understandable than conventional solutions to treating drinking water, this does not exempt us from the need to educate the technical personnel as water quality professionals. For example, a discussion of AguaClara's chemical dose controller is worthless without a foundation in the concepts of chemical concentration, dilution, and flow rate. The benefit of Atima's new dosing system with multiple parallel straight tubes, which finally provides the elusive linear behavior which should allow the operator to select a dose automatically, is easily lost on an operator who is used to continually measuring chemical flow with a graduated cylinder. It takes time to develop understanding of these concepts and put the developers of the technology and those who operate it on the same page. This weekend opened my eyes a bit to the need for continued, steady effort in communicating the fundamental science of water quality before we can hope to have our innovations well-understood and effectively adopted, and therefore the need for a stronger educational program here in Honduras.

In his closing words Director of APP Jacobo Nuñez discusses the
 need for professionalism and a stronger technical support and education program.

With plenty of experiences and ideas to share, the workshop became open format and thoughts flowed freely. Themes included plant operators collaborating with AguaClara/APP staff on an improved plant operating manual; inexpensive homemade jar-test apparatuses for each plant to develop a more systematic method for choosing coagulant dose; determining tariffs using water meters to create a culture of valuing and conserving water in the community; an annual AguaClara congress to present the technology through a united inter-municipal AguaClara community to the big players in the water sector; increased effort towards aesthetic maintenance of the plants; and a certification process for AguaClara operators so that they can officially be considered professionals of water and sanitation and so that AguaClara operating procedures can be held to a higher standard.

Perhaps the most immediate outcome of bringing representatives of the AguaClara community network together to observe and learn from one another was that it inspired those present to increase their level of professionalism and strive to do their jobs better, including us. Antonio Cerrato of Támara talked about the level of responsibility he feels being accountable for the health of an entire community. These sentiments were echoed throughout. In Atima the representatives of each community had a chance to see what aspects of their plants, their understanding, and their management were being left behind by the others, motivating progress and perhaps provoking some healthy competition as well.

The pilot run showed bringing together AguaClara-served communities to be well worthwhile. APP looks to build on what we've learned in preparing the next event.

Drew Hart worked on research and design for the AguaClara team during his time as an undergraduate and as a masters of engineering student at Cornell, and was employed by the Cornell program to work on the Automated Design Tool after graduating in December 2011. In April 2012 Drew moved to Honduras to work on implementation of AguaClara technology with Agua Para el Pueblo, and is now living there on a Fulbright grant to research floc blanket performance while continuing to support APP.

No comments: