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Just4Water: Attacking A Water Crisis, One Well at a Time

Roberto Molar Candanosa '13 June 9, 2015 9:11 AM updated: June 23, 2015 2:03 PM

Eleven-year-old Adrian carries containers of water on a three-mile, hour-long walk between the water source and his home. Just4Water, a Texas A&M student organization, is helping impoverished communities that face water crises.
Eleven-year-old Adrian carries containers of water on a three-mile, hour-long walk between the water source and his home. Just4Water, a Texas A&M student organization, is helping impoverished communities that face water crises.

By Roberto Molar

It’s five a.m. in the village of Paso Real, Nicaragua, and Adrian is already up. He puts on his pants, a T-shirt and a pair of shoes and grabs two empty buckets to set out on a 3-mile walk on a dirt road. After walking for about an hour amidst tropical trees, bushes, and hills, Adrian finally arrives at his destination. He fills his two buckets with water from a well and returns home.

The way back is a little harder. Adrian is only 11 and his body seems a bit skinny and fragile to be carrying two buckets of water that are almost as big and heavy as he is. But he doesn’t stop, pant or complain. His family—all 15 members—needs water to drink, grow plants, and feed the animals they use for food. The families of the rest of the 70 villagers in Paso Real also send their kids to get water. And they often need to make multiple trips a day. Although parents help as much as they can, they are usually working for income or doing other necessary chores in the village.

Things are different in the United States. If I get thirsty, I can walk to my kitchen to get a glass of water. If I go to the restroom, I can flush the toilet. If I want to take a hot shower, I just do it. But all of that is a luxury for most people worldwide who don’t have easy access to water. And when they do, often the water isn’t safe to drink.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF estimate that about 750 million people worldwide—that is almost three times the population of the United States—lack access to clean water. And an average 5-minute shower in the U.S. consumes more water than what a person in a developing country slum would use in an entire day, according to the United Nations.

Drinking dirty water often results in disease and death. The WHO estimates that waterborne diseases kill about 3.4 million people every year—about the population of Los Angeles—and that about 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries. For example, diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among children under 5 years old worldwide, takes about 1.5 million lives per year—almost the population of San Antonio—and accounts for more childhood deaths than malaria, AIDS, and measles together, according to UNICEF and WHO.


The Water Crisis and Just4Water

Many organizations worldwide try to ameliorate the water crisis. At Texas A&M, a recently established student organization called Just4Water (J4W) is also doing its part. J4W was born in summer 2013 when several undergraduate engineering students at Texas A&M University formed a group to think of ways to put their knowledge to work. Guillermo Gomez-Salas ’13, co-founder of J4W and now a graduate student in water resources engineering, said he wanted to do something useful with his major. “First I was looking at building houses, but then I found out about the statistics of clean water scarcity, water-related deaths, and villages like Paso Real all over the world,” he said. Gomez-Salas asked some of his classmates whether they were interested in joining him. Together, they designed a plan and consulted several engineering professors and advisors. J4W became a student organization recognized by Texas A&M in spring 2014.

Timothy Chinn ’80, Ph.D., consulting engineer, professor in Texas A&M’s Civil Engineering Department, and now a close friend of J4W was one of the first to hear about Gomez-Salas’s idea. Chinn says J4W represents more than a simple drive to apply knowledge to real-world problems. “These types of initiatives are born in the heart out of the deep desire to eliminate waterborne disease in developing countries,” he said. “These are acts of generosity—it’s a lot of work, and all of it must have a deep-rooted desire to help others in need.”

Chinn, who works with water treatment and supply clients from all over the world, remembers the first time Gomez-Salas and other founders of J4W approached him. He invited them for dinner at his house, where they asked him about protocols, fundraisers, and awareness initiatives to include in their plans. “I did a lot of talking, but they put the actions behind the talk,” Chinn said. “Today we have a real functioning organization that has some amazing, talented and energetic students behind it.”

In summer 2014, J4W traveled to Paso Real, Nicaragua, to build a water well using self-sustainable and affordable technology. In summer 2015, they did the same in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Chinn was the first person to donate funds to J4W’s cause. What’s impressive about them, he said, is that they came together and delivered what they promised. “Ideas are cheap and plentiful,” Chinn said. “It’s the implementation of those ideas that takes effort and dedication, and so few of us have that kind of energy to make reality out of a concept.”

Thus, what started as an idea among a few friends is now a functioning student organization of about 45 students. Mark Membreño ’14, a civil engineering major who was one of the founders of J4W, said that bringing the organization up to speed was difficult because none of the students had started an organization before. But members of J4W are not ordinary students, Membreño said. “We are taking initiative in an issue that most people in developed countries ignore,” he said. “It was the passion of every single one of us that made J4W possible.” 

The model of J4W, adopted from? a non-profit organization in Oklahoma called Water4, helps to provide self-sustainable and affordable water solutions to impoverished communities. J4W partners with non-profit organizations and local people in developing countries, equips them with affordable drilling and pumping tools, and trains them to build water wells. “We don’t just go and build them a well,” said Gomez-Salas. “We teach the local people how to do it, and we leave them the tools so they can continue expanding our reach—it’s teaching them to fish instead of just giving them the fish.”

Affordable Technology for a Big Problem

Often, communities are on top of underground geological formations saturated with water, known as water tables. These water tables fill as precipitation seeps down from the surface. Soil and rocks filter the water as it flows down, so these water tables can yield drinking water to wells and springs.

