25 March 2014

A Trip to Remember

I really hate icebreakers. I can never find a good answer for “what kind of cereal would you be and why?” My usual answer: “Uh, I’d probably be Cheerios because they’re delicious.” Clever, Paroma. Luckily, after spring semester, all groups pose the same question: “What did you do over break?” Last year my answer involved a couch, Netflix, and a metric ton of Nutella. This year I got to say something a little more interesting: “Hi, I’m Paroma and I went to Honduras for winter break.”

Besides the jealous looks from my peers (why yes I did get a tan, thanks for noticing), Honduras also gave me so much to talk about upon returning. My sentences started with what sounded like ohmygoshwesaweverythingandwaterissoimportantandraftingandwoah and ended with, “and now all I want to do is go back.” My caffeine and nostalgia fueled monologues have mostly resulted in the other people slowly backing away as I tried to communicate just how much this trip influenced my life. This post is an attempt to mold that borderline insane speech into a comprehensible piece about why everyone should go on this trip.

When we first landed back on American soil, I resisted turning my phone back on. I know, I know, how can someone of my generation resist checking their email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all at once when they have been deprived of it for two whole weeks. Well, I did resist. I did not want to see what had been happening on campus or back home because I was still trying to process what had happened in Honduras. Did I really get to climb Mayan ruins? Did I really zip line across Honduran hills and see the beauty of the country from the top of a tree? Did I really eat my weight in baleadas?  

The answer to all of that and more is a resounding yes. Beyond being an opportunity to tour water treatment plants, this trip was packed with moments of adventure and beauty that can only be found abroad. One such moment for me occurred on a raft in the middle of the Cangrejal River. I had never been rafting before and the prospect of it terrified me. When the option to either jump in a boat and ride down the river or take a hike in a mosquito ridden forest appeared, I strapped on a helmet and forced myself to row. After the first fifteen minutes in the boat and some quick safety training, I felt pretty confident about the activity. The guides did not seem too concerned and the water was slow moving. But then we hit our first rapid. Somehow our boat buckled and Diana, our guide, and I were all thrown from the raft. I know how to swim (passed the Cornell swim test, woo!), but I still started to panic and forgot all the training I had just received. Annie and Caitlin were luckily still in the boat and were able to pull me in once we reached a quieter part of the river. Everyone was a little shaken, so we pulled over to a bank and caught our breaths. As our breathing slowed down and I could hear past the panic in my head, the jungle sounds surrounding us slowly filtered in. Slowly, we all broke out in nervous, and then unabated laughter. Pure adrenaline pushed us back on the river to finish the run and do another. A few more people fell into the water, but everyone made it through the day safely. That night at dinner I stuffed myself with more baleadas and told everyone who would listen an increasingly epic version of our rafting mishap.

Our group after rafting.

I still have not stopped telling that story and I don’t think I ever will. It was the most daring thing I’ve ever done. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of that day propelled me to seek out more adventurous activities back on campus, like applying for a year long study abroad program and taking a Spanish class.

Besides giving me a new sense of adventure, Honduras has become an immense source of inspiration. On weeks where I have two prelims, a presentation, and a problem set due, I sometimes want to put AguaClara on the back burner. After exploring the communities that APP works with and playing with kids who sometimes suffer from medical problems resulting from turbid water, I just can not allow myself to do that. Monroe always mentions how connected AguaClara is to international communities, but it does not always feel that way when I am waiting for Mathcad to load in a lab in Ithaca. Actually seeing our plants and talking to operators and the community has made our connection so much clearer to me. We are an integral part of this effort to bring clean water to the people of Honduras. The trip made me realize something Monroe has been saying all along: our work matters.

A few of the kids from a village we visited in Honduras.

Confucius once said, “wherever you go, go with all your heart.” I think we did exactly that in Honduras. Between the incessant eating, picture taking, and treatment plant exploring, our group launched ourselves into the fabric of the country to experience as much as we could in our limited time. This post was just my personal experience, but I think Honduras has inspired all of us to further AguaClara’s work and know that it influences people beyond this campus. So, if you are thinking about whether to go to Honduras or not, stop thinking. Just go. Adventure is out there; you just have to sign up to find it.

