What’s at stake in a world where science is marginalised? Programmes such as AguaClara, which offer sustainable, low-cost solutions to Honduran communities in need of safe water
Doña Reina remembers the water that ran from the tap at her home in rural Honduras. It was yellowish, opaque, she said in Spanish, and “y sucia,” which means dirty. Then, in 2008, her small village of Tamara received its first water treatment plant, a gravity-fed system made of locally sourced materials that was designed by engineering students in the US. Today, Reina’s water is clean enough to drink from the tap.
The students were part of a Cornell University programme called AguaClara, which focuses on treating water affordably in infrastructure-poor communities, and without using electricity. Since 2005, AguaClara, which means clear water, has helped complete 14 plants in partnership with Hondurans who planned and built the structures. Now locals own and operate these plants, which serve around 65,000 people.
Villages in Honduras with populations below 15,000 usually don’t have water treatment plants because building small plants is significantly less cost effective than building large ones. As a result, around four million Hondurans experience the same lack of access to safe water that plagues 10 per cent of the people on the planet.
Scaling up sustainable solutions to address this need requires the partnership of private and governmental investment, NGOs and the innovation of critical-thinking institutions like universities. But recent changes to policy and priorities at the federal level, as well as the current political climate in the US, threaten both the philosophy and funding of these projects.
AguaClara’s lab in Ithaca, New York, is home to 60 undergraduate and graduate students who essentially run the show. They come from half a dozen fields and are grouped into 19 teams, each with a specific task, such as fabrication or ram pump design. Students programme computers, manipulate valves, read temperature gauges and measure pressures.
We’re demonstrating the power of students when they’re given worthwhile work and space for autonomy