Results tagged “clean water” from Bob Freling's Solar Blog

The search for clean water in Africa often exacts a heavy toll on the lives of women and girls who are responsible for gathering it on a daily basis. In many African countries it takes up to six hours per day to collect sufficient quantities of water to serve a single family, and much of that time is spent walking; the typical round-trip distance is three miles, although in some instances it can be considerably longer. Physically reaching the water can be hazardous, as loose rocks or roots on the paths or at the edge of water sources can cause women to fall and hurt themselves, or in some cases, even die.

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he most common vessels for transporting water are Jerry Cans, and when filled with water, they weigh 44 pounds. Carrying this load every day can lead to chronic, significant pain and physical deformities in women’s backs, hips, and necks.  Pregnant women are not excused from water collection duties, and the effects of carrying the heavy water often interfere with and complicate childbirth.

What the women and girls find when they get to the water source – a pond, stream, or hole in the ground – is often less than ideal. They often find scores of other women collecting water from the same location, and the lines are so long that the newly arrived must wait for hours to take their turn

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Women cooking with dirty water unintentionally expose their families to chronic diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, worms, parasites, dysentery and hepatitis. The leading cause of death in infants is exposure to contaminated water and water-borne diseases. Yet, the water harvested can be dangerous to everyone: 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal disease, and half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people of all ages sick from diseases caused by drinking unclean water.

Solving these problems has been the focus of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies such as the United Nations who have been involved in ongoing efforts to provide clean, potable water to those living in rural and urban areas in developing countries. While varying in their approaches, these actions are collectively improving the daily lives of women and their families.

One of the more widespread technologies used by aid organizations are hand pumps that access water from wells drilled into the ground. Groups such as The Water Project couple the installation of these pumps with community engagement and education classes designed to teach locals about proper hygiene and sanitation practices. Similarly, charity: water and its partners have brought water pumps to clinics and schools in Latin America, South America, Africa and South East Asia, all of which have dramatically improved the lives of community members. 

Solar energy can also play a leading role in providing access to clean water. In areas where there is no power grid and water cannot be accessed by hand or foot pumps because the water table is too deep, the choices for powering deep well water pumps are usually diesel generators or solar systems. The daily output of most village water supply pumps range from 800 to 13,000 gallons per day (3,000 – 50,000 liters). 50,000 liters is enough to supply 2,500 people with their daily water needs, using UNDP standards of 20 liters per person per day. The effective depth for water pumps to provide this much water is 400 feet (120 meters) or more.

There are very distinct differences between solar and diesel in terms of cost and reliability when it comes to providing reliable and affordable access to water. Diesel powered water pumps are typically characterized by a lower up-front purchase price than a solar system, but they require very high operations and maintenance costs. Diesel gensets typically require regular service – both minor and major – and any required repairs after a breakdown are very costly. In addition, the cost of diesel fuel is prohibitive to the world’s poorest people. Fuel price fluctuates on a daily basis, and over the long-term, it continues to steadily rise.

A solar powered water pumping system usually has a higher up-front purchase price, but it has very low operation and maintenance costs over its lifetime, which is typically 20-25 years. With a solar pump, energy and pumping costs can be accurately calculated for the life of that system, because they have fewer moving parts and require minimal maintenance to keep them running. The only maintenance normally required is cleaning the solar modules every two to four weeks. In addition, they do not require a trained operator on site as do diesel-powered systems.

In the West African country of Benin, many villages in the north suffer from a lack of clean water for drinking and domestic use. To help alleviate this problem, SELF designed and implemented solar power systems to power water pumps for drinking, as well as for irrigation.. Up to 8,000 gallons of water are being pumped every day, benefitting approximately 4,500 people living in the communities of Dunkassa and Bessassi. The laborious and time-consuming task of collecting water has been effectively eliminated, and the number of water related illnesses has dropped.

In addition, water used to irrigate crops during the dry season has resulted in a significant increase in food security and improved nutrition for the communities, who are now able to consume high-value fruits and vegetables year-round. 

collage 2.jpgAccess to clean water means better lives for women and girls and their families. Girls no longer have to help their mothers fetch water, women have more time to work without having to walk to distant water sources or to care for children who are sick from various water-borne illnesses. Women are also able to complete chores faster and have more time to develop marketable skills of their own, or to find work or develop new businesses that will bring in additional income to their households. 

And, because water is so often far away from villages, mothers often keep their daughters home from school to help collect water or to care for their younger siblings while they go off to collect it themselves. Giving women access to clean water in the village frees young girls to go to school more often and for longer periods of time.