19 March 2014

First Ram Pump Implemented in Honduras

AguaClara plants use some of the filtered water they produce in the chemical stock tanks and bathrooms of the plant. Since the plants rely on gravity, clean water comes out of the plant at a lower elevation than the entrance level of the plant. This means that the plant operators must physically carry the filtered water up multiple flights of stairs to the main level of the plant.
The goal of the Ram Pump team is to lessen the strain on the operator by creating a pump that brings water back up to the plant following the AguaClara philosophy of sustainability by using no electricity, being easy to use and operate, and having a simple, efficient design.

On the winter break trip to Honduras, the first Ram Pump was implemented in an AguaClara plant. The team met with the plant operators to go through the different parts, explain how it worked and then build the ram pump on site. They then built a concrete tank for the ram pump to fit in, after it was poured they had to wait until the third day to run it. After getting through some initial clogging due to debris, the ram pump worked outstandingly. Once the water started running through it, the ram pump turned out a flow rate that was even higher than the team had last measured in the lab.

Unfortunately, there were some issues with the implementation. The water flow rate into the pump was higher than the team had used in lab to design it, and there is a change in elevation in the underground pipe system of the plant that the team had not known about. Since they were unable to account for the elevation change the pump is currently not working, so engineers and plant operators at the plant are working to determine the best method of fixing the pipes.

Ram Pump
The Ram Pump team is continuing their work in the lab. Last semester, the team made great strides in improving the pump design as well as their lab. They successfully developed a head loss system using pipes designed to simulate the difference in elevation the water must be carried up through, they were able to increase the flow rate of the water through the system and made improvements on the recycling system as well. At the end of last semester the team bought a $500 commercial pump to see how the ram pump would compare, and theirs outperformed the commercial one!

This semester the team is continuing work to make the pump more efficient and reliable, increase the delivery flow rate, and scale the pump design for use in more plants of different sizes to determine if we should consider making the ram pump a more permanent feature of the AguaClara plant design.

16 March 2014

Trip to Honduras: Class Projects

Field trips usually mean being part of a class, right? So the Honduras trip was part of a class. Instead of being assigned homework, students formed small groups to work on projects focusing on various aspects of the context of engineering in Honduras. These projects are about more than just getting a grade and have allowed us to really explore the water treatment system and infrastructure beyond technology. Political, economic, or medical, there are many other factors to deal with in water treatment. We are of course primarily engineers, so some of our projects do cover the technology we saw. And then there’s the whole story of the trip itself. Here’s a glimpse at what we’ve been working on.

Project: Centralized vs. Decentralized Systems

Team Members: Alex, Annie, Paroma, and Toun

A major component in providing clean drinking water includes the governing system that will organize the distribution of water and tariffs. This group explored whether decentralization would make that process more efficient and less subjective to the tides of politics. While in Honduras, they asked plant operators and town officials about the decentralization process and its effectiveness or expected benefits.
One current issue in centralized systems is that when a new political party comes into power, members of the leaving political party will lose their jobs. This shift in leadership means that a new plant operator will need to be hired and trained. Politicians in power are also influential enough to force plant operators to reconnect the water to those who had not paid the water tariff.

The motivation behind decentralization is that if consumers pay their tariffs and the plants do not receive any subsidies from the municipalities, changes in political leadership are less likely affect the day-to-day running of the plants. It was found that decentralization is a complex process and very few villages or towns have actually completed the process, so it was difficult to compare decentralized and centralized systems. Of those that decentralized, only one community was completely self-sufficient and running without any government intervention or support. 

Project: Water Tariffs

Team Members: Chris, Jon, Kristie, Walker

The water tariff group is focusing on tariff schemes and rates, and comparing those to user satisfaction with service. In each town or city, they tried to collect information on plant type, plant administration, and tariff history. So in Honduras, this meant collecting tariff information from the administrators and operators at each plant, and then measuring satisfaction in interviews with users.

