August 22, 2008

Engineers Without Borders working to make drinking water safe for La Paz

Por Mariana Martínez

The Baja California Peninsula is a little unexplored region, where arid, rough, hot terrain melts over incredible beaches and an amazingly unique marine wildlife. Here, thousands of families live in far apart, ranch houses or little fishing towns, where poverty and distance gets in the way of one of the most basic human rights: access to clean drinkable water.

“Its hard enough to be poor, be hungry, walk great distances to get to school, but its harder if you have constant diarrhea or stomach pain, simply because of not having clean water”, Florence Cassassuce, in charge of the UV Bucket project with the non profit Niparajá.

Cassauce is a founding member of Engineers without Borders at Berkeley, and inventor of a system that cleans drinking water, called UVucket (UVeta in Spanish). The technology is in fact a 20 liter bucket with a UV ray unit build in, that deactivates ill causing bacteria and viruses in the water.

The project that is now her life passion started while she was doing her Master’s at Berkeley University and went down to La Paz, Baja California as part of a water quality monitoring project. What the students found was that many people in rural areas take their drinking water from wells, many of them contaminated by animal and human stool.

“With the study of 500 wells, we also found that pollution came from the households, where containers had an even higher concentration of pollutants (52% in the household versus 42% in the wells) so besides de UVucket we have to educate people on how to handle their drinking water to avoid infectious diseases”, she added.

The product has been improved by trial and error; it is now low cost and easy to use by families, so it has been successfully introduced in many isolated communities, where they are taught about the technology and the importance of clean water.

At the beginning, UVucket was made by hand, but now, several Mexican companies have stepped up to the plate and are just charging manufacturing cost, giving up their profit on it.

“We were looking for a company to make the molds”, Cassassuce explains, “but what we found were business people that were excited to join our effort to bring clean drinking water to others. I think that’s an advantage of this work, it is so easy to understand the need, the right we all have for clean water”.

With her five person team, Cassassuce hopes to visit two thousand hard to reach ranch houses in Baja California this year, and they have already given 6,000 UVuckets as a pilot program, through the rural store net, called Diconsa.

For her work, Cassassuce won the World Bank Award in 2006 and was nominated for CNN Heros in 2007. Her next challenge? Working with other non-profits and governmental institutions so that Mexico can have 100% clean water.

“The prize was given to Niparajá and the Rural School System, because the proposal to the World Bank was in the sense of providing technology and logistics, but the Education System will have a permanent education program so that this knowledge can be shared” Cassassuce ends.

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