Before Manna Energy installed a water treatment system, children at L'Esperance Orphanage in Mugonero, Rwanda had to carry 40+ pound jerry cans over 110 feet up a steep hill every day. Photo: John Michael Maas, Global Water Challenge.
Reducing the number of people around the globe who do not have access to a safe and reliable source of water is a daunting task—the World Health Organization reports more than one billion people, mostly in developing countries, are without. Many humanitarian aid and other groups work hard to reduce the number, but often success is piecemeal given the large number of people affected. A U.S. engineering professor appears to have found a way to supply safe water to large numbers of people in remote areas of the developing world through a financial plan that taps carbon markets and partners large suppliers with engineering expertise.
Evan A. Thomas, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and director of Portland State University's The SWEETLab, put together the innovative and ambitious project to distribute water filters and efficient cook stoves to 750,000 households and some 2.5 million people in Rwanda's Western Province. Project costs total a whopping $50 million, a large hurdle for any type of humanitarian aid group to overcome. Thomas, working through Manna Energy Ltd., a firm he co-founded to combine innovative financing with engineering expertise to tackle chronic poverty in the developing world, is tapping the global carbon market to fund the job.
In rural Africa and elsewhere, people must boil water to make it safe to drink. To do that, they use wood fires, requiring them to first cut down trees for fuel. Burning the wood, of course, releases greenhouse gases and soot. Providing people with water filters eliminates the need to boil water, and a more efficient cook stove design reduces the demand of wood needed for a fire and the amount of soot people breathe in, especially when cooking indoors.
SWEETLab water treatment systems are used in rural Rwanda since 2007. Photo source: SWEETLab.org
Using the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, the project will earn carbon credits to repay initial costs and finance long-term maintenance and expansion. Manna is working under contract with U.K. water quality testing company DelAgua, which owns and is funding the project.
Thomas says about 500 of the filters and cook stoves will be fitted with sensors that will provide real-time readings of use and efficiency. "They'll be connected to the Web and we'll be able to monitor them to see if they're being used and if they work," says Thomas.
Proving their use and efficiency is critical in determining the project's success. Information normally is collected by workers traveling to people's homes, which often are in remote areas with difficult access. That makes data collection not only expensive, but potentially unreliable if workers cannot collect enough data.
The sensors were developed by Thomas's SWEETLab at Portland State—SWEET is an acronym for The Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Tech Lab—with Portland-based Stevens Water Monitoring Systems. Each is powered by AA batteries and sends data through cell-phone networks to a web-based platform. The data will be read and analyzed by Portland State engineering students working with Thomas. Dubbed "SweetSense," the sensors are already being used in other projects in Indonesia, Rwanda, India and Haiti.
Thomas has experience in Rwanda, first in the mid-2000s as a member of NASA's Engineers Without Borders (EWB) group that helped install water treatment systems, biogas generators, and cookstoves. He and other EWB members founded Manna in 2008 after seizing the idea of leveraging certified emission reduction credits to maintain the systems and make them sustainable and profitable. The effort effectively combined charity with private enterprise.
That first effort was followed by others, most notably a project with Switzerland's Vestergaard Frandsen to distribute close to one million household water filters in western Kenya. Thomas says it is the first Gold Standard carbon credit water treatment program, and the largest. Gold Standard is a global independent standard for creating high-quality emission-reduction projects in the Clean Development Mechanism Joint Implementation and Voluntary Carbon Market. It gives a label to new carbon credits generated by projects that can bought and traded by countries signed to the Kyoto Protocol.
Each filter can supply about 18,000 liters of water treated to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, or enough to supply a family of five people for three years, according to the company, which invested an initial $25 million to start the project. Vestergaard Frandsen will earn the carbon credits as its owner. The credits can then be sold to recoup the investment and provide long-term funding for the continuation of the program.
In Rwanda, the first of the filters and cookstoves are being delivered this summer so that project leaders can test the sensors and communication system.
Providing people with water filters eliminates the need to boil water, and a more efficient cook stove design reduces the demand of wood needed for a fire and the amount of soot people breathe in.
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