As they still need to collect the interview responses and then compare those with their tariff data, they have not yet come to any conclusions. An inherent challenge in drawing any conclusions from this project is that there are very few data points and the measure of satisfaction will be anecdotal, so nothing will be proved quantitatively. In addition, the comparative amounts of water supply and demand as well as the political history of each individual community play a large part in determining the current tariff scheme.

One surprising thing that came out of asking administrators about tariffs was the fact that significant portions of their users are behind on their payments or not paying at all. This issue occurred in several cities, with political graft often identified as a major source of the problem.

Project: Health and Drinking Water Quality

Team Members: Felice, Marissa, Theresa, Will

The health project team is interested in measuring how the quality of health has changed in each community since the AguaClara treatment plants have been built. Though their initial interest lay mainly in hearing anecdotal stories about how health has improved for local community members, it soon expanded to collecting data on health from every community. They were able to have many conversations with local community members and health center workers in several of the visited towns.

It was apparent in every conversation that illness was common due to the unclean water. People who lived in communities with AguaClara treatment plants, however, were able to tell us how cases of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases have decreased. Some health centers were also able to provide statistics on diarrhea cases and other health trends, though it seemed that data collection throughout the communities was overall rather disorganized. As some health centers would treat several communities, of which only one would have an AguaClara plant, the data would also be skewed and include cases from the communities with dirty water.

The health improvements seen in Honduras have given more motivation to providing clean water. The team is currently working on recommendations for expanding on the data and information collected for future years.

At a health center in Atima

Project: Foam Filter

Team Members: Kadambari, Melissa, Paul (acknowledgements to Skyler, Jeff, Kristin at Cornell)

The foam filter team, an AguaClara sub-team throughout the year, was a major component in the technology exchange of this year’s trip to Honduras. The foam filter is intended to be a possible solution for very small communities where a full-scale AguaClara water treatment plant would not be the appropriate technology. This sub-team has been performing research for the past few years, and last fall’s team focused on specifications to make it operational in Honduras.

The foam filter team’s final debut came midway through the trip, when the team presented the system to Honduran officials atop a windy mountain. Though there were many challenges - from finding the correct barrel to fit the foam cylinders during construction to barely cleaning the water on-site - the team’s foam cylinders eventually became a working filter that transformed filthy water to a clear effluent. The foam filter cleaned water that was over 100 NTU (a measure of “haziness”) to 1.87 NTU (Honduran standards for drinking water are 5 NTU). Their success in Honduras has translated to new improvements in design at Cornell, which they are currently working on.
Excitement over the working foam filter

Project: Plant Comparison

Team Members: Songlin

Though we all believe strongly in our research on the technologies produced by the AguaClara program, there are other treatment schemes used in small communities in Honduras. The focus of this project is to compare these other technologies to AguaClara's and find specific pros and cons of each. Like all our work, the goal is to find if there is another possible way to reduce cost of treatment while maintaining high water quality. While in Honduras, Songlin collected information about different treatment plants that the team visited throughout the trip, such as construction cost and the size of the population served. The project also includes outside research about other water treatment plants and technologies.

Project: Wastewater Treatment Systems

Team Members: Caitlin, Cristina, Luke, Maithili, Vicki, and Walker

The wastewater treatment team, also a subteam of AguaClara, was interested in Honduras’ wastewater treatment systems in terms of the technology and treatment processes used, sewer connections, tariffs, and where wastewater treatment stands in the community’s priorities for progress. Not an issue many people want to discuss, they also found out more about community awareness of the importance of wastewater treatment. The trip to Honduras helped clarify the goal of the team’s research in anaerobic wastewater treatment back at Cornell and illuminated further areas of research for future modification.

In Honduras, they visited wastewater treatment systems of various communities and asked about the current status of the system as well as future progress. They learned that although developing accessible drinking water treatment plants tops the list of priorities, wastewater seems to be slowly gaining importance too. They saw many different treatment processes used, including oxidation lagoons, UASB units, activated sludge treatment plants, and Imhoff tanks. Some of the plant operators they interviewed were unable to give complete information about the plant, such as if it was functioning fully. Their learning experience did not go without adventure. In one community, their visit included climbing on top of the Imhoff tank, which was an open concrete structure full of sewage 6 feet deep. 

