Cornell Water Manager Assists with Rural Water Projects in Honduras

Chris Bordlemay visited Honduras during Winter Break to offer expertise for various nonprofits and community water projects...

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By Shirley Qian

These Honduran children are collecting water from an untreated water source and transporting it back to their family.
These Honduran children are collecting water from an untreated water source and transporting it back to their family.

Behind the scenes of the Cornell utilities infrastructure, there is one man who oversees the entire campus water system, from the individual segments of pipes that lay underneath our feet to the water filtration plant that treats all the water used on campus. That man is Christopher Bordlemay. Aside from managing Cornell’s water system, Chris is also very involved in international rural water system projects. This past January, he visited Honduras to assist various rural water nonprofits and local communities with their water system projects. This is Chris’s sixth time in Honduras, and he has been studying Spanish in his spare time to improve his ability to communicate with locals and translate for fellow travelers. For this most recent trip, Chris was involved with six different projects. His experiences with each of these projects will be described in brief below. Read on for some exciting stories!

1) Solve a water distribution problem in Marcala, Honduras

Marcala is a small mountain town in Southwest Honduras, most known for its production of world-class coffee. Marcala was also the site of one the first AguaClara water treatment plants in Honduras, and Chris participated in the construction process of that plant in 2008. However, when he visited this time, Chris was there to solve a water distribution problem. Marcala’s downtown had no water for a period of time during the day on a consistent, daily basis. Helping him solve this mystery was Fred, a member of the International Rural Water Association, a nonprofit that aims to improve the quality of water for residents of developing nations.

Pressure gauges were used to monitor water pressure across Marcala.
Pressure gauges were used to monitor water pressure across Marcala.

A water pressure evaluation was done by monitoring pressure gauges in various homes and monitoring the level of the water storage tanks. This intense 24-hour evaluation of the water distribution system required police and army escorts for safety concerns during the night! Chris and Fred finally pinpointed the source of the water distribution problem after finding leaks, valves incorrectly positioned, pressure zones interconnected, and under-trained operators.

Turns out a big problem was that the neighboring army battalion had been turning off one of the water valves in the distribution system at the same time everyday after its morning exercise routine because they wanted more water for showers. But there was a way for both the army and the town to have water at the same time. Chris, Fred, and the mayor of Marcala negotiated with the army leaders for a mutually beneficial solution, and convinced the army that they didn’t need to turn off the water valves for showers. Now everyone in Marcala can enjoy the use of water all the time!

2) Check in with the Marcala water treatment facility

Marcala's water tank
Marcala's water tank

Due to difficult and complicated financial situations, Marcala’s water was not treated with chlorine for a whole week. This was of serious concern to Chris, because chlorine acts as a disinfectant that kills disease-causing bacteria in the water. Without chlorine, the residents of Marcala are at risk of becoming sick from drinking the tap water.

Chris conducted a simple experiment to test whether harmful bacteria were growing in Marcala’s untreated water, and the results were found to be positive. Once the mayor realized the seriousness of the situation, he immediately put the issue of purchasing chlorine on the top of his agenda. Chlorine was purchased immediately and used to treat the water, so now the residents of Marcala can safely enjoy their tap water again.

 

3) Evaluate a new dam on the Chiflador River

The new dam on the Chiflador River.
The new dam on the Chiflador River.

Marcala had recently constructed a new dam on the Chiflador River. Chris visited the dam and made some recommendations on the maintenance and operations of the structure, along with some design modifications.

4) Set up a laboratory for ADEC (Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario)

Chris helped set up a water quality testing lab for ADEC, a rural water development organization in Honduras.
Chris helped set up a water quality testing lab for ADEC, a rural water development organization in Honduras.

Aside from working in the town of Marcala, Chris also did work with some other water-related organizations in Honduras. One of these organizations was ADEC (Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario; Water and Community Development), a rural water association that “provides technical expertise in water, sanitation, health and hygiene to improve the quality of life for people in rural areas of Honduras.” Chris helped the organization set up a laboratory with donated equipment from the United States. He translated manuals from English to Spanish and provided a list of chemicals and reagents that the lab still needed.

5) Map out a potential water system for a neighboring community

The site of a potential new water source for a neighboring community.
The site of a potential new water source for a neighboring community.

Chris traveled briefly with a group affiliated with Engineers without Borders from California in Honduras. The group was led by a professional engineer and was composed of undergraduate and graduate students. The group’s project involved evaluating the feasibility of developing a new water source for a community neighboring Marcala. The team conducted a GPS survey of a waterfall and its surrounding landscape as the possible source of water. The results indicated that the waterfall has a good possibility as a source because the landscape was favorable for water to be easily transported by gravity through pipes.

6) Experiment with carbon from coconut shells for water filters

One of the best water filters can be made with carbon from coconuts. These coconut carbon filters are particularly effective in removing harmful pesticides, make water taste better, and are made from renewable resources. The carbon in the filters are the products of biocharring the hard inner shells of coconuts. Coconuts are in abundance in Honduras, and thus they were a logical choice for Chris and Fred to experiment with for carbon water filters.

Their search for coconuts led Chris and Fred to the town of Tela on the northern tropical coast of Honduras. They found a coconut dealer who was willing to let them have the coconuts in his compost that still had their hard inner shells for free. Chris and Fred educated the coconut dealer on the uses and benefits of carbon from coconut shells as water filters and taught the dealer how to make his own carbon. As a result, the dealer plans to expand his business to make and sell carbon for use in water filters to various Honduran communities.

This fire pit was used to biochar the inner shells of coconuts. The resulting carbon was then used for water filters.
This fire pit was used to biochar the inner shells of coconuts. The resulting carbon was then used for water filters.

After transporting the coconuts from Tela back to Marcala, Chris and Fred proceeded with making carbon. They constructed a special furnace to biochar the coconut shells, and successfully obtained carbon to be made into filters. The furnace was the center of festivities on Chris’ last night in Marcala and the community learned the process of how to biochar coconut shells and make water filters out of the resulting carbon. Talk about going out with a bang!

It’s evident from his stories and experiences that Chris had a really great and meaningful time in Honduras. He was able to significantly improve his Spanish and was able to make some lasting impact in the communities and organizations that he assisted. Chris is so passionate about rural water issues and he is a great example of how we can use our education, talents, time, and passion to better the lives of people around the world!

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.