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Spring 2012
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Student Journals

AguaClara: Sustainable Water Treatment Systems for Honduras

Cornell Engineering students update a treatment plant in Alauca.
Credit: Maren Hill

Cornell Engineering students update a treatment plant in Alauca.

AguaClara is a development program based on a green technology that looks to solve basic health issues with significant improvement in water quality. It is a water purification technology for midsized municipalities in emerging markets, and the success of the technology is dependent on community engagement and ongoing support of purification improvement. The SMART members—Ben Koffel, Kristofer Goddard, Maren Hill, and Stef Levner—traveled with the AguaClara team from Cornell, which consisted of more than 20 undergraduate engineers.

Day 1 (1/7/12)

Stef: After lunch, we loaded up in the vans and took a drive—that I’d venture to call typical—to a small village (less than 300 people) that didn't have running water or electricity. The village had a one-room school and a few houses scattered on a steep hillside. Water sources were rain collection and a trickle of a stream, which was strewn with garbage and is also used for washing meat and clothes. Three times a day, women would go to the trickle of a stream (~30 minutes each roundtrip) to collect water for the family's daily life, carrying two large water-cooler jugs strapped together with a band on the forehead. Sand filters that produced drinking water were in use in 15 homes, and the school had a rainwater collection system. The visit was a look at the type of small communities around rural Honduras that are trying to make the best of their location. 

Day 2 (1/8/12) Copan Ruins

Maren: This morning we headed off to the Copan Ruins. We roamed the site, which had the best-preserved and most extensive Mayan hieroglyphics. The ruins were beautiful, but in addition to the ruins and the scenery, we found ourselves discussing water sources—we could hear a running river—and the process of creating the site. We had only just arrived in Honduras the day before, and for the first time we had visited a community without water supply, but already we were seeing the issue of water access everywhere.

Day 3 (1/9/12)

SMART Team Nicaragua interviewing Agua para el Pueblo structural engineer.
Credit: Maren Hill

SMART Team Nicaragua interviewing Agua para el Pueblo structural engineer.

Kristofer: Since our arrival I have been struck by the prevalence of soda advertisements. They have made me think differently about the urgency of AguaClara's purpose here. AguaClara is here to help deliver potable water to a country that simply cannot provide it to most of its population. Because the majority of Hondurans do not have access to potable water, they are forced to choose between drinking dirty water and risking illness, or purchasing bottled water or other beverages. After visiting many towns around the country, it would appear that the soda companies are winning this battle. Because Hondurans cannot drink their own tap water, they look elsewhere for options to quench their thirst, which could be setting Honduras up for an obesity and diabetes epidemic. In my eyes, this has made AguaClara's mission that much more important and urgent.

Day 8 (1/14/12)

Maren: I had been cynical about the power of SMART trips to change people and about the possibility of traveling around Honduras with 25 undergrads. I have worked several years in Latin America for development and human rights organizations. I did not expect a two-and-a-half-week trip to shift my worldview—and it hasn't. However, it has been more inspiring and had a greater impact on me than I thought it would. Our client, AguaClara, and their local implementation partner, Agua Para el Pueblo, have a team of dedicated workers, muy comprometidos a la mission, who are open to change and learning from their mistakes. Also, it has been inspiring to watch the undergrads. Many of them are on their first trip abroad, and all are on their first service learning or professional trip. They are already thinking of how they can incorporate their experiences into their future academic life and professional life. One student expressed it beautifully when he said—I’m paraphrasing—“We build technology that invites participation and we can do this anywhere, including the United States.”

Day 10 (1/16/12)

The mayor of Nueva Aldea shows us their water source.
Credit: Maren Hill

The mayor of Nueva Aldea shows us their water source.

Kristofer: For some time now I have heard the conventional international development model of throwing money and technology at problems in the third world is flawed, but today I saw it with my own eyes. Before heading to the AguaClara plant in Alauca, we stopped by a package plant in another town. This plant was built in Europe and shipped to Honduras for use. In theory, it would seem that a small-scale, package-able plant would be a great solution for developing nations with water problems. Unfortunately, this simply isn't the case. Juxtaposed against the AguaClara model—which builds capacity, governance and sustainability through long-term community engagement and training—the package plant is a complete failure. The plant is in complete disarray, the plant operators were unsure of how to operate the plant optimally, and the plant was completely walled off from the community. The people had no sense of ownership over the water treatment system meant to serve them. This illustrated exactly why it is crucial that international aid and development programs work on community and capacity building along with their true purpose. Communities that are not given the tools to operate and maintain development projects in their communities are destined to fail because they feel little sense of pride or ownership over the project. It's clear that by deeply engaging the community throughout the project's process and far beyond it—as AguaClara does so well—a level of sustainability is achieved. 

Day 13 (1/19/12)

Maren: I have been turning over something Antonio, the president of the water board in Jicaro and the vice president of the central water board, said to us. Antonio met with us when we first arrived at the water plant in Alauca that serves four communities in the area: Alauca, Manzanilla, Matapalos and Jicaro, the poorest of the four. When Antonio met us at the plant, he spoke to us like a poet about water. He said, “Estamos cosechando el agua clara.” (We are harvesting clear water.) He talked about leaving an inheritance to his kids: healthy, safe drinking water.


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