The Wastewater Treatment Team and Drew (back, left) on top of the Imhoff tank 

Project: Video

Team Members: Apoorv, Ariel, and Saugat

In line with AguaClara’s vision of open source technology and rich documentation, the video project team left almost no aspect of the trip untouched - from car rides to water treatment plants to conversations with local community members. There are three parts to their project: the trip itself, how an AguaClara water treatment plant works, and a documentary of how water quality affects life in Honduras.

Armed with a video camera and probing questions, the team captured the story of our time in Honduras through interviews, narrating the processes of the San Nicolas plant under construction, and recording soccer games on the fly. Many of the interviews involved talking to people living in the communities and asking how they live or lived without daily access to clean water. They also recorded some of the less serious details of the trip that might have been lost in retelling otherwise, like AguaClara members dancing. With only one team member fluent in Spanish, they sometimes found it difficult for everyone to understand each other when talking, but they were able to record it all. The team is still hard at work editing and whittling down all the footage into a succinct chronicle of our adventures abroad.

12 March 2014

Ithaca is Jorges

Out of all the people that we, the students, have met and interacted with through the entire duration of our trip, no one expressed as much love and joviality as Jorge Dueñas, one of the van drivers for the 2014 Honduras trip. Despite his barebones grasp of English, Jorge managed to showcase his outgoing personality through many means other than spoken language.
Jorge helping with the construction of the foam filtration unit

In this video interview, we asked a few of the students, Kadamburi Suri ’17, Melissa Shinbein GRAD, and Paroma Chakravarty ’16 to describe some of their experiences with the loveable and expressive driver Jorge, who hails from the city of Tela on the northern coast of Honduras. They recall the experience of Jorge regaling them the story of how he met the love of his life while he was in the process of joining the priesthood.

The beauty of this experience was this linguistic cooperation that they shared between each other in order to break the egregious language barrier. Melissa, with a little experience with Spanish, was able to pick out the simple Spanish words and cognates. Beyond that, they relied on body language and hand motions for ideas like love, affection, or anxiety, that proved to be surprisingly universally understood.

In the end, we were all glad to revel in the fact that we were able to establish this line of communication, albeit through tremendous effort from both parties. I think about all the life stories of everyone we have interacted with on this trip and realize how easily I could miss them if I did not try to listen to them tell them. Everyone has a story to tell, about love, family, home life, or even about us visitors. I can only hope to have enriched the stories of those I have met on this trip.

03 March 2014

Let's Go to the Tape

Come check out a sneak peak for the Anaerobic Wastewater Treatment Team, and watch out for the full feature coming soon!

02 March 2014

People we met on the Trip

“Regalo!” That's what The People of Honduras call me. They couldn't pronounce my name “Saugat” and gave me this new name after I told them that “Saugat” in Nepali means “gift”. They say that the name is suitable because I look like a Honduran and regalo is Spanish for gift. The locals in San Nicolas, however, call me “RegalaTION” because it sounded like an English word.

I had a chance to meet and interact with a lot of different people in Honduras. I even lived with a family in their house for 4 days, and I would like to tell you that the people of Honduras are AWESOME. They always smile despite the hardships they face and are extremely helpful. Multiple host families even gave us their kids' rooms while the whole family cramped up in one room, just to allow us to be comfortable. They are very good dancers. And more importantly they really appreciate AguaClara's efforts in Honduras and were willing to teach us during our short trip. It is always nice to see your work is appreciated and this motivated everyone in our group to put in more effort in research back at Cornell.

Ok! If I write everything I learned about the people of Honduras then this blog will be too long. So I have picked a few people to write about.

1. Drivers: (Jorge, Roger, Leopoldo) We had three drivers who drove us all over Honduras every day of our two week trip. They have been driving for AguaClara's annual trip for many years now. They were not only super skilled but also very hard working, humble and happy people. They learned everyone's name on day 1 and really got along with us. It was a tough job for them as we traveled almost everyday with a lot of luggage. Some trips were as long as 5 or 6 hours and often started early in the morning so people mostly slept in the vans. Nevertheless, the drivers always maintained their smiles and positive attitudes. They skillfully avoided almost every one of the infinite potholes on the road, ensuring a smooth drive.

