As I woke up, I emerged from my mosquito-netted bunk and headed to the bathroom to take my bucket shower. Then I got ready and headed downstairs for my usual breakfast of coffee and peanut butter on coconut bread. Most of our neighbors started their day hours earlier to beat the heat, so Bluefields was already bustling with the noise of car horns, taxi music, and people. After my morning Spanish lesson, I was ready to head down the road to start a long day of filter visits.
This was my average day during my internship this summer volunteering with blueEnergy in Bluefields, Nicaragua. blueEnergy is an international non-profit organization that delivers energy, water, and sanitation solutions to some of the world’s most isolated, marginalized communities, providing a foundation for health, education, and economic opportunity within the context of a changing climate. I worked in the water and sanitation division on their biosand water filter project. Biosand water filters are concrete bodies filled with different layers of sand and gravel which mimic soil filtration, eliminating e-coli from drinking water. The filters work best when they meet eight different parameters, which include factors such as regularity of use, not cross-contaminating containers, and the integrity of the filter body, splash plate, and lid.
If used regularly, a layer of good bacteria forms of the surface of the sand. If e-coli is present in the water poured into the filter, it either gets eliminated by the biolayer, bonds to the sand, or dies in the anaerobic environment before filtering out into a sanitary container. These filters improve the health of the beneficiaries, as there is no public water system in Bluefields. Most people get their water from hand-dug wells which have no casing or covers, and there is also no public sanitation system, so many people use open-pit latrines. This can lead to contamination of drinking water by runoff or contaminated water seeping through the sides of the wells.
Over the course of my internship, I helped construct, refurbish and install filters in beneficiaries’ homes, and I also surveyed current filter owners on their use of the filter and hygiene practices to gather data which would later be used to perform water testing.
This work was interesting and rewarding, but development work comes with its own sets of problems. For example, in Bluefields, addresses don’t really exist. To find our beneficiaries, we started with a set of directions that gave us the barrio, or neighborhood, and sometimes the road name, if we were lucky. Once we got that far, we had to ask around until we found someone who knew the family and could lead us to their house.
Many people lived on small dirt foot paths, which could be very muddy during the rainy season. So we had to transport our filter bodies and bags of sand on handtrucks through the rugged terrain to our beneficiaries’ houses. To install the filters, we filled them with the proper layers of sand, instructed the beneficiary on the use and maintenance of the filter, and tested the flow rate of the filters.
We used the same navigation process when we carried out our filter visits (as part of our visits, we collected GPS points to be inputted into a map for future ease of location). Over the course of my internship, we visited over 200 filter beneficiaries in 10 barrios. At each visit, we surveyed the beneficiaries on their use of the filter and took measurements of the water height and flow rate to determine how many of the 8 filter parameters were being met.
Eventually, these data will be used to choose a set of filters to be sampled and tested for water quality parameters. This was actually the original plan for my work. blueEnergy is currently attempting to set up a water quality lab and import lab equipment, but importation and delivery can be a long process, so the plan changed. Flexibility is an important skill in development work!
As a member of the Global Leadership Program, I also helped with a solar installation in the rural area of Manhattan on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. We had to clamber onto their slippery tin roof and hope that rain didn’t roll in to make the surface even more slippery. I hadn’t had any experience with solar system installation, and I learned how to set up circuits and joint boxes as well as how to attach a panel in an appropriate place and angle. This project can make small but important changes for a family by giving them more lighted hours to study, work, and have time to spend together.
I was lucky to be able to have this experience to serve others in my internship, and I am grateful for the opportunity to get an eye into the joys and struggles of working in development. One huge benefit of this internship was the opportunity to interact with people from all around the world who were passionate about innovation and activism, and who believed in the possibility of change. This internship also helped me to clearly see the various ways people interact with and think about their environment, and it showed me how little changes can make a big difference.
One of the most meaningful experiences I had in relation to our work was one filter visit we completed toward the end of my internship. The Duena of the house wasn’t home, so we surveyed her mother, but we ended up running into the duena on the street as we were headed back. She told us how the health of her children had improved since they had begun to use the filter and what a big difference it made on their health care costs, school attendance, and more. She also asked to be put on the list for one of blueEnergy’s other projects, efficient cookstoves. After weeks of trudging through barrios in the hot and the rain and seeing filters in many different states, it was an important reminder of the impact our projects could have.
This experience helped me to realize that my passion lies at the on-the-ground intersection of people and their environment, and I am now pursuing careers in conservation and environmental education with a possible trajectory to urban and environmental planning. Although there are a lot of unexpected challenges to working in this area, the little impacts make it worth it.
I love to see people involved and engaged in making change and to see the effects that change can have.
Lisa Long – ETM Student