'Water, water everywhere': Cadets report on biosand water filtration efforts in Mozambique

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Americans take drinking water for granted. We use it not only to drink and to cook but to water our plants, to bathe and even to flush our toilets.

In other parts of the world, however, potable water is hard to come by. Without the infrastructure to treat and distribute water through plumbing, people are more likely to drink water straight from unfiltered sources. Contaminated water kills an estimated 2.2 million people annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, in addition to 1.8 million children under age 5.

A group of cadets here sought to help. In March, Cadets 1st Class Matthew Scheie, Victoria Cachro, Evan Shawler and Ian Gibson traveled to Dunbo, Mozambique, and held a workshop teaching residents how to build biosand water filters from readily available materials. The cadets presented the results of their trip in a report Wednesday.


The idea for an overseas trip began in the summer of 2011, when a cadet suggested a class that could combine civil engineering and cultural competencies, said Maj. Timothy Frank, the assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering for the Academy's Civil Engineering Department.

"There was no class that explicitly did that, so we created a course," Frank said. "We chose Mozambique because it was a Portuguese-speaking country from back in colonial times, and we had a Portuguese faculty member who was part of the planning process."

The course objective was for cadets to apply what they learned about Mozambique's culture and their knowledge of engineering to develop a technological answer to a social problem, Frank said. They decided to develop a biosand water filter: a 3-foot-tall concrete container filled with fine-grain sand that filters out diseases and other contaminants. University of Calgary researcher Dr. David Manz first developed the biosand filter in the 1990s.

"It's pretty simple, pretty low-tech," Frank said. "It was a great project."

The Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology recommends using a sieve to separate sand grains larger than 0.7 millimeter, calling larger grains too coarse for filtration. However, sieves are a limiting factor in many parts of the world, including Mozambique, Frank said.

Instead, the cadets used coarser sand, filtered through more common sieves such as window screens and mosquito nets, to build filters at the Academy. They ran untreated water from the Academy's water treatment plants through their biosand filters and tested the results, Scheie said.

"Hopefully I was in none of your classes, because we were the stinky students," Scheie joked. "We were here playing with contaminated water every morning from January all the way through to spring break, running these tests to see how the largest-size BSF ran against the (CAWST) manual-referenced filter. What we found was comparable within tenths of a percent ... which is very promising."


Frank put together a proposal to get funding from the International Programs Department for the trip to Mozambique. The travel was applicable to both a special topics course and an independent study course, and the students had not previously traveled on International Programs-sponsored trips, two factors that the major said helped the proposal's chances. Another stand-out feature of the proposal was that cadets would become teachers, replicating a classroom environment in the field.

Meanwhile, Shawler and Gibson hit the phones to see if they could contact people who had previously worked in that part of Africa.

"We had some questions about Mozambique, about water filtration, about how accessible clean water is," Gibson said. "What we found is that there's not a lot of great data out there."

But the phone calls served a purpose. The cadets contacted Amy Gillespie, who volunteered in Mozambique for several years before coming to live in Colorado Springs. She provided them with contacts in Mozambique who have worked on water filtration.

Meyer, a Portuguese instructor in the Foreign Languages Department here, connected the cadets with Youth With a Mission, which gave them a place to stay and hold their presentation during their trip.

The team did some more research once they were on the ground in Mozambique. Shawler and Gibson talked to business owners in country to find out more about the business environment.

"Our intent was to see how easy or difficult it was to own and operate a business in Mozambique: What are the government regulations and hoops that you have to jump through," Gibson said. "We certainly didn't know much about Mozambique, about the economy, but we (incorporated) some of the things we learned ... into the workshop."

Twenty-one people showed up to the first day of the multi-day workshop, Cachro said, including doctors from Argentina, missionaries from Brazil and local pastors and community leaders. They built a filter from scratch with help from two women, Berta and Zita, who have built a large number of water filters.

"That filter is still at Youth With a Mission, which was where we stayed," Cachro said. "It's at the preschool there. One of the gentlemen who was at the workshop, Sergio, is actually working and pouring water into the filter every day, taking care of it."

Shawler and Gibson took over the latter half of the workshop to talk about microlending, the practice of offering small loans to individuals who can use the money to start or expand small businesses.

"The connection we saw with biosand water filters -- a way to make this stick, to make it sustainable, to have the project not die after we left -- was to incorporate it into some sort of business idea," said Gibson, who along with Shawler runs a non-profit that offers microloans to individiauls in developing nations. "We understood we wouldn't have the ultimate solution for them. We understood that what we were bringing to them wouldn't necessarily be their 'fix' out of poverty. What we wanted was to leave the floor open to them."

The participants came up with three main ideas. The first was to provide the filters to communities, who would share the cost of using it. The second was to provide a clean water service, similar to a utility, where people could buy clean water. The third idea -- and Shawler's favorite -- was for the attendees to build more water filters, which they could sell to non-government organizations working in Africa.


The cadets talked about what they learned from the trip. Their major takeaway, Gibson said, was that they had to be attentive and open to cultural differences.

"On Day 1, we had what I would call a faux pas of sorts," he explained. "We started the workshop and briefly introduced ourselves. ... At the end of the day, we solicited feedback from the attendees."

The attendees commented that they wanted to know more about the cadets.

"They were very specific," Gibson said. "They wanted to know what our parents did; they wanted to know how old we were; they wanted to know whether we were married; a lot of very personal things that we weren't used to giving out.

"The next day, we took at least 30 or 45 minutes explaining in detail answers to each of those questions and explained to them why we were there and what passion we had for biosand water filters," he added.

Shawler said the cadets didn't try to foist their solutions as the only ones that would work.

"That allows them to introduce what they know about their communities, what they know about the people around them, to help best fit what we have into their programs or their communities," he said.

Frank said providing knowledge, rather than a tangible product, will carry benefits in the future. They also helped attendees develop contacts with others in the region who could help.

"We hope we were successful," he said. "Time will tell. We'll keep in contact with some of the people over there, and we'll see. But our hope is that (because) it was knowledge-based ... that it can be a sustainable project and live on."

The cadets had attendees write commitment statements on the workshop's last day. One reads, "I received knowledge I didn't have before, and I will transmit what I've learned like I promised my co-workers at the orphanage. In 15 days, I will go meet with the government leadership team. I can share on the radio about the biosand water filter, and the message will spread.

"But what I'm asking of you is that this message won't just die," the statement continues. "It depends on the workshop participants to spread that information further. We have to start with ourselves to figure out ways to help the communities. I will tell others what the Americans taught me about disease, sanitation and the filters. This knowledge is so valuable to us."