24 April 2010

An Engineer Without A Border

“Thousands have lived without love, but none without water.”  W.H. Auden

As some of you already know I am passionate about water.  Even as a kid I think I had a spiritual connection with water.  I find the sound of crashing waves mesmerising and have always preferred to follow a creek when engaged in my favourite pastime of bush walking.  Perhaps then, it was part of my destiny to end up working in the field of water management. 

I had made contact with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) even before coming here.  I recently joined this group and had hoped to volunteer in the water field while in Cambodia. 


While this intention did not work out, my contacts with the field officer Michael at EWB enabled me to spend the day with Rob, an EWB volunteer here in Cambodia. 


He works at Resource Development International (RDI), an organisation engaged in an integrated, and wholistic approach to providing clean water to Cambodians.   Check out their website.  They have become global leaders in the business of providing clean water through a simple technology.


Experts say the lack of water will be the most important political and environmental issue of this century and predict it will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th.

Despite our own experience with water restrictions in cities such as Sydney, most of us take access to clean water for granted. However, of the 6 billion people on earth, more than a billion are denied this basic human right. About 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.  Thousands of Cambodians die each year due to easily preventable water-born illnesses.  Hence the work of organisations such as RDI are invaluable in this part of the world. 

They have developed a simple method of constructing a water filter using the principles of pottery already entrenched in the culture here. The raw materials of clay bricks are crushed and mixed with rice husks and water to provide a clay mixture that filters the contaminants and enables the water to flow through at a suitable flow rate through the filter.


The clay pots are then painted with a mix of silver nitrate (which helps with water purification) and fired in a very hot oven.   RDI-1

Once the filters are ready, they are soaked in a water bath to ensure the pots are first saturated before being tested for their performance.  The idea is to obtain a flowrate of about 1.5-3 ltr/hr which then provides a suitable volume of water for the drinking needs of a family of about 6 people.  There is also a quality control check done on the filters to determine how the water quality performs over time as for example the levels of silver nitrate decrease.  The average life span of a filter is about 2 years.


The filters cost about $10 each.  The filters are sold to the locals to create a sense of ownership as well as to ensure they are actually used by the family. A filter such as this will provide sufficient water for a family of six.

The filters are distributed in conjunction with programs that promote community development and public health.  The message of clean water is spread through many innovative and creative education projects including puppets and animated TV programs, all developed at RDI.


RDI are involved in many other projects that compliment the business of making water filters.  Most of the water used in the business is harvested when possible.  During the wet season, a considerable amount of water is obtained this way.  Every where I looked there seemed to be many forms of water tanks.  From the interesting ball tanks to the more familiar large concrete tanks, they came in all shapes and sizes. 


In addition, other water sources such as ground water is also tapped by the centre.  Much of the deeper ground water in Cambodia is contaminated by arsenic, hence the wells here tap into shallower aquifers, less than 20m deep.  As you can see the well is capped to ensure the water is not contaminated by surface water. 

There are many other on-going projects here.  From mapping the quality of groundwater across Cambodia to enabling students to complete their research projects.  This is Hannah’s project ,where she is studying how wastewater may be treated by a series of constructed wetlands.

P4220892 I found the work of RDI truly inspirational.  It is work that is directly impacting the lives of many communities here in Cambodia.  RDI, a recognised leader in this field is also providing support across the world to other organisations emulating this simple technology. 

I came away from this experience convinced that providing clean water to communities is one way where your life's work will usually make an amazing difference to the lives of many.

And so, I leave you with this thought from Margaret Mead, a US Anthropologist…

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. 

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