In Gracias, a small town in Honduras, people now have reliable access to safe drinking water for the first time in their lives — thanks to electricity-free, gravity-powered water treatment technology invented by a Cornell engineering project team.
The AguaClara project team, headed by Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk, civil and environmental engineering, develops water treatment technology powered solely by gravity. AguaClara plants help address the lack of sustainable water treatment infrastructure in impoverished countries, The Sun previously reported.
AguaClara has already built water treatment plants in other towns in Honduras and India. The Gracias plant is AguaClara’s 20th plant in Honduras. Producing 120 liters, or approximately 32 gallons, of water per second, it is the team’s largest plant to date in terms of treatment capacity.
According to Kevin Sarmiento ’19 grad, a student researcher with AguaClara, there used to be no water treatment systems in Gracias. People relied on “raw” unfiltered water, which presented manifold public health problems. AguaClara offers an economical and reliable solution.
“Our plant is serving 20,000 people in the city, but has the capacity to serve up to 40,000 people, 250 liters per person per day, to meet higher demand in the future,” Michele Chen ’21, public relations subteam lead, told The Sun.
The opening of the Gracias water plant was such a big event that it attracted the likes of local public politicians; the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, the mayor of Gracias and the Honduran ambassador to Spain all attended the inauguration ceremony.
The AguaClara technology is open-source, which means that any community that needs it can afford the technology without having to pay for the patent, explained Sarmiento.
AguaClara did not build the plant in Gracias, but rather, they provided the design and technology. The project team partnered with local non-governmental organization Agua Para El Pueblo to realize the construction of the plant.
“We are very against ‘voluntourism;’ when people from outside the country work and build for that country,” Chen said. AguaClara instead prioritizes collaborating with the local community on projects as part of their mission.
“If someone builds something and leaves, there is going to be low accountability,” she continued.
Each year, approximately 20 AguaClara members travel to Honduras, where they study previously built AguaClara plants and other local water treatment facilities. The project team uses these real-life plants as case studies and brainstorm fixes for any issues.
“In the lab, you have a sense of what you do. But when you go to the actual site and speak to people the plant impacts, it was breathtaking,” Sarmiento said. “It was a joy to be able to participate in something that is much bigger than yourself or the team.”
While attending a conference in Colombia this summer where he shared findings on the AguaClara mechanism, Sarmiento met many representatives in the water sanitation sector. In the future, he hopes to bring the technology to Colombia, his parents’ home country.
“Being on a team that works to provide safe drinking water to communities like those where my family is from really inspires me,” he said.
AguaClara is in constant contact with its NGO partner in Honduras to make sure its plants are functioning properly. According to Sarmiento, the last time he checked in, “everything has been running really great.”