Saturday, September 25, 2010

Potters for Peace

Every 15 seconds, another child dies from lack of clean water and sanitation.

One sixth of the world’s population does not have access to potable water.

Statistics like those didn’t really mean anything to me before joining Peace Corps. Now that I am living in Nicaragua, I realize that turning on the tap to a clean, strong stream of cold (or hot) water is a luxury that few will ever experience. Getting water is a daily battle here; many rural residents have to haul it from unclean wells, or collect rain water for daily tasks. Water-borne illnesses are common and other diseases are spread by the lack of hygiene resulting from water scarcity.

One of the organizations that I’ve had the opportunity to work with while in Peace Corps is “Potters for Peace,” or in Spanish, Ceramistas por la Paz. Their goal to provide safe drinking water to those who lack it is also one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: “To halve, by the year 2015, the number of people who are unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, and the proportion of people without access to safe sanitation. By 2025, to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene to all.” (Below: making the ceramic filter).
PFP makes and sells ceramic water filters to purify water. The filter is a simple porous clay container with a coating of colloidal silver that is reported to remove 99.98% of turbidity, parasites, and bacteria, including e-coli, vibrio cholera, giardia, streptococcus, cryptosporidium, and total coliforms. Since I have become sick from at least four of the aforementioned organisms, I was particularly interested in this project. (Below: a x-ray look at one of the filters).

In the urban center of my community, we have running water through a central system (well, on a good day). The water comes from a pump that is next to a small river. In the surrounding smaller villages (they are still considered part of this community), there is no running water and the residents use shared wells, sometimes located far from their homes. In the urban center the water goes out for several hours daily and when we have hard rains and the river floods it can turn a dark brown color.

After trying to drink tap water for a few weeks, I have now realized that it’s like playing Russian roulette. Sometimes you won’t get sick, but more often than not, you will. I buy purified water which cost U$1.25 for an 18 gallon container. I have to cart these large containers four blocks to my house from the store they are sold at. Needless to say, it’s quite annoying. Most families in the urban center buy these purified water jugs as well – sometimes up to 5 per week. Others that do not have access to purified water can use chlorine or boil their water, but this is often too time consuming, expensive, or simply not deemed necessary.

Recently PFP offered to partner with interested Peace Corps volunteers to provide filters and educational materials for free. I contacted them and soon received a personally-delivered donation of 17 filters (the whole set includes a plastic bucket, spigot, water filter and cover). They also donated coloring books for children that addressed water sanitation issues, crayons, education posters, a “Ceramic Filters for Sale Here” sign for use in a store, and water testing materials to test for bacteria and parasites. Two of the filters I donated to local organizations for public use: the Health Center and a non-profit which works with special needs children. The rest of the filters I have been selling out of my home and at a local store. With the money earned, we will buy more filters – hopefully creating a sustainable cycle and a way to earn money for businessmen who choose to sell them for a profit at their stores.

The only problem that I’ve found with the filters is their price. They are C$575 c√≥rdobas, (about U$28) which for most families is a substantial amount. However, local health promoters and I have been trying to promote the filters as a way to actually save money. For the average family who buys filtered water jugs, the price of one ceramic filter would buy them 23 jugs. When you do the math, the ceramic filter pays for itself quickly. That long-term vision is a little difficult for most Nicaraguans to grasp- most would rather spend a little bit now rather than a lot- no matter what the long-run savings is. No one has a large amount of petty cash just lying around (there’s a reason that you can buy single eggs, single-use baggies of spices, and single cigarettes in the stores here). We have been working with local stores letting people pay for the filters in 2-4 payments.

PFP is in 21 countries in the world. They train locals to learn how to make the ceramic filters; creating jobs and providing income for the most poor. The filters are long-lasting – PFP told me that one woman had the same filter for 10 years and it was still working for her. They also make sense; local artisans work with clay and stone, so these filters are not such a new idea. The health center has often done projects with rock and sand water filters – a less sophisticated version of PFP.

I am very grateful for the donation by PFP. The water filters are selling – slowly, but surely. Locals are very interested in how they work and how they can possibly save them money. I have recently purchased a filter as well – no more lugging around purified water for me! When so many Nicaraguan children are affected by diarrheal diseases, hopefully this project can reduce sickness and infant and child mortality. I encourage you to check out their website at:

1 comment:

Yalicita said...

Hi there! I found your blog through daveande blog, and I think I've read everything you've written while in Nicaragua. I identify with so many of the things you describe! even though I'm Nicaraguan and I live right here in Managua.

Keep up the hard work!