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

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 they drank it as is. There were many diseases ”.

"Now they use drinking water from the tap itself."

This is how he tells itRamón Ribera,who presides over the water board of his community, Támara, 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 near6,500 inhabitants.

But the innovative technology it uses was born in a laboratory of the prestigiousCornell University, in United States.

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

"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," Weber-Shirk, professor of environmental engineering at Cornell University and founder of the AguaClara project, told BBC Mundo.

“I learned that the available technologies 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 conducts “WaterClara Labs“, A laboratory in which students who travel to Honduras and work in the field with local partners participate every semester.

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

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

Rural communities

The AguaClara project has already built14 plants in Honduran territory, the majority in communities like 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 construction on August 1," Weber-Shirk noted.

“We have different designs with flows that vary between one and 100 liters per second. To give you an idea, a plant of 100 liters per second can serve a community of around 30,000 people ”.

The laboratory works jointly with the engineers and technicians of a Honduran organization,Water for the People (APP), which builds the plants and trains communities to operate them.

"After constructionthe plant is transferred to the communities or municipalities, ”he explained to BBC MundoJacobo Nunez, director of APP.

"Mud in the piles"

Agua Para el Pueblo monitors plant performance and disease reduction. But the community itself is the one who jealously watches over the quality of its water.

"The residents, mainly women, when noticing sediments of mud in the basins, they complain to the directors of the water boards to demand that the water reach the houses as clean as possible," said Núñez.

And they threaten that if the presence of sediments continues, they will refuse to pay the fee“.

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

Just by gravity

The turbidity of the water, with sediment or stool residues, prevents simple forms of disinfection of water with chlorine from being effective, explained Núñez.

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

“To eliminate turbidity we use acoagulant chemical that works like glue joining together small particles in the water so that larger particles are formed which are calledflocsNúñez pointed out.

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

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

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

The water is then sent to the community storage tanks.

"And every resident has clean water just by turning on the tap," Weber-Shirk said.

For Ramón Ribera, the technology without electricity allows "anyone with a low study to be trained to operate the plants."

The plant works by gravity. A coagulant chemical works like glue, binding small particles in the water to form larger ones, called flocs, which are then sent to a settling tank.


The AguaClara program receives funding from various sources.

The research is funded by theNational Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA, and by theEnvironmental protection agency (EPA).

Weber-Shirk expressed to BBC Mundo concern that in the current climate of cuts to science and the EPA in the US, resources could be affected.

The construction of the plants "is financed by an international cooperation program of 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 like business management and communications," Weber-Shirk explained.

"We give themresearch problems to develop new knowledge that allows us to create better designs for plants, ”said the Cornell professor.

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

“The flow of knowledge and technical information allows a continuous process of investigation and progress.I learned a lot about how to be humble and create an environment that enables open communication and cooperation ”, the student told BBC Mundo.

For Mottle, “the students who work at AguaClara and travel to Honduras also learn that theempathy and compassion can be essential to solving real world problems with engineering. "

“I think the most important thing I learned with the AguaClara project is that our work in the laboratorydirectly affects other people's livesneedy, ”says Erica Marroquin, another of the engineering students who traveled to Honduras.

"Students must be aware that their work counts, not only for a motivational issue, but so they know that they can also change the world."

"Example of love"

Weber-Shirk hopes to expand AguaClara in Latin America.

An alumnus of Cornell created a nonprofit organization,WaterClara Reach, responsible for identifying partners to expand the technology regionally.

“We are interested in finding non-profit and socially responsible engineering institutions that want to offer AguaClara technology in their regions.If any institution or government in Latin America wants to provide drinking water with a sustainable and cheaper infrastructure, they can contact AguaClara Reach“.

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

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

"Engineers research, invent, design and build the infrastructure that makes it possible for people to live in healthy communities," the Cornell professor told BBC Mundo.

"Opening the faucet and having clean water especially liberates women and girls in many rural communities, who instead of having to collect water can dedicate their energy to education and other activities, and perhaps one day become engineers and doctors."

Engineering is love“.


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