Written by: Mohammad Pakravan, Ph.D., Green Empowerment Technical Program Manager
Designing infrastructure services with last-mile communities is perhaps the most challenging process in international development. Not only does it require extensive engineering skills to make the most out of the least resources, but it is further complicated by a multitude of factors from financial constraints to social and cultural elements. One type of project that perfectly illustrates the complexity of designing technologies in low-resource settings is water access projects, particularly in small communities that are often remote and logistically challenging to access. Imagine a community three hours away by boat from the nearest village and only accessible through a rough river. A community of about 300 residents who live off of farming, fishing, and small payments from their family members working in nearby metropolitan areas. In tropical regions with degraded forests and heavy rainfalls the water is usually turbid (contains clay and soil), which makes it easy to see that the water is not clean enough to drink. These communities are often aware of the troubles associated with drinking untreated water from the river or small springs.
Even though there is an understanding of the risks of drinking untreated water, the most common methods of treatment are still inadequate to address the problem. The conventional method for water treatment is to boil it over a fire, and then store it for daily use. The challenge is that these open containers can easily become contaminated by the touch of a dirty hand or a mosquito flying overhead. With limited access to soap or other antibacterials, germs can grow on surfaces of pots and hands. And even if bacterial contaminants are extinguished, boiling has no effect on many mineral contaminants such as lead and arsenic, which have serious long term health impacts.
Boiling water can also create additional health and environmental impacts. Burning firewood to boil the water puts a strain on the vegetation nearby, which can lead to unsustainable harvests and indoor air pollution – something that causes about 3.5 million premature deaths globally. Burning firewood also increases greenhouse gas emissions, landslides (since the removal of trees does not hold wet soil in place), and floods (because trees help hold soil in place and help landscapes divert and absorb water). And when all is said and done, the water quality is often not much better than untreated water due to the potential risk of contamination as a result of improper storage or inadequate and inconvenient water access for all the needs of the family.
While a lot of organizations focus on household filters to address these challenges, Green Empowerment takes it to the next level with solutions for the entire community. The effectiveness of household filters depends on every single family using the filters correctly, which means you have to train and ensure behavior change and proper adoption of practicing appropriate water treatment. In addition, effective safe water access demands monitoring water quality at every single household of the community instead of training a dedicated team of community technicians to maintain a community scale system.
At Green Empowerment we believe in using the right technology for the specific circumstance and we recognize that there are some situations – such as extremely dispersed communities or in disaster response cases – where household filters are the most appropriate solution. However, for the reasons cited above and to ensure that every community member has access to safe and reliable water 24/7, our go to model is community-scale systems with household delivery. Clean water flowing from the tap saves countless hours of time previously spent hauling water, and reduces the risk of cross contamination or inconvenience in using treated water for every daily chore with only one bucket of the boiled water.
In more than 20 years of promoting sustainable development for last-mile communities, we have found that the benefits of community-scale water treatment systems far outweigh the benefits of boiling water or other household treatment- and the community members themselves have shown strong enthusiasm for this approach. In our experience, nearly every household participates in the communal work needed to install a community scale system. Whether the tasks involve washing sand from the river nearby, or helping dig trenches for laying down pipework, in almost every case community members are willing to contribute to development of reliable water access throughout the community.
While communities are willing to build, implement, and operate the systems, the process of actually designing a reliable water system is incredibly challenging. It must be context-specific and take into account the unique characteristics of each community in a cost-effective and maintainable form. In the future articles of this miniseries, we share some of the common challenges that we face and how we approach them to ensure the community’s water access is safe and reliable for years to come.
Mohammad joined Green Empowerment in 2019 as the Technical Program Manager. His past experiences revolve around design, analysis and promotion of energy services in low- and middle-income regions. His academic background includes PhD in mechanical engineering and applied economics, M.Sc. in renewable and clean energy, and B.Sc. in mechanical engineering.