St. Anthony: Grass-roots water supply system helping Nicaragua

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2012 - 11:19 PM

A Minnesota nonprofit's chlorinator is now installed in 126 rural Nicaraguan communities, reducing the rate of disease.

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Jorge Fernandez (seated), a volunteer and retired Pentair business manager, inspected a Compatible Technology-designed water chlorinator with community volunteers in a village in northern Nicaragua. Since a pilot project a decade ago, many villages have installed and maintained the low-cost, simple technology

Photo: Compatible Technology International, Compatible Technology International

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It took a few years, but those retired technologists and business folks at nonprofit Compatible Technology International (CTI) are helping to provide clean water to nearly 100,000 people in Nicaragua.

The "CTI 8 Chlorinator" costs about $125 and can be installed and repaired by local technicians in each village. The devices have saved lives by markedly reducing disease from water-borne bacteria.

"This is significant," said Jorge Fernandez, a retired Pentair business manager. "The device is very simple. The people are not dependent on us to run it. We help install it and train village volunteers to run and maintain the chlorinator so that water is piped to homes free of bacteria. It is, basically, the same treatment that has been in operation in every municipality in the U.S. for 100 years."

Ron Christenson, a retired Cargill engineering executive and CTI chairman, along with others at Pentair, the Unity Avenue Foundation, Rotary clubs, companies and individuals have supported the CTI 8 project for a decade. And now it has legs.

CTI estimates that 200,000 Nicaraguans will get clean water daily by 2014, thanks to these little systems that can each supply a village of up to 500 people. So far CTI has installed water treatment systems in 126 communities in rural Nicaragua.

The device is simple, assembled from PVC pipe and a few other materials that can be bought in Nicaragua and in virtually all countries around the world. The water is diverted from a community cistern through a gravity-fed pipe through a short loop and then through a chlorine tablet placed directly in the flow. The tablet is loaded through the top of a T-joint and drops into a basket installed in the water pipe.

Nicaragua faces serious water quality problems, particularly in rural communities, where families often drink water polluted with animal waste and disease-causing pathogens. Around the world, more than a million children die each year as a result of drinking water contaminated with bacteria and disease.

"The number of diarrhea cases has diminished. When we just did the annual report, it went down 2.6 percent compared to last year," said Javier Mendoza, an official at the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health. And no children died of water-borne diseases in the treated-water villages last year compared with six the year before from untreated water. And the number of sick adults has declined markedly.

Once installed, Nicaraguan volunteer water groups maintain the systems, collecting money from community members that amounts to a few cents per family per day for chlorine tablets. CTI hired two Nicaraguan managers who install the chlorinators and train the communities to maintain them.

"What's heartening is that the Nicaraguan communities have completely embraced this project and have committed to investing their own money to ensure it continues," said Roger Salway, a retired businessman who runs CTI. "No one is interested in a quick fix. We all want a long-term, sustainable solution.''

The CTI systems also could be used in disaster-relief situations. "It's certainly scalable,'' Salway said, "Funding is always an issue. We are a group of 100 volunteers. We can scale this up to the extent that we get support from this community and corporations."

The CTI 8 was conceived by Charlie Taflin, 77, the former superintendent of the Minneapolis water works, with a little help from his CTI buddies.

"I get a little uneasy every time we start talking about 'revolutionary,'" the self-effacing Taflin said in a 2002 interview.

Several years later the technology was hailed as just about that by www.engineeringfor change.org.

Savings lives and ending sickness in places plagued by dirty water is revolutionary, good for business and a great way to make friends for America.

CTI, which develops and shares technology, runs on a $1.3 million annual budget that spans projects in Central America and Africa. Most of its revenue comes from Minnesota companies, individual donors and product sales.

Oh, and did I tell you about the breadfruit dryer?

The "Oldster Team" from CTI, longtime volunteers George Ewing, Hank Garwick and Dave Elton, recently won the first-place prize from the University of St. Thomas, in collaboration with the Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, for their low-cost breadfruit dryer.

Breadfruit is a high-carbohydrate fruit, abundant in many tropical nations that struggle with hunger. By shredding, drying and grinding, breadfruit can be processed into a portable, long-shelf-life flour. The dryer, which can be made for about $500, will be introduced through local businesses.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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