How the AguaClara Cornell Program Brings Clean Water to Thousands Using Local Materials and Good Old-Fashioned Gravity

by Rich Thomas
- Mar 10 2015 - 4 min read
aguaclara cornell water tap
Testing the tap after AguaClara's water treatment. Courtesy AguaClara.

In January 2004, Cornell professor Monroe Weber-Shirk traveled to Honduras to visit a friend who was working on water-development projects.

It didn’t take long for Weber-Shirk—who holds a PhD in environmental engineering from Cornell and had volunteered in Central American refugee camps—to uncover the deficiencies in the local water system. Although the community had an ample pipeline infrastructure, the level of impurities and pathogens in the water were dizzyingly high.

aguaclara cornell water plant
AguaClara Co-Founder and Managing Director Sarah Long at a plant. Courtesy AguaClara.

When he returned to the university, he dedicated himself to one simple goal: bringing safe water to as many people as possible through inexpensive and sustainable means. In 2005, AguaClara at Cornell was born, and by 2006, the first AguaClara plant—in Ojojona, Honduras—was up and running.

AguaClara’s purification methods are built around a five-step process: grit removal and flow, chemical dosing, flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration.

There are currently 10 plants in Honduras serving more than 42,000 people, and the company has its sights set on expansion to India, a location that AguaClara Director of Planning and Development Chuck Brown says “represents the apex of the world’s water and sanitation problems.” Those problems are compounded by a lack of basic resources in the area, but that dilemma is precisely what makes AguaClara so uniquely positioned to succeed.

aguaclara diagram autocad
Water purification diagram, designed in AutoCAD. Courtesy AguaClara.

The AguaClara methods are built by Cornell engineers to operate without the aid of electricity, and instead use solar power and gravity as a means to extract water from wells and push it through the treatment train. To bring down the cost of construction and maintenance, everything is sourced from locally available materials. The onboarding process for local plant operators usually takes about four to six weeks, and AguaClara provides an eight-month warranty on monitoring and troubleshooting systems after they go live. Simple, right?

“Well, simplicity is relative,” Brown says. “Most would argue that computerization has made it easier to manage complex systems, but this is based on a set of assumptions that includes access to electricity and a workforce that understands the nature of computers and electronics. Where we work, and where most of the people in the world who lack access to safe water on tap live, that’s just not the case. So who is it really simple for?

aguaclara water plant training
Operator training at Jesús de Otoro plant in Honduras. Courtesy AguaClara.

“We endeavored to take a process that was still far too complex and make it simple in more absolute terms—something that could work in a broad range of communities with limited resources, including education. That’s why we like to emphasize that not only are our plants powered by gravity, but you only need the equivalent of a sixth-grade education to operate them.”

If that ambitious goal wasn’t enough, AguaClara recently obtained its Certified B Corp status, an accreditation that honors social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. But obtaining that status wasn’t just a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Through the rigors of a third-party evaluation, AguaClara learned just how dedicated it was to sustainability, and discovered that the company could be doing even better.

aguaclara water treatment
Long and team showing the water before and after treatment. Courtesy AguaClara.

“Coming into our own as a company has demanded a huge shift in perspective,” Brown admits.

That meant focusing on its primary value proposition, increasing funding, and bringing in partners to help “fill the gaps.” Currently, there are two complementary pieces to the AguaClara initiative: the LLC, which focuses on generating revenue, marketing the technology, and deploying it in the field; and the Cornell program, which focuses on research and development.

“Our goal is to become so proficient at knowledge transfer that training partners in design and implementation becomes something that can be done almost entirely remotely with a minimal number of visits to the field,” he says. “Too many people suffer from this problem for us to take on so much by ourselves.”

aguaclara gufu water plant
Project Engineer Guneet Sandhu at a plant in Gufu Village, India. Courtesy AguaClara.

To help expand the program, AguaClara started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to assist in the development of its initiatives in India, which Brown admits was a “fairly grueling” campaign, mostly due to competing with “wireless headphones that look like cat ears.” But regardless of the campaign’s success, that community outreach is part and parcel to the big picture for Brown and the rest of the AguaClara team.

“Being open source is to support the scientific community and beyond,” he says, “to spread and improve the technology through the free exchange of ideas. Crowdfunding is about building up and tapping into a community of supporters in a transparent and equitable way. Basically, the kind of company we want to be is one that recognizes it is a part of something bigger. We are one piece of a solution to a problem that wracks hundreds of millions of people. We can’t hope to do it on our own! We benefit so much by being a part of many communities, which are really one. So we must always seek to benefit them in return, and to help drive the virtuous cycle until we are all a part of it.”

AguaClara is a member of the Autodesk Cleantech Partner Program, where design innovators create solutions to address the world’s epic challenges.

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