Newswise — Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D, a clinical professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso, has spent nearly two years on a humanitarian mission to provide access to clean, readily available water in Po Ploom, Haiti.
Access to clean water is a constant struggle for the 500 residents of Po Ploom, an isolated community located on a strip of grassland stretching along the eastern border with the Dominican Republic.
Fewer than half of Haitians in rural areas such as Po Ploom have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, putting them at risk for waterborne diseases.
In 2016, Po Ploom’s clean water problem attracted a private, anonymous donor who reached out to New Vision Baptist Church in Tennessee to find a solution. As a leader in water treatment technologies research, Santiago, an educator for 25 years, was approached to develop a water filtration system in Haiti.
UTEP students in the civil engineering senior design course developed a solar-powered water purification system for Po Ploom that would be easy to operate and simple to maintain.
Santiago and a group of volunteers from UTEP, Solar Smart Living and Industrial Water Services (IWS) in El Paso traveled to Haiti in April 2018 to install the system.
Like most communities in Haiti’s countryside, Po Ploom has no electricity. Its only water source is Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti.
Known locally as Étang Saumâtre, or “brackish pond” in English, the western part of Lake Azuéi contains brackish water, which is saltier than fresh water, but not as salty as seawater. Residents have access to fresh drinking water on the eastern side of the lake, which they also use for bathing and washing. Those who can afford it purchase powder bleach to disinfect the water before consuming it.
Santiago first traveled to Haiti in 2016 to assess the needs of the community.
Some residents travel two hours to the Dominican Republic or across the lake to purchase pouches or gallons of drinking water. But for the majority of Po Ploom’s families who make $20 a month selling charcoal, store-bought water is a luxury they can’t afford.
Six UTEP engineering students adapted a design suggested by IWS and Solar Smart Living – two local partner companies that specialize in reverse osmosis and solar power.
The students designed a unique and cutting-edge system that combined reverse osmosis desalination and solar energy to remove contaminants from the water. They initially planned to pump the water from Lake Azuéi, but water samples revealed that the lake’s seawater would be too difficult to clean. Instead, Santiago contracted a well driller from the Dominican Republic to travel to Po Ploom to dig a well 200 feet deep.
Once in the purification system, the water is cleaned by reverse osmosis – a process that removes inorganic solids, such as salts from water by pushing the water under pressure through a semi-permeable membrane. The clean water is then pumped into a storage tank where Po Ploom’s residents can fill up their plastic containers and jugs during the day.
With no electricity to the site, the system is powered by 24 industrial-size batteries that are charged by 42 solar panels.
A week after the system was turned on April 6, 2018, 10,000 gallons of water had been produced.
Santiago, a licensed Professional Environmental Engineer in Texas, New Mexico and Puerto Rico, has worked on water quality projects in the United States, Puerto Rico and Juárez, Mexico.