Unfortunately, mechanical drilling technology to access these water-saturated areas is too expensive, and many of such communities lack clean water because of their limited resources to acquire the technology.

Matt Hangen, director of implementation at the non-profit organization that trained J4W, said the goal is to use simple equipment that is affordable and widely available for poor communities. This equipment uses drilling tools scaled for human power instead of mechanical power, thus reducing the cost of drilling a well to about $5,000. The equipment also consists of a durable hand pump developed by Water4 that can lift water from 100 ft. deep, requires minimal maintenance, and can be manufactured almost anywhere in the world. Other high-end technologies spend $10,000 to $20,000 to build just one well. “It’s like shooting a mosquito with a bazooka,” Hangen said.

Most of Water4’s equipment incorporates locally available, lightweight tools. The focus on simple materials enables local people to transport materials and repair wells without depending on hardware available only in large cities and developed countries. Hangen says Water4’s approach may be the only option for impoverished communities facing a water crisis, as the technology’s mobility, cost and availability allows access to clean water even in remote places.

 Just4Water volunteers drilling their first well last year in Paso Real, Nicaragua.

Just4Water in Nicaragua

J4W built their first well in Paso Real, Nicaragua in summer 2014. That well yields water for about 75 people in the village, and local people have already used the tools J4W left them to build five more wells. With the new wells, villagers—like 11-year-old Adrian—have easier access to clean water. Those wells should be functional for 10-15 years, until new water pumps will need to be installed.

Adolfo Portilla ’17, a junior computer science major and one of the co-founders of J4W, traveled to Nicaragua with Gomez-Salas, Membreño, and three more members. “People in this village needed to walk uphill for almost two hours every day to bring water back into their houses,” Portilla said, “and they have big families in the houses, so they sometimes needed to make several trips a day.” With the new well, however, villagers need to walk only about 20 minutes to get clean drinking water.

Villagers welcomed J4W upon their arrival, but the village's pessimism was overwhelming. “They told us we were never going to be able to find water,” Portilla said. When villagers saw the simple tools J4W intended to use, they were even more skeptical. “They started laughing and told us, ‘Do you really think you are going to drill a well with those tools?”’ Portilla recalled.

The villagers had reason to doubt J4W, since other groups had already failed in building new wells there. Drilling the well, training local people to use the tools, and installing the pump took two weeks for J4W. The team drilled for eight days without hitting water and grew discouraged. They were 90 ft. deep and the pump would not lift water beyond 100 ft. “We were absolutely exhausted and pessimistic at that point,” Portilla said.

Unless the team struck water within 10 ft., the project would fail. They thought of starting another well in a different location, but doing so would mean getting permission to drill on different land, buying more tools, and asking for a longer stay in the houses of villagers hosting them. Then, at 93 ft. deep, they finally hit water. “We jumped in excitement,” Portilla said. “We had been praying for help all this time, and we finally got it—just 7 ft. before reaching our limit.”

Although J4W spent only two weeks in Nicaragua, the trip took a semester of fundraising, training and preparation. That semester felt like working a full-time job while going to school, Gomez-Salas recalled. “But every single minute I spent that semester trying to fundraise money totally paid off when I saw people smiling because they had clean water,” he said. “Those smiles and the hugs I received paid for every single moment I invested in J4W.”

Just4Water at Texas A&M

Over the summer 2015, members of J4W partnered with organizations in Guatemala and El Salvador to build wells in Tecpan. To raise funds, members of J4W dedicate their time to organizing events such as conferences, sporting tournaments, food sales, awareness campaigns, and training activities.

“A lot of work goes into it,” explained Johanna Posey ’16, a junior civil engineering student who joined J4W in fall 2014. “There’s getting sponsorships, planning the actual events, planning advertising—but the work is really fun and I get to work with very confident and motivated people,” she said.

These activities have a variety of impacts for those involved in the organization, as students get hands-on drilling training. Posey said J4W offers her a chance to see real-world applications of what she learns in school. And she develops skills necessary outside the classroom, too. “Being in J4W also helps me to develop communication and budgeting skills,” she said.

J4W also brings together Texas A&M students and the communities of Bryan and College Station. Students from different backgrounds and community sponsors work together to reach the goals of the organization, which is at a point where it isn’t all about engineering. “Now we are like a business,” Gomez-Salas said, “and a business needs all sorts of people: marketers, writers, scientists, and others who want to put their skills to practice.”

J4W also needs the input of professional engineers. While working on fundraising and awareness campaigns, J4W is seeking to improve the technology they will use in their next projects. Assessment of the land in Guatemala and El Salvador indicated they would have to drill about 50 ft. past their current pump’s lifting capability. Kelly Brumbelow, Ph.D., an associate professor and assistant department head for undergraduate programs in the civil engineering department, worked with J4W to improve the water pump.

Brumbelow and J4W worked in evaluation labs to simulate the pressure of water in a borehole while using durable and cost-effective materials. As J4W works on improving their technology, more people are joining the cause. The funds they collect pay for drilling and pumping equipment, travel expenses, and awareness campaigns. Funds also are used for research to improve the water pump and to train new members.

“The most important thing here is working passionately and passing along that passion to new members,” Gomez-Salas said. “Members of J4W are known for working hard, so if we continue to do that we can definitely achieve our goals.”

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