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BBC Mundo: "The revolutionary invention that provides drinking water to thousands in Honduras"

Tuesday, August 29, 2017
BBC Mundo

Each semester more than 60 engineering students and other disciplines from Cornell University travel to Honduras with the AguaClara project.


28 Aug 2017

by Alejandra Martins, BBC World
Original article translated from Spanish via Google Translate

The revolutionary invention that provides drinking water (without electricity) to thousands of people in Honduras

"Before having the treatment plant people had only river water and it was taken as it was. There were many diseases."

"Now they use their own tap water."

So says Ramón Ribera, who chairs the board of community water, Tamara, located 25 km north of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

And it is the community itself that operates the plant that changed the lives of its about 6,500 inhabitants.

But the innovative technology he uses was born in a laboratory at the prestigious Cornell University in the United States.

Támara is one of the treatment plants built in Honduras by AguaClara, a project that has allowed, without electricity, to provide potable water to more than 60,000 people in the Central American country. And the initiative is expanding to Nicaragua and India.

The technique used in AguaClara was created by Monroe Weber-Shirk, an American engineer whose life was marked by his experience in Central America during the war in El Salvador.

"I eliminated the need for electricity"

"I experienced the need for clean water when I worked in camps for Salvadoran refugees in 1982 and 1983," said Weber-Shirk, a professor of environmental engineering at Cornell University and founder of the AguaClara project, BBC Mundo.

"I learned that the technologies available were not appropriate to serve rural communities in Latin America, and even for some cities it was difficult to operate and maintain water treatment plants."

Weber-Shirk runs "AguaClara Labs", a laboratory in which each semester students travel to Honduras and work in the field with local partners.

"I decided to develop a new approach to the problem of water treatment. I eliminated the mobile components and the need for electricity, with a technology that is open source and has no patents," the engineer told BBC Mundo.

"And the system is based on the latest advances in physics and chemistry that we investigated at the Cornell University Water Laboratory."

Rural Communities

The AguaClara project has already built 14 plants in Honduran territory, most of them in communities such as Támara, with less than 15,000 inhabitants.

"A plant is now under construction at the Zamorano University of Honduras and the first plant in Nicaragua began to be built on August 1," Weber-Shirk said.

"We have different designs with flows ranging from one to 100 liters per second. To give you an idea, a 100 liters per second plant can serve a community of about 30,000 people."

The laboratory works together with the engineers and technicians of a Honduran organization, Agua Para el Pueblo (APP), which builds plants and enables communities to operate them.

"Following the construction plant is transferred to communities or municipalities , " he told BBC World James Nunez , director of APP.

"Sludge in the piles"

"Villagers, mainly women, when noticing mud sediment in the piles complain to the water board directors to demand that water reach the houses as clean as possible," Nunez said.

"And they threaten to continue the presence of sediment, they will refuse to pay the fee."

In the case of Tamara, the monthly fee is 100 lempiras or 4 dollars.

Only by gravity

The turbidity of the water, with sediments or residues of feces, prevents simple forms of disinfection of water with chlorine are effective, Núñez explained.

The AguaClara plants solve the problem of turbidity without using electricity, but gravity, to purify the water.

"To eliminate the turbidity we use a coagulant chemical that works as a gluebinding small particles in the water to form larger particles called floccules, " said Nunez.

The water is then sent to a sedimentation tank where the flocs settle to the bottom by gravity.

The clean water from the top is then piped to a multi-layer sand filter, where the particles that escaped in the sedimentation tank are captured, Weber-Shirk said.

Finally chlorine is added to the water to eliminate the pathogens that could not be trapped in the process of flocculation, sedimentation and filtration.

The water is then sent to community storage tanks.

"And every resident has potable water just by unlocking the key," Weber-Shirk said.

For Ramón Ribera, the technology without electricity allows that "any person with under study can be trained to operate the plants".


The AguaClara program receives funding from various sources.

The research is funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Weber-Shirk expressed to BBC World concern that in the current climate of cuts to science and the US EPA. Resources may be affected.

The construction of the plants "is financed by an international cooperation program from Switzerland, Swiss Development Cooperation, Rotary International and the municipalities themselves", among other sources.

"Humility and empathy "

Each semester about 65 Cornell students join AguaClara.

"They come from different fields within engineering and from other areas such as business administration and communications," explained Weber-Shirk.

"We give them research problems to develop new knowledge that allows us to create better designs for plants," said Cornell's professor.

Natalie Mottle is one of the engineering students who participated in AguaClara.

"The flow of knowledge and technical information allows for a continuous process of research and progress. I learned a lot about how to be humble and create an environment that enables open communication and cooperation," she told BBC World.

For Mottle, "students who work at AguaClara and travel to Honduras also learn that empathy and compassion can be essential to solve real-world problems with engineering."

"I think the most important thing I learned from the AguaClara project is that our lab work directly affects the lives of other people in need," says Erica Marroquin, another of the engineering students who traveled to Honduras.

"Students should be aware that their work counts, not just on a motivational theme, but also to know that they can change the world as well."

"Example of love"

Weber-Shirk expects to expand AguaClara in Latin America.

A Cornell alumnus created a nonprofit organization, AguaClara Reach, responsible for identifying partners to expand technology at the regional level.

"We are interested in finding non-profit and socially responsible engineering institutions that want to offer AguaClara's technology in their regions. If any institution or government in Latin America wants to provide potable water with a sustainable and more economical infrastructure, you can contact AguaClara Reach."

With its innovative technology, local partners and ongoing research, AguaClara is much more than a project to provide drinking water. For Monroe Weber-Shirk, it is an "example of love."

"Love helps others thrive and creates healthy communities," he said.

"Engineers are researching, inventing, designing and building the infrastructure that makes it possible for people to live in healthy communities," Cornell told BBC World.

"Opening the tap and drinking water especially frees women and girls in many rural communities, who instead of having to collect water can devote their energy to education and other activities, and maybe someday become engineers and doctors."

Engineering is love ."

Water for the People monitors the performance of plants and the reduction of diseases. But the community itself is jealous for the quality of its water.

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