Archive for October, 2009

The Sacred Valley is full of paradoxes. Stunning vertical landscapes. Tourism and a hippy mecca. Andean Waldorf schools. And grinding poverty…

I first meet up with Sandra and Sandy: two good natured, down-to-earth Canadians who are volunteering in Peru. Sandra with Kuasay Wasi Clinic (http://kausaywasi.org/) and Sandy with DESEA, Desarrollo en Accion (www.deseaperu.org), Green Empowerment’s new partner in implementing a project to improve health through household water filters. With the exciting news from the Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, the project finally has the resources to really get off the ground. I am in the Sacred Valley to see the team of DESEA, meet the communities and work out the logistics of the new grant.

Ricardinia, the newly-hired field manager, took us out to the communities: Totora, Accha Pampa and Chaipa. While at about 4000 meters (13,000 feet) themselves, they were nestled in valleys with the surrounding peaks towering at the aching heights of 5000 meters (16,400ft). Ricardinia grew up a day’s walk from the closest road, in some hidden village in these sacred hills. She left for high school and trained to be a teacher. She heard the radio ad for the DESEA field manager and was hired on. She is a huge asset as she is the main cultural and linguistic bridge to the poor communities.
In Totora we met Gregorio, the filter workshop manager, who was the young mayor of this adobe village. He was dressed in western clothes and spoke in fluent Spanish with a Quechua accent that made round words sound like triangles. He had attended the CAWST (www.cawst.org) training as is a devotee of the biosand filters that he builds everyday. We caught him with a bundle of wire mess as he was heading to Pampallacta to repair the school’s filter.

When they saw Sandra arrive in Totora, a group of women gathered for a “clinic” (not a building, but an event). They squatted on the ground and unwrapped their bundles of brightly woven cloth to reveal children that needed a nurse’s eye.
We met a woman and her baby that had lost a dangerous amount of weight from diarrhea. She had taken her to the Kuasay Wasi clinic where she was given a dehydration solution. By the time I met the baby, she had gained back some weight and looked like she would survive, but it drove home the point that simple hygiene and clean water are the most important things we can do to save children’s lives.

These communities speak almost no Spanish. They maintain the poetic Quechua language and traditions alive. Everyday clothes look like a celebration, with dozens of buttons on the wrists arranged like pearls on an evening gown, and big flat round hats covered with ornate red cloth that dangled over the edge.

And yet, illiteracy, isolation, discrimination and malnutrition have taken their toll. Sandra describes meeting a woman who could not remember how many of her children had died; was it 5 or 6? I hear stories of a toddler eating paint, excessive alcohol and spouse abuse. I don’t see this kind of malnutrition where I live in Cajamarca, where rural people have few resources, but plenty of food, although both areas show signs of protein deficiency, with a diet based on rice and potatoes.

In Totora and Accha Pampa, we walk into the tiny dark kitchens, covered in soot, to see the filters. Ricardinia translates from Quechua. The people we met said they used the filters daily and even said that they had noticed an improvement in health of the children. They understand that the filters clean. The filters are made in one of the project communities out of local materials. The concrete structure is filled with sand and gravel which effectively remove pathogens.
biosand filter

Ricardina, Gregorio and the team say that everyone wants a filter. But once they have it, there are some (perhaps 15%) who don’t use it. Do they want it just because it’s a new thing to have in their home? It’s modern and different? Daily habits run deep too, thousands of years deep. And introducing some new-fangled things into those daily patterns is a hard thing to do. Even when you know it’s good for you. I know I should floss every day, but I don’t. It seems that here, the filter use and health education is not a secondary complement of filter installation, but needs to be at the core of the program.

school water

This pipe, from a dirty open sink hole, delivers water to schoolchildren

We surveyed the existing water sources. In Totora, there is “agua entubada” (piped, but not potable, water) that just comes from an open river, above which the animals graze… Kids drink from water that comes from an open sink hole near the school. Other communities have gravity-fed water systems that deliver spring water to some of the houses, but not to others.

Sandy has a kit to test for total coliforms and fecal coliforms, which are indicators of unsafe drinking water. The streams have lots of fecal coliforms, the sealed water spring water distribution systems are clean and the filtered water is clean. However, this has shown several of the systems are not working properly and need to be fixed (the sand was not fine enough and the water passes too quickly). This monitoring tool helps them adjust the filter fabrication.
lab test
The complex social and cultural environment will pose plenty of challenges, but also makes the need for the health and water program all the more evident. With the support of Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, 150 filters will be built and installed. Most importantly, workshops on health and hygiene will be integrated into the program and health promoters trained from the communities. Something so simple can save a life. After spending time with the DESEA team and going to the communities, I am optimistic that this partnership has what it takes.

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The University of Michigan’s Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory’s (BLUElab) Biogas Project focuses on the use of anaerobic biodigesters to recover energy from waste.  This group is advised by Dr. Steven Skerlos and is a team of undergraduates and graduates from different disciplines that do work on the project as an extracurricular commitment.  The group’s goal is to promote the implementation, acceptance, and use resource recovery systems in developing and developed nations in order to improve human and environmental health.  This summer, five members of the group traveled to Nicaragua as part of a service-learning trip in order to work with local communities in collaboration with Green Empowerment (NGO in Portland, OR) and AsoFénix (NGO in Nicaragua).  This entry was written by Lindsay Krall and Sherri Cook.

We traveled to Nicaragua at the end of August, 2009, to start building a relationship with the local communities, learn about current renewable energy projects, and help install two biodigesters for energy recovery from animal waste.