Jorge: Our most experienced driver. He lives in the beach town of Tela with his wife and 9 kids. He told us his story of how he was going to be a priest but gave up after he fell in love with his wife. He spoke very little English but after a few days he understood us and we understood him even with the language barrier. At every opportunity he had, he would dance his heart out and coerce the rest of us in to dancing as well. His wife originally taught him to dance, and it was beautiful to hear about their life together and to see how much he now loved dancing.

Roger works as a driver for a Japanese non-profit in Tegucigalpa. He always played Honduran music and sang along as he drove. I wanted him to sing for my AguaClara movie but he respectfully declined. Though again there was a language barrier between us, by the end of the trip it hardly mattered at all. Our silent jokes, dancing, and love for baleadas, a Honduran food, made it easy to communicate with one of our great new friends.

Leopoldo was not only a driver but also our official translator for the trip and did a great job. He is from Honduras but lives in Atlanta where he works at a doctor's office. He was very important and popular as he spoke perfect English and Spanish. During the trip, he celebrated his birthday with some of his relatives there and we sang a very interesting spanglish rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Every year his birthday falls during our trip to Honduras, and he is kind enough to spend it with us rather than at his home in Atlanta. Without Leopoldo, I don’t know if we even would have made it out of the airport the first day.
Leopoldo (center, light-Teal polo) translating for us in Mariposales.

Antonio is a technician for Agua Para El Pueblo, AguaClara’s implementation partner  in Honduras. He was the primary planner of our trip and traveled along with us every day, teaching us about Honduras and the treatment plants we visited. He was very hard working and serious about work. I realized this in San Nicolas when I was filming the installation of ramp pump. He was working with Ariel and seemed so focused and into it that I didn't ask him any interview questions until the last the day when the ram pump was finally up and running. He was very happy to interview with me after that and commended all of us for our good work.
Antonio (left) working on the Ram Pump with Ariel in San Nicolas
Antonio has been assisting with the AguaClara trips for years and always plays an integral part in organizing the trip and transporting nearly 30 college students across the country for two weeks, no easy task. Similarly, Antonio is also responsible for training the plant operators and educating communities about the importance of clean water. From what we saw, he has been doing a great job. None of the plant operators are highly educated but they knew the AguaClara plants more than most of us and took pride in their jobs. He is probably the most important friend and employee AguaClara has in Honduras.

People of San Nicolas: We were in San Nicolas for 4 days so we met many people. On the very first night, the community organized a welcome ceremony for us with performances by a talented traditional Honduran dance group and an amazing folk band. We also made some local friends, played soccer (got owned) and also explored the out-skirts of the town. This is also where we lived with our host families.

A local dance group performing during the welcome ceremony in San Nicolas

I lived in Umberto's house. Umberto works for the municipality and lives in his beautiful house with his wife, 2 kids and his sister in-law. Ariel was my roommate which was great because he spoke Spanish. The house had 2 bedrooms and Umberto gave us one while everyone else in his family shared one room for the next 4 days. Everyday when me and Ariel got back home, we had long conversations with Umberto (Ariel translated everything  for me of course). He told us that everyone in the village was really happy that the plant was was being built in San Nicolas and he believes that the plant will help San Nicolas economically because more people will be interested in moving here and start businesses because of the availability of clean drinking water.

Over all, I really enjoyed my stay at Umberto's house. He gave us hats as presents and his wife gave us breakfast every morning so me and Ariel could sleep half-an hour longer while everyone went to Comedor cafe for breakfast. Also, his sister in law training to become an AguaClara plant operator which was also cool.

On the last day, the San Nicolas community organized a farewell dinner for us followed by a dance party. The hospitality of the people was great and no one wanted to leave San Nicolas.

Lastly, our trip wouldn't have been so successful without the help of these people. They never get any credit but it should be noted that the people of Honduras are largely responsible for AguaClara's immense success in Honduras.