Virginia Military Institute students are getting ready to depart for a remote village in Bolivia where they’re helping the community access clean water. Part of the civil engineering initiative “Keydets Without Borders,” they’re testing an innovation that takes advantage of an abundant resource - llama manure. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp reports.
When Lieutenant Colonel Tim Moore first brought students to Pampoyo, Bolivia five years ago it was clear the villagers were sick.
Tim Moore: The general conditions of the community were pretty bad.
Located about 300 miles from the capital La Paz, high in Andes Mountains, the village’s closest source of water is contaminated with heavy metals from the mining industry.
Moore: You had a lot of people who were dealing with issues associated with drinking this contaminated water so that would be bioaccumulation of metals in their organs, you had really low birth weights on children, you had really high infant mortality rate there.
With the nearest fresh spring an uphill climb three miles away, villagers used the polluted river when they had no other choice. Even the llamas, which provide food and wool, looked sick, says Moore.
Moore: All of that falls right back to financial instability because they’re not doing well from a health perspective, their farming is heavily affected by contaminated water so they can’t grow the size vegetables that they would typically with clean water and then the vegetables are taking up the metals that are in the water, so it’s substantial.
Since that first trip in 2011, Professor Moore and Civil Engineering students from the Virginia Military Institute have been working with the villagers and Engineers without Borders Bolivia to improve water and sanitation in Pampoyo. One of their first accomplishments was building a catchment basin by that freshwater source up the mountain. To get it back to the village, the students and community members dug - by hand - more than nine miles of trenches for a system of pipes.
Moore: Of that nine miles, we’re looking at three foot deep trenches which was all dug by students and the community, the majority of it by the community. They’re amazing.
The villagers were happy; they now had year-round clean water for the first time in generations. Infant mortality decreased significantly, everyone started to feel better and the llamas’ fur looked healthy again.
Moore: We did a new health survey this past year and we found a drastic improvement in in health in general. We found a drastic reduction in infant mortality, I think there were six new births in the community. I think it was 60% [infant mortality]; our newest results show a 20% infant mortality rate, so a massive drop. And the animals fur is much nicer, much more full so that’s something that the community members constantly talk to us about and tell us, this water’s been great for our community, look at what it’s done for our animals, so it seems to be working.
During Moore’s first trips to the village, he started noticing something about the llamas, which are abundant in Bolivia.
Moore: They are community animals, I call them community poopers.
Because they all go in the same place.
Moore: And what’s really interesting about llama manure is that it looks like pellets, like little rabbit pellets so the vision in my head was these little charcoal briquets.
Moore: We know for a fact that carbon can be used to remove metal from water, dissolved metals and so it was kinda neat, it was an interesting concept but it was just sort of an idea at the time.
Back in Lexington at VMI’s Civil Engineering Lab, Moore and his students have been testing the concept. Using a similar manure from local alpacas, they started heating it to about 350- 400 degrees. This turns it into biochar, or charcoal.
Moore: This is where we make char, so you can see here the canister that it’s in has a top on it, that’s how we keep oxygen out of it…
Peter Buehlmann: So here’s some of the biochar right here...
Senior Peter Buehlmann crushes some of the biochar between his fingers, turning it into a fine dust. When mixed with water inoculated with copper, the biochar is removing between 95-99% of the heavy metal.
Buehlmann: Once you start getting into the chemistry and the science behind it, it makes a lot of sense and it turns out it works extremely well. This is a really good field to pioneer in because it’s not really one that a lot of people think about: using waste to clean waste which is the quintessential definition of sustainability.
Warner Thomas: What we have here is four-foot-long, two-inch pipes with variations of the biochar created in stove mixed with sand...
Nearby student Warner Thomas is testing how much biochar is needed to adequately filter the water and how long it will last.
Thomas: We don’t want to use too much biochar but at the same time we need a lot in order to filter the water. So we’re measuring the copper and the iron oxide created through these filters and also how much flow we need in these filters.
When Professor Moore and a group of nearly 30 students return to Bolivia this month, they’ll be applying these findings in the field, testing biochar filtration and constructing “Personal Filtration Devices which can range in size from a water bottle to a 50 gallon drum.
Tyler Brickles: This is called a rocket stove...
Moore’s students are also developing a low-emissions cook stove that families can use to create their own biochar.
Brickles: After this burns at about 400 degrees Celsius for roughly an hour, we should be left with charcoal that we can then grind up and it will be stuck into water filters.
Senior Tyler Brickles inserts pieces of wood into the bottom of a large prototype they built to study the stove’s mechanics.
Brickles: We have a fuel insert down here on the bottom and that insert runs all the way over into this combustion chamber right here and then on the outside of this combustion chamber as you can see down below that blue line, it’s full of llama manure and this combustion manure is superheating that llama manure and turning it into charcoal.
In addition to testing the biochar stove and personal filtration devices, the students will also continue constructing eco-latrine solar showers for each of the 80 families in the village. After building the first ones last year, the community was thrilled.
Moore: We’re building what we call a pipe and bottle solar shower eco latrine and what that is a solar designed concept where we use solar energy to heat water in pipes that are on the roofs of these solar showers and they use that water to shower. And then they have a latrine they can use and it’s a dry pit latrine with urine diversion so what that means is the user uses the latrine and the waste will sit in there for specific amount of time, microbial activity breaking down waste will raise the temperature of the waste and then deactivate it, render it inert and they can use that as fertilizer on their gardens. So literally it’s like this developing country community that’s brought into 21st century of sustainability and it’s just amazing. All of their designs are completely sustainable.
This initiative is part of Keydets Without Borders, which engages students from VMI and neighboring Washington and Lee University in developing environmental engineering projects that help communities become healthier and more sustainable. Moore says local and national rotary organizations have helped raise money for the trips, as well as VMI alumni. For many of the participants, the experience has made them think differently about inequality, sustainability and the solutions that can be developed through environmental engineering.
Buehlmann: It’s not just another classroom exercise or another homework assignment. This, once it’s completed, has the possibility to affect thousands of lives throughout the world. So it’s not something you turn on time and get a grade back, you’re not doing it for a grade, you’re doing it to save people.
Although many of these students are graduating, several say want to keep returning to Pampoyo, where some are now godparents and part of the extended family. The group is also bringing profits back to the villagers from a Knitting Co-op the VMI team helped to establish. Students have been selling the villagers’ handmade hats, gloves, scarves and sweaters at events around Lexington all year. They’ve generated about $3,000 from the sales, 100% of which goes back to Pampoyo. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE news.
All Bolivia photos courtesy of VMI/Keydets Without Borders.