To help local populations in Honduras secure clean water, the student engineering team AguaClara is working to develop three water treatment plants in the country — an addition to the five Honduran plants the team has already helped build.
“These are very small communities and it really makes a difference in their lives to have sustainable treatment plants,” said Rosa Mato Amboage ’11, an outreach coordinator for the team.
Led by Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk, civil and environmental engineering, the six-year-old engineering team AguaClara is made up of 52 students who design sustainable, gravity-powered water treatment plants for countries that face issues of clean water scarcity.
Along with the non-profit partner Agua Para El Pueblo, the team developed five water treatment plants in Honduras from 2007 to 2009, which now provide 15,000 people with clean water, Weber-Shirk said.
The group’s new project will create two new plants in the Honduran municipalities of Atima and Alauca and an extension to an existing plant in Marcala, according to Weber-Shirk. He said the extension in Marcala is expected to be completed next month and the Atima and Alauca plants are estimated to be completed in the fall of this year.
These three additions will provide clean, drinkable water to an additional 11,000 people in Honduras, Weber-Shirk said.
Weber-Shirk said that conventional treatment plant technologies could not provide a reliable source of clean water within developing communities because these facilities are difficult to maintain and operate.
“It’s not enough for wealthy countries to send their technology that is too advanced or to give [the local residents] machines that can’t be bought in Honduras because it’s not sustainable,” Anna Lee ’12, the leader of AguaClara’s sedimentation tank team, said. If the more complex treatment plants break down, “it’s going to be left as something they can’t use,” she said.
According to UNICEF estimates, about one out of six people worldwide — or 1.1 billion individuals — do not have access to clean and safe drinking water.
During winter break, 21 members of the AguaClara team visited Honduras for two-and-a-half weeks. Weber-Shirk said the trip allowed the team to visit the plants and to learn from the failings of other, more conventional plants.
The team got real-world experience while working on a broken sedimentation tank, Lee said. If the students did not get the calculations exactly right, “people [were] not going to have water to drink in two hours,” she said.
“It’s not something you can do in the lab,” she said. “It has real consequences.”
The team also evaluated the impact of the five preexisting water treatment plants.
“We started conducting interviews and viasiting the health centers. Many locals said they were happy with the [AguaClara] service, and people from the health centers said they were seeing less infections,” Amboage, outreach coordinatore for AguaClara, said.
Karen Swetland grad, a member of the team, said AguaClara makes annual trips to the region to learn about the plants.
“Each year, we improve the design, make it better and learn from our mistakes because we talk to the operators in Honduras and get them to tell us which parts are easy to use, which parts break, and which things are confusing for them,” Swetland said. Using this information, “we work to make that better for the next plant,” she said.
Weber-Shirk said that the technology developed by the student team “has a good enough reputation to be funded by other organizations.” For example, non-Cornell groups such as CARE International, ACRA and a Rotary Club in Washington, D.C., are currently funding the construction of the three water treatment projects.
Although AguaClara’s efforts have been concentrated in Honduras, the group also provides an open source design software that is accessible in many rural, undeveloped areas across the globe. This online design tool, created by AguaClara members, allows others to obtain similar water treatment plant designs to those in Honduras.
“We’re shipping designs which can then be built with local materials,” Weber-Shirk said.