26 January 2017

Community and Aguaclara Plants

During our adventures in Honduras, it has become obvious that a local community plays a huge part in the success and development of an AguaClara plant. With over a dozen plants now in operation, after 8 days we have had the chance to see a variety of plants and the towns and people who they serve. The difference between plants where the local people actively engage their plant and those where they don’t can become significant over time, and a few of the plants we have visited so far exemplify this.

Soccer teams from members of the trip and the community of Jesus de Otoro

The town of Tamara has one of the most active and proud Water Boards we have had the privilege of meeting, as well as one of the best plant operators that AguaClara and Agua Para el Pueblo works with. The people of Tamara responded to their improved water supply by willingly helping to fund further improvements to the plant, such as a filtration system and storage tank.

The filtration system and drain to the water tank in Tamara

The plant’s staff were there with us every step of the way trying to learn and help us fix some small issues with the plant’s flocculator and sedimentation tanks. It was very reassuring to see that the plant in Tamara will be in good hands for many years to come.

The new plant at Las Vegas

One of the plants we’ve visited most recently also shows a lot of promise. In Las Vegas, where our largest implemented plant to date is located, the Mayor and other local politicians hosted a media event for our arrival. Although this was done with the hope that the public would look more favorably on an increase in water taxes, the investment by politicians in this plant will help ensure that it only improves over time. 

A plant operator at Las Vegas helping with testing

Plant operators in Las Vegas also helped with experiments and work on the plant while we were there, such as helping to sample the flocculation blanket and trying to improve the filters. As with Tamara, in Las Vegas it seems the plant is in the hands of inquisitive and driven people and is set up for long standing success.

At the Mayor of Las Vegas's house

A different example might be found at Morocelí. This plant operates well and the operators and board were happy to receive us; yet, the plant has had an issue with one of the original filters installed leaking some sand. This was known before we got there, but nothing has been done to fix the issue. While we visited the plant a decision to replace the part was made, but further action may be up to the locals. The plant’s performance is still of great quality, and in the end the people who are closest with the plant hold the key to its future in fixing issues like these.

The plant workers at Morocelli and nearly everyone from our trip to Honduras

Although we know the people of Honduras sometimes depend on AguaClara and Agua Para el Pueblo for technical support, our travels have made it obvious that the ultimate success of a plant depends on close collaboration between a community and our organizations. Thankfully, it is easy to forge and maintain good relations with people in places where we are trying to improve their quality of life. As AguaClara’s initiative continues to grow, hopefully more and more people will help to get behind this project and bring clean water to those who need it.

20 January 2017

Hope (and a lot of hard work)

On Wednesday morning, we traveled from Marcala to Gracias. La Esperanza, or Hope, is a small town between Marcala and Gracias where we stopped for a quick break and stretch. Stepping out of the vans and into town was immediately awe-inspiring. The main square in La Esperanza is paved with stones and has 100 foot trees surrounded by seating, flowers, and people chatting. At the very center of the square, there is a tall tree with a huge base, decorated with a dollhouse scale representation of the town. Street signs are made out of mosaics. Colorful murals of local animals and community members cover the walls. Small memorial artworks for Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist murdered last year for her work, are dotted around town. In a small café, local artwork and newspaper clippings cover the walls and the tables are decorated with mosaics. Steady breeze and a view of the second tallest mountain in Honduras grace the town.

We made our way to a small religious shrine carved in the side of a hill on the edge of town. The shrine, at the end of a road, is about 30 feet above street level and required walking up many steps. The steps, too, were carved out of stone. Heavy use and thousands of feet have left the steps irregular, with great depressions and slopes. Some steps are completely smoothed from use and weathering, leaving slick, unclimbable rock. Navigating upwards, we made the steps a bit smoother, too. Above the shrine on the hill, small foot trails wind about and brought us higher above the town and into more wind. And standing up on the hill, looking over La Esperanza, hearing the rustling trees, breathing the air in deeply, I was overcome.

I am still not sure what I was overcome by, but it was some magical combination of peace, contentment, excitement, awe, happiness, and more. Finding magic in nature is nothing new for me, but there was something about that moment that was different from others.

I was in Hope, standing on a hill of Hope.
And that is not something that I do very often.

As a person in general, I often regulate my hopes and expectations to avoid disappointment. As a student of engineering in particular, I know that hope is not enough for the work that I do. I cannot hope that I prepared my samples correctly; I have to study, prepare, calculate, analyze, and then know that I did it right. I cannot hope that the sedimentation tank that I designed has the correct dimensions for the desired flow rate; again, I have to study, prepare, calculate, analyze, and then know that I did it right. And if I did not do it right, I have to go back to find and correct my mistake again and again. If I want small towns, villages, and cities to have clean drinking water and sustainable wastewater treatment, I can’t just sit here and hope that it be so. With those pressures, I find myself avoiding hope.