The trip and associated design course is supported by the Multidisciplinary Design Minor (MDM) within the College of Engineering and taught by Dr. Skerlos.  This course focuses on the projects in Nicaragua with the goal of promoting sustainable energy in Latin American.  As an outcome of the class, we plan to develop a general methodology for a community or a family to decide on the best biodigester system for their use; the methodology and assessment will focus on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the system’s installation and use.  Also, we hope to improve the current designs by incorporating feedback about the use, our research, and updates from the field in order to promote sustainable waste management in developing nations.

Installing digesters in Nicaragua was a great experience for our team.  The year before the trip, group members read literature to learn more about the systems and ways to improve current designs.  During the trip, we saw several current biodigester projects as well as a micro-hydro project.


After our arrival in Nicaragua, we discussed Green Empowerment’s and AsoFénix’s various projects in Bramadero and Potreritos with our trip leaders Jason, Sara, Seth, and Jaime.  We drove across the rolling Nicaraguan countryside to Bramadero, where we stayed for the first four days of our trip, and met our gracious hosts.  On our first day of work, we took measurements and began working on the Ferro cement style digester in Potreritos. We got down and dirty in the field breaking volcanic rocks and digging a two square meter hole, which, by the end of our trip was ready to become a working system.


The next day, we built a composting latrine in the Bramadero schoolyard.  We worked with Tilo, (the head of a local community water committee) and Antonio (a trained mason) to take dimensions, mix cement, build iron support rods, lay the bricks, and develop a structure that will provide the school children a new latrine and a source of compost.   The children enjoyed learning about the project and construction as we did.


Upon completing the latrine, we returned to Potreritos to complete the Ferro cement digester by laying the cement foundation and capping it with low density PVC that can be bought locally in Nicaragua in case repair is necessary.  We also aligned and built the piping to collect the biogas so the family can light their stove.  Our last project was to install a high density polypropylene digester.  We used a machete to chop wood and build a fence that will prevent animals from puncturing it.

At the end of our trip, the team went to San Jose to see the micro-hydro project and explore the tropical forests of the country.  During this part of the trip we hiked through the forest to see a micro-hydro project, swam near a waterfall, drank local coffee, and saw howler monkeys.

Our trip gave us insight to where we would like to take the project.  Our multidisciplinary minor students are now designing our own digester to study, experiment with, and explore various methods by which to optimize their output.

Pictures provided by:

Heather Dorer, Zijia Li, Jason Selwitz, and Lindsay Krall

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Kathy Cooper, a MAP Fellow at SIBAT in the Philippines, has now been in the Philippines for about a month.  SIBAT is a NGO focused on supplying the technical know-how for wind turbine installations and micro-hydropower facilities that provide electricity to rural villages. SIBAT also has a sustainable agriculture program that they integrate with their renewables program to stimulate community level enterprise development.  In this blog Kathy shares her experiences from the past month with the Green Empowerment community.

I love being here so far. My coworkers are friendly, open, and very knowledgeable about subjects I want to learn more about. Matt Hart from Stanford is also here as a volunteer, and there is another intern as well, who has been placed here by Engineers Without Borders, named Ewan. He is from Scotland, and he immediately acquainted Matt and I with his friends, a large circle of Australians. Being integrated into a social network right away has made me feel very at home here. The office community has also embraced us with open arms: I am prepared to face off against my coworkers in a highly-anticipated cooking contest, and Gigit (who does SIBAT’s website design) is an experienced Yoga scholar who leads sessions for Ewan, Matt, Char, and I on Thursdays. My balance has already improved.

I’ve been working on an Excel model that allows a user to input cost and revenue data for a micro-hydro plant (materials costs, labor, O&M, depreciation, anticipated usage etc.) and it calculates the NPV and IRR, and shows how the electricity price should be set for cost recovery. I’m also hoping to integrate tariff schedules into the model. Although the cost part of the project is straightforward enough, the revenues aspect is giving me some trouble because I do not know how to estimate usage without surveying the community. I was originally scheduled to visit the project sites, but then Typhoon Ondoy struck (and then Typhoon Parma struck, and now it’s still raining) and  many rural areas are inaccessible due to bad roads and mudslides.

Which brings me to the most significant part of my update: Typhoon Ondoy. Manila, where I live, experienced the worst flooding in 70 years exactly one week after I arrived. 80% of a city of 13 million people were submerged, and 300 people died. Over 13 inches of rain came down in less than 6 hours. The volume of water pouring down on the city led government officials to open the flood gates of a dam without warning any of the citizens downstream. This caused river levels to rise about 20 feet in some areas, leading to the total devastation of many river communities.

Matt and I took most of last week off work to help out in the relief effort, which mostly involved carrying boxes and pouring rice from 50 kg bags into smaller bags so it could be distributed. We also got to take apart, clean, reassemble, and test some motors that had been submerged in a workshop that makes toys and wheelchairs, and Matt employed his structures know-how to assess the damages on our boss’s house. Working in the relief effort was a moving experience for me. I was able to see first-hand how relief efforts were largely organized and executed by Manila citizens. They didn’t feel like there was time to depend on the government to organize an emergency response, so they just did it themselves. The city truly mobilized.

Next week Matt and I will go live on a farm for a while. We may do some planting, harvesting, assess the site for a renewable energy project, and learn about bamboo construction, the Filipino language, and local cooking. I love how this Fellowship allows me to do so much hands-on work, and I’m very happy to be here.

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