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.

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