So why did my brief time in La Esperanza feel so good, why is it sticking with me, why was I so overcome? I think it’s because during this trip with AguaClara, I feel like I have been reintroduced to Hope. Like standoffish children, we’ve been forcibly put into the same room, sniffed each other, made tentative eye contact, shook hands, gave reserved smiles, and then decided that we’re alright. We might as well be friends. But how did that happen? How can I reconcile hope with engineering and the rest of my life?

Ah, I don’t really know, but I think it has something to do with the way that environmental engineering and AguaClara are. What I am learning is that the place for engineering is in between hope and reality. Engineering does not exclude hope, and vice versa. Engineering is the details, the MathCAD, the problem sets, the fluids, the biology, the chemistry, the physics, and everything else that is needed to plan, build, operate and manage. That work is what allows us to actually treat water and decrease the amount of water-borne illnesses, or treat wastewater, or provide renewable energy, or, or, or. Kike, a foreman with Agua Para el Pueblo, eloquently put, “to know well, there’s work and to do well, there’s work.” To do anything, there’s work. Work is the grinding, slow process of researching, prototyping, design reviewing that we learn and practice as engineers. It is the work that is sometimes fruitless and only produces something that “should work” instead of the sought after “did work.” It is the work that sometimes produces the fruitful “did work” but maybe “could work better.” It is the work that requires continuous learning and changing and improving, and sometimes breaking concrete to make something better. So work is good and great, and I think that I already knew that.

But I also know that work is hard a lot of times, and it’s really tiring other times, and can sometimes feel like a battle with me on the frontlines. It is me versus the concept, me versus the assignment, me versus the test. And that fight gets old quickly and then it just feels like a fight, and not meaningful work. Without a greater perspective and inspiration, the fight can be given up. So work is good and great, and I definitely already know that, but I am learning that work and engineering is not enough.

Because there wouldn’t ever be and can’t ever be engineering without hope. Hope is the fuel for work. We hope for clean water, safer families, more equitable societies, environmental protection and stewardship, justice. Engineering is necessitated by the hope for better, because that is just what engineering is: a piece of the path to better. After La Esperanza, we went to Gracias, or Thanks. In Gracias, the city is planning to build a 120 L/s drinking water treatment plant with Agua Para el Pueblo and AguaClara. In Gracias, thanks to both hope and work, a water treatment plant will be built for the betterment of everyone.

There are so many parts of this trip that I will remember. Walking into the first plant in Cuatro Comunidades was peaceful and inspiring. Seeing large flocs in the flocculator disappear by the top of the sedimentation tank was beautiful. Working on the 1 L/s plant assembly and then learning that it was delivering 0 NTU water after only a few days was exhilarating. Staying with a family in Las Vegas and sharing the universal language of love was emotional. Belly-laughing without restraint with my teammates after a long day of work was liberating. Seeing the mountains jutting towards the sky with narrow ridges, the fog lifting from the valleys, hammocks slung under even the smallest piece of shade, clothes hung out to dry in backyards of concrete homes, cows and horses tied to ropes that are attached to nothing, coffee farms and drying beans, red earthed stoneware, gardens overflowing with wildflowers, was breathtaking.

These moments will become the well from which I draw strength to fuel the hard work, early mornings, and late nights. Because now, I feel like I have hope with me. With AguaClara, Honduras, my teammates, my professors, my friends, my studies, my nature, I will work to keep hope with me.

Hope is engineering.
Engineering is love.
Hope is love (and I am loving hope).

17 January 2017

Flat Head

Written by Jay Castro and Yinghan Hua

We'd become complacent. We'd heard rumors about one of our own spending the day at the Mayors domicile, feverish and taking only fluids, but that felt still somehow distant, like it couldn't possibly happen to us, not nine days in. We told ourselves, "We have iron stomachs! Give us your frijoles, your foreign microbiomes! They'll find Liberty on the golden shores of our stomachs."

Of course this couldn't last. It's the morning of the 16th and a third of the team is out of commission.

Felix after frijoles and a long night of oral hydration salts

Despite being six ingenieros down, we made a lot of progress at Jesus de Otoro. Everyone knew what needed to be done and got straight to doing it. There was only one item on the todo list, technically - assemble the new filter manifolds. The plant here has been experiencing problems with sand leakage and clogging in its filters during the backwash process, so we set about fabricating the new filter manifold design which would prevent sand from entering the inlets. The new design features a half-pipe "wing" attached along the length of each module, with 37 holes drilled evenly along the middle line. From theory and testing, we found this design creates a sand-water barrier which prevents fluidized sand from entering the pipe.

La Planta Jesus de Otoro

Three of us began sanding down the modules of the manifold to help them fit nicely into the molds without deforming. The sanded PVC got tossed into a pile from which the Chefs selected pieces for heating in oil until pliable enough to be artfully shoved into the metal molds which shape the pieces for proper assembly. Two Chefs, two kilos of manteca, one hotplate, and a generator.

