Going Abroad with AguaClara

A photo of Cornell Engineering student MelissaAguaClara is a project team with the goal of designing sustainable water treatment facilities, and I joined the spring of my freshman year. This past January, I was lucky to be able to visit Honduras with part of the team to see the water treatment plants built by AguaClara over the past fifteen or so years.

While I was only in Honduras for two weeks, I got a taste of what it was like to work as a plant operator or field engineer in the AguaClara plants when we visited the plant at Gracias Lempira. Gracias took my breath away when I first stepped inside; it was the biggest AguaClara plant and sounded like a waterfall because there was always so much water going through the building. We split up into groups to work on different projects around the plant. My first project was cutting PVC pipes for filter stubs, which would probably have taken three minutes with the Sawzall back in the lab in Hollister Hall. Since the plant didn’t have an electric saw, though, we used a simple manual hand saw to bite through the plastic little by little while one of the plant operators teased us for the sad state of our arm muscles.

Later, I joined some team members for an experiment that we were carrying out in the plant itself. The experiment involved adding clay to the water to try to produce better flocs (particles of organic matter and mud stuck to a chemical that we add to treat the water). The whole operation was pretty exciting, with someone to time the intervals, mix the clay solution, measure the solution, and pour it into the entrance tank of the plant. It was so different from being in the lab, where everything is controlled by pumps and if something goes wrong you can tell immediately and turn everything off. I definitely felt queasiness at the thought of doing something wrong, because the water was going straight from the plant to the town. I also had the chance to use the plant’s jar test apparatus to test different dosages of chemicals to treat the water that was actually coming into the plant. That was another moment when I realized how different it was to work at an actual water treatment plant. In the lab, I’ve run tests for nearly an hour, testing the same chemical dose and waiting for the system to get to steady-state. But at the plant, the quality of the water entering the plant changes constantly, so that by the time we finished a jar test sometimes the results wouldn’t even be relevant anymore.

It was very exhilarating that night when we sat in a circle with the engineers of Agua Para el Pueblo (or APP, our partner that oversees all the projects in Honduras). The room was silent as Minty, one of the engineers, read aloud the real-time data coming from the plant. The levels of turbidity and color, which we had been struggling to keep down all day, were meeting the Honduran standards. The filters that some of the students had been steadfastly taken apart and reconstructed were finally working. There were operators still working at the plant, because water is needed 24/7 and the work is never done – but for a moment we could all breathe a sigh of relief.

Later on the trip, we visited Zamorano University and met students in the Environmental Engineering and Development program. At first, we exchanged shy glances and I mumbled choppy Spanish peppered with English question marks to the smiling, uniformed students over a dining hall dinner of tortillas and refried beans. Afterwards, Zamorano students from Ecuador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic showcased dances from their respective countries, complete with traditional costumes and music. They begged us to perform an “American dance” for them. Someone convinced us to dance the Cotton Eyed Joe, which sparked many laughs and turned into a huge dance party. It helped make the next few days – which included visiting a watershed and trying to explain the water treatment processes in Spanish – a lot of fun.

Traveling to Honduras with AguaClara, even if just for two weeks, showed me a concrete result to the work I do in the lab, and reignited my passion for the team back at Cornell. I still keep in contact with some of the plant operators and Zamorano students, and hope that one day we might meet again.

—Melissa, chemical engineering