Water: Not Impossible Pt. 4: AguaClara - Using Gravity (Not the Movie) to Deliver Clean Water

While only about 71% of the Earth is covered in water, exactly 100% of the planet is kissed by gravity, a simple scientific truth which inspired the visionaries at AguaClara on their quest to provide clean drinking water to the 1.1-billion people (barely) surviving without it today.
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While only about 71% of the Earth is covered in water, exactly 100% of the planet is kissed by gravity, a simple scientific truth which inspired the visionaries at AguaClara on their quest to provide clean drinking water to the 1.1-billion people (barely) surviving without it today.

“When I helped the company get off the ground in 2011, I’ll admit that water didn’t rank particularly high in my mind, in terms of the issues I intended to deal with professionally,” says Chuck Brown, AguaClara’s director of development. “Water is not why I studied business. I was aiming for poverty alleviation.”

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Then an MBA student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Brown was drafted by two Cornell University engineering graduates Sarah Long and Maysoon Sharif to draft a business plan for an initiative that had for years struggled within the academic arena to provide safe drinking water to developing countries like Honduras. A trip to the region provided Brown with a life-changing epiphany, as he was deeply moved by baring witness to the devastation toxic water was perpetrating there.

“The idea that they were developing this technology and tackling a huge global issue was completely compelling to me,” Brown says. “I couldn’t see any better way to use my time than right then, right there.”

Born more than two decades ago, AguaClara is the brainchild of Cornell University adjunct professor Dr. Monroe Weber-Shirk, who in the late 1980s visited Honduras and was inspired to create water filtration systems for the area. Though some water treatment methods and technologies existed then, most of them were either too expensive or reliant on electricity, a dodgy proposition in a country with unstable infrastructure. Weber-Shirk’s engineering students at Cornell set to work with vision and tenacity to innovate a water treatment system that would better serve developing countries and, in 2005, commenced the installation of 10 water treatment plants that now provide safe water on tap to more than 40,000 people in Honduras.

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“The technology then was very similar to how any conventional water treatment plant worked,” says Brown. “What was really unique is that it ran completely without electricity.”

A few years ago, faced with the constant and daunting challenge of funding their philanthropic efforts, Long and Sharif, established AguaClara as a limited liability corporation. “They needed something that could branch out of Cornell,” says Brown, “and to create something that was totally dedicated to implementing this technology on the ground.”

Though Weber-Shirk is no longer involved in AguaClara’s daily operations, Brown notes the professor’s important contributions to the company’s vision and drive.

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Since setting up shop with offices in Oakland, CA, the AguaClara treatment process has evolved, innovating a technology dubbed Stacked Rapid Sand Filter (SRSF). Mimicking the natural water filtration that occurs on Earth, water moves through a series of six sand filters of varying granularity, its flow driven entirely by gravity, with a dose of liquid chlorine to eliminate remaining pathogens, a process that is affordable, efficient, and simple. The AguaClara treated water meets the highest standards of World Health Organization. The treatment plants are manned by a single person and are simple enough to operate that the plant manager need no more than a sixth-grade education.

“In our design, we created a very simple system, almost a lever-pulley system, where so long as the plant operator can add and subtract, they can make everything work,” Brown says. “It’s that simple.”

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The plants are also comparatively inexpensive to build – about $100,000 each, which can service a community of about 5,000 people, versus a conventional water plant, which, Brown says, costs about $330,000. The AguaClara plants are also only about one-third the size of a traditional water treatment plant. Brown says the company’s data indicates each plant should work with minimal maintenance for about 50 years.

Work continues in Honduras, while AguaClara is establishing a presence in India, with about 30-40 student volunteers laboring to install treatment plants that will serve the 104-million people there in dire need of clean drinking water. (According to a 2012 WPP report, 1,600 people die daily from waterborne illness-related diarrhea). Brown says one of the keys to remaining a vanguard operation is to be open-source, inviting collaboration and sharing of information, constantly improving technologies and access to clean water. The company has recently begun work in India on two pilot plants, adapting to the new community and their individual needs.

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To help fund the effort in India, AguaClara has taken to crowdfunding portal Indiegogo. Their current campaign concludes January 1, 2015.

“The beautiful thing about crowdfunding is that it answers the question of ‘who is our community’ very definitively,” says Brown. “Everyone is our community. This isn’t just for ‘green people’ or ‘water people’ or ‘academic people.’ The need for clean drinking water matters to everyone on this planet, and the world of crowdfunding invites everyone to express their commitment to that concern. We continue to push and innovate and develop, to get better and better, so that we can eventually get to mass production of the filters and bring safe water to anyone, anywhere.” 

To contribute to AguaClara's campaign - click through here. And to find out more about the company and its partners, take a look at their site, here