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MIT team tests inexpensive ways to bring clean water to villages in Nepal

MIT student Hannah Sullivan takes a water sample from a well in the village of Mahilwari, Nepal, assisted by a villager. Hannah and seven colleagues visited villages in Nepal to test inexpensive ways to make drinking water safe.
MIT student Hannah Sullivan takes a water sample from a well in the village of Mahilwari, Nepal, assisted by a villager. Hannah and seven colleagues visited villages in Nepal to test inexpensive ways to make drinking water safe.
Photo / Donna Coveney

A team of eight MIT students and their advisor brought their ingenuity and technical skills to villages in Nepal this year to try to solve a very basic practical problem--the need for clean drinking water at very low cost. Worldwide, more than 1.7 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and waterborne diseases are a major cause of illness and death.

"Clean water, well-pumps that work and ways to treat the water to avoid diseases become very important to you because you realize that people really need these things," said MIT graduate student Luca Morganti of Milan, Italy. "You appreciate the fact that what for us is maybe just an unusual assignment, is everyday life and work for the local people."

In Nepal, one out of 10 children under age five--around 44,000--die every year from waterborne diseases, according to Susan Murcott (S.B. 1990, S.M. 1992), a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In January, she led the graduate students to Nepal where they visited Kathmandu; the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini; and small villages nearby.

Women in developing countries like Nepal spend hours each day toting water from wells, which are often polluted. They also must care for family members--especially children--who contract water-borne diseases. "This leaves them little time for education and economic advancement," said Murcott, who first learned the extent of the problem, and decided to tackle it, in 1998 when she was invited to Nepal for the Second International Women and Water Conference.

At the most basic level, Murcott said, there are two treatment processes necessary to provide clean drinking water at the village well: removal of particles and inactivation and/or removal of the microorganisms that cause disease. The microorganisms attach to particles, so removing the particles "also removes about 90 percent of microbes. Then you have to get rid of the rest of the microbes," she said.

The team has been identifying and testing a variety of potential systems that could be appropriate for developing countries with the key criteria being technical performance, "low or no" cost (the average annual income in Nepal is $210), social acceptability and project sustainability.

Morganti, who will return to Nepal to continue the work after he receives his masters degree in civil and environmental engineering in June, said "You find that what you are experimenting on for the first time has been studied by the local people for a long time, and they have valuable experience to transfer."


"The villagers couldn't help enough," said Donna Coveney, the MIT News Office photojournalist who accompanied the Nepal team this year. "Every one wanted to lend a hand."

At one stop, she said, two children grabbed the hands of Soon Kyu (Jeff) Hwang, of Topeka, Kans. "They went off with him to help pump a water sample from the well across the street. I think the little girl who pumped put her whole heart and soul into it, just for Jeff."

Another graduate student, Chiang Song "Jason" Low of Singapore worked with a Nepalese potter, Hari Gobindh, to create ceramic filters for removal of particles. "It was very exciting to watch them working together to mitigate the problem," said Coveney. "Two good hearts, two good heads, working together to help the Nepalese people."

The water project taught students much more than the mechanics of pumps and filters.

"I've seen on TV the lives of poor people in developing countries, but that was nothing compared to seeing [poverty] before my own eyes," said Tommy Ngai, of Scarborough, Ontario, who will get his masters degree in June. In the rural villages he visited, "most people did not have modern comforts such as running water or a reliable power supply." Ngai did most of the cooking for the Nepal team on a tiny propane stove that doubled as a water heater for various experiments.


The team evaluated a pilot chlorination project set up by other team members a year earlier. Chlorine is the principal disinfectant worldwide, but it was largely unavailable in Nepal. The team discovered, however, that the chemical could be imported from India.

"We were also told that villagers wouldn't use it because the water wouldn't taste right," Murcott said. To test that assumption, the pilot program provided enough chlorine, buckets and spigots to supply 50 households and four schools for a year.

"And it was a success," Murcott said. "People used the chlorine and sickness went down."

In January, even before the results were in, the team installed a chlorine generator to create a constant local supply of the chemical. "We did it on a hope and a prayer that people would like the chlorine," Murcott said. Morganti will evaluate the generator when he returns to Nepal in June.

He will be joined by three others from MIT--Teresa Yamana of Windsor, Ontario, a sophomore in civil engineering; Katharine Ricke of Arden Hill, Minn., a sophomore in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; and Kenneth Khouri, of Hollywood, Fla., who will receive his masters degree from the Sloan School. Two graduate students from the University of California at Berkeley, Seth Coan and Scott Stoller, will accompany them, having learned about the work through a lecture Murcott gave at U.C. Berkeley in March.

For the last three years Murcott has led students, who take the graduate course she co-instructs, to Nepal, Haiti, Nicaragua and Brazil to explore the problem of polluted drinking water and wastewater.

The other graduate students who traveled to Nepal this year were Yongxuan Gao of Guangdong, China; Heather Lukacs of Hiko, W. Va.; Barika Poole of Danbury, Conn.; and Hannah Sullivan of Jaffrey, N.H. Another group, Shaheerah Fateen of Oak Park, Ill.; Natalia Olive of Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Jennifer Stout of Bloomingburg, N.Y. went to Brazil, while Michael Borucke of Omaha, Neb.; Sara Jo Elice of West River Station, Nova Scotia; Julie Parsons of Wheeling, W.Va.; and Arun Varghese of Mumbai, India went to Haiti. The Environmental and Public Health Organization and several other national and international water agencies and non-governmental organizations collaborated in the project.


Murcott, reflecting on the three years of projects, commented, "There's a momentum that's been building."

The attention the project has received prompted new collaborations of team members with researchers and students at the Sloan School of Management. Earlier this month, for example, Simon Johnson, the Michael M. Koerner '49 Career Development Associate Professor of Entrepreneurism, invited a Haitian businessman to a video-conference with his class about the water problem in Haiti.

The idea is to establish microenterprises that could supply and distribute the appropriate technologies. "We're also exploring such microenterprises for other countries," said Ken Khouri. He will travel to Nepal this summer to explore two business possibilities: chlorine generation and a biosand filter microenterprise.


Ngai said he learned a lot in the January trip. "What struck me the most was that the people lived very happily," he said.

"Children did not have toys; they played with a handkerchief or piece of rope. I can still remember their laughter and big smiles. They were satisfied with their lives. After I came back to the U.S., I immediately noticed that we have overly abundant material goods here, yet people are still unsatisfied. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from the Nepal trip was how to live simply. I learned to be happy, even in a harsh environment."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 22, 2002.

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