Life in Africa is incredibly hard for women. Providing them with access to clean water through the use of solar energy means giving them the chance to improve their health, educate their children, and develop new enterprises to lift their families out of poverty.                                                            

I've just returned from Benin, West Africa where I had a chance to see firsthand the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi since the launching, less than two years ago, of SELF’s solar irrigation project in Kalalé District -- a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country.

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Kalalé District consists of 44 villages (~100,000 people), none of which are connected to Benin’s electric power grid.

There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.  During this period, the land of Kalalé is parched and its people are hungry. Malnutrition is widespread, as evidenced by the many children walking around with distended bellies - a telltale sign of kwashiorkor, a condition caused largely by a lack of protein and micronutrients.

Our involvement in Benin began some three and a half years ago when I was first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé who had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany.  Mamoudou, now a Professor at Texas A&M University, had just returned from a home visit to Benin, where he had participated in a meeting of Kalale’s district council to explore alternative options for electrifying Kalalé’s villages since the national grid was not likely to reach this remote part of Benin anytime in the foreseeable future.

Intuiting that solar represented a way forward for his people, Mamoudou turned to SELF for help.  After a series of discussions, it became clear that Kalalé District, with its 44 unelectrified villages, offered a great opportunity for SELF to scale its work beyond the scope of a single village to encompass an entire region.  After all, with much of Africa still without access to modern energy services, it was time to think and act boldly.

Over the next few months, we put together a plan to generate solar electricity for a wide range of end-uses—including schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, street lighting, and wireless Internet access—in each of the 44 villages that comprise Kalalé District.

In terms of priority, however, an on-the-ground needs assessment revealed that the first concern among the local communities was food security: to find a way to overcome the endemic lack of water and agricultural produce that condemns the people of Kalalé to an endless cycle of poverty and poor health, especially during the 6-month dry season.

To address this problem, we approached Professor Dov Pasternak, a leading drip irrigation expert who, for the past eight years, has been working for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).  While at ICRISAT, Pasternak developed what he refers to as the “Africa Market Garden” – a simple but highly effective method of using drip irrigation to grow high-value fruits and vegetables on small plots of arid land in the Sahel region of Africa.

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Prior to working with SELF, Pasternak had relied upon diesel generators to power the water pumps used in his drip irrigation systems.  Needless to say, we felt that solar represented a more viable alternative, economically and environmentally.  Dov agreed to try it our way, and now with the successful launch of the first solar-powered drip irrigation systems in Benin, he has become a solar convert.  (In a white paper SELF recently put together, it is shown that the payback period for solar pumping – as compared with diesel – can be less than two years, and that's at today's diesel prices which are going up, and solar prices which are going down.)

My recent trip to Kalalé was the first time I had visited the project since its launching in November 2007.  I was accompanied by a French film crew that is going to feature SELF in an upcoming segment of "Earth from Above", a National Geographic–like program hosted by well-known French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.


It was great to return to Benin and spend time with the people of Dunkassa and Bessassi, the two pilot villages where solar drip irrigation systems have been installed.  I immediately noticed a difference in the women, who have filled out since our last encounter.  Not only are the women better fed, but so are their families and the rest of the villagers who now have year-round access to a steady supply of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What’s more, the women are earning an extra $7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at the local market.  I was there on market day, and was delighted to see the women march off proudly into town with their baskets filled to the brim with leafy green vegetables. 

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So not only has nutrition improved in Dunkassa and Bessassi, but income levels also have risen — income which will help pay for school fees, medical treatment, and overall economic development.  Indeed, the women are already starting to think about other types of income-generating schemes that can be launched in the villages.  It appears their entrepreneurial spirit has been kindled!

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Phase II of this project in Benin, scheduled for launch next year, will involve the “whole-village” electrification of Dunkassa and Bessassi, whereby solar electric systems will generate power for the school, health clinic, homes, street lighting, community center, and a WiFi network in each of the pilot villages.  We’re also planning to install additional solar pumps that will provide fresh drinking water to the residents of Dunkassa and Bessassi.

While much remains to be done, we’ve gotten off to a promising start in Benin.  The tandem use of solar energy and drip irrigation can be replicated in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are poor in water resources but rich in sunlight. 

What’s particularly exciting is the fact that in this one project we now have a sustainable model that is simultaneously combating climate change, improving food security, supplying clean water, alleviating poverty, and empowering women.

Stay tuned for further updates...