Chefs doing chef things

PVC after molding

From there the pieces landed in the ruined-beyond-hope pile or the Okay barrel. One brave washer applies soap to the greasy ends of deep-fried PVC and ignores the pain as best they can - PVC, when rotated quickly and under pressure, can and will inflict wounds very similar to paper cuts. Two or three more washers rinse the soapy PVC, and a few driers wipe them down.

Our bravest of washers

This whole process is lovingly summed up as Cooking PVC.

"Be chiller, Peter."

We spent about five hours cooking PVC and just barely finished in time to meet the president of the Jesus de Otoro Waterboard for a few house visits -

Visiting with the president of the Jesus de Otoro Waterboard

And dinner with the rest of the Waterboard members at a beautiful water park next to a bridge over one of Honduras's largest rivers, Rio Zazagua.

Four down, four to go


Special thanks to Juanita Weber-Shirk for her medical skills and incredible generosity. Thank you! 

15 January 2017

Our Honduras Homestay

Written by Sidney Lok and Ruizhe (Samantha) He

During our trip so far in Honduras, we stayed in many hotels. Among the hotels, there is one that is located on the mountain, which takes 20 minutes of a rocky drive to get there. There is also one that is just along the highway, but has several separate houses with capacity for up to 3 people in each. The whole team made so many wonderful memories at these campgrounds; we sat around a bonfire, got to know the staff, and struggled to get wifi and hot water. However, the most memorable experience (in our opinions) is the 2-night homestay in Las Vegas.

Our first night in the homestays, we were still getting into the groove of communicating with people who speak a different language. That night involved a lot of sign language, google translate, and games. However, these obstacles are what created a special relationship between us and our hosts.

Google translation of a note from our host family
One example of a game introduced to us that Samantha really liked was called "Loteria". It is something like "Bingo". Every player has a different map showing 16 figures. There is also a set of cards. Every time a card from the deck would be revealed. When the figure on your map is the same as the one on the card, you can put a rock on your map. Whoever has four rocks in a column, row or diagonal should say "loteria" and they win the game. For Samantha, it was a really a good way to learn Spanish because every card has a Spanish word on it. Since Samantha really loved this game, the mom gave it to her as a present and she truly appreciated her generosity.


The mom who welcomed Samantha and her roommates was named Jessica. She has a daughter and a son. The grandma also treated them very kindly. The dad speaks both Spanish and English, which made it much easier for to communicate. Once they arrived at home, Jessica first showed them their rooms and they just gathered in the living room to chat and play games. Generally, for Samantha who knows nothing about Spanish, the chatting part should have been so exhausting. However, thanks to their kindness and the help of our teammate Rose, they really had a good time sharing our stories.

Sidney also had an amazing experience at her homestay with Dinorah and her daughter Daniela. The very first night, Zoe broke out a pack of Uno cards as a gift for them and an icebreaker for all of us. The game made it easier for us to all get acquainted with one another. It became very clear to Sidney and Zoe that there was a special bond between Dinorah and Daniela, and which they extended to their guests. Throughout the stay, Sidney and Zoe were treated with exceptional warmth, kindness, and generosity. They learned to make baleadas (a tortilla with beans and cheese sandwiched inside) from Dinorah and had a chance to do their laundry for the first time in a week. Daniela gave Zoe a dreamcatcher necklace and Sidney a friendship bracelet as a gift.

Once it was time to leave our homestays, a feeling of gratefulness washed over us. Sidney became so overwhelmed that she started tearing up when they had to leave. It was hard to leave. Zoe even asked at one point if Daniela was going to walk with us back to the park and drop us off, but Dinorah sadly said no. When we left, there were plenty of bittersweet hugs to go around. Thankfully, we all exchanged contact information to keep in touch. We will never forget the memories we made at Las Vegas. And if our host families are reading this, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR EVERYTHING!

13 January 2017

A wonderful day with beautiful scenery and tasty food

By Yang Chen

On Jan12th

Firstly, visiting the Aguaclara treatment plant in Tamara community. This is the first agauclara plant equipped with filters.

The operators of this plant met a problem during the operation process. The flocs always rise up to the surface of the water which impair the effect of flocculation. 

The team members tried to figure out the problem and finally find that the high -water level of the entrance tank is the reason. Make some construction to add more head loss at the entrance tank may solve this problem.

Although there is some problem during the flocculation, the water quality of the effluent after going through the filters is quite good. The turbidity meter shows the turbidity of effluent is 0 NTU. The treated water even can be drunk just after waiting for 30 minutes.

After visiting the plant, aguaclara team members went hiking with the operators to find out one of the water resources of the plant. It was quite a long and rough hiking. We had to climb the very steep slope and walk through the mud. Shoes are all changed the original color to be brown.

The scenery is quite beautiful and is worthy of hard walking.

This is one of the water resources of the Tamara Aguaclara plant.

After a long and meaningful morning, we went to a Chinese restaurant to have lunch. The scenery inside is amazing and the food taste really good. What is the most exciting thing is that there is Wi-Fi in this restaurant!!!

After the group meeting to conclude the reflection of one-day’s activities, we enjoyed a campfire, talking about some interesting stories around the fire.