The economic issues are often as important as the technical challenges when you're trying to improve the lives of people in impoverished communities. That's what environmental engineering student Kendra Johnson found when she tried to improve water quality in a rural Ecuadorian village and ended up devising an innovative way of using local arts and crafts to pay for the project.
A video about the Sacha Yaku organizaion and Santa Ana, the indigenous community water system it supports. You Tube
When Johnson first arrived two years ago in the tiny village of Santa Ana, in the headwaters of the Amazon, she was expecting to help design a water-filtration system for the residents. It turned out that an existing water project already included plans for such a filtration system, so Johnson pitched in and helped the local people get the project completed. It turned out to be harder than she expected. By the end of that summer, the water system was in place and Johnson, along with fellow student Froylan Sifuentes, now a senior in chemical engineering, had written an operating manual for the system and held training sessions in how to keep it running. The filtration system, however, still wasn't working.
It took two years and two return visits, with funding from grants from MIT's Public Service Center, to get everything working. Initially, the delivery system was full of leaks, but Johnson and Sifuentes (and eventually another student, Fernando Funakoshi) helped the villagers go through the system, pipe by pipe, and plug all the holes. They also helped to build a section of concrete dam to prevent the river from swamping the water system's inlet pipes, helped to get the system's slow sand filter working properly, and painted the inside of an elevated water tank that was to hold a day's water supply. Now the town has an effective delivery system with filtration and chlorination that provides water for sinks and toilets at most of the residents' wood-and-thatch homes.
With the leaks all fixed, Johnson says, "finally, a whole tank of water will last a whole day."
But that was not the end of the problems. Maintenance, supplies and operation costs for the system were more than the 250 villagers, who mostly subsist through a traditional form of sustainable-subsistence agriculture, could afford.
On one of Johnson's trips to Ecuador, her mother Tera Johnson came to visit her and bought one of the decorative ceramic bowls that the local women make. When a visitor to her home in Wisconsin saw the bowl and suggested that people would pay a lot for such pieces, the idea was hatched: Creating a market for the local crafts could produce enough income for the familes to keep up the water system--and turn a profit.
On their next visit to Santa Ana, Johnson and her mother bought a collection of the bowls, along with jewelry made from local seeds, and have been selling them through a gallery and a website (sachayaku.org) and occasionally, like last Friday, in MIT's Lobby 10.
"It's an amazing culture, extremely collaborative," Johnson says. She will return to Santa Ana this summer with three other MIT students, to further improve the water system and do some health screening to measure the impact of the clean water on the people's health. She hopes to see the project become an ongoing, sustainable solution to the town's needs for safe water.
Johnson hopes to become a doctor, and says that maybe someday she would return to this region and perhaps set up a clinic. But she also hopes that the basic concept, of making use of local people's artistic and crafts skills to support important local needs, can be expanded to small communities all over the developing world.
"The goal would be to figure out a model to export this to other communities, of linking the art to the water," she says. "I want to make sure this continues."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 14, 2008 (download PDF).