Thursday, July 29, 2010

El Porvenir - Sustainability Report

After leaving Blue Energy I headed back to the west half of Nicaragua, to the edge of a volcano where I had helped to design and install a community water pumping system over 3 years ago.The community, El Porvenir, is made up of 59 families from very mixed backgrounds. As Nicaraguan history has shown, this is a nation of very distinct ideological groups. The Contra War of the 70’s divided the country and led to immense amounts of bloodshed, mostly in the northern mountain region. El Porvenir is proof that organization can lead to peace, as the community is comprised of Contras, Sandinistas, past military advisors, and political officials. They have formed a communal cooperative and live mostly on the profits from bi-annual coffee harvests.Through connections with an NGO in Managua, they have achieved fair-trade organic, rustic shade grown coffee status. They export their coffee to another NGO and roaster based in Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh!) called Building New Hope. All hours worked by cooperative members are counted and then directly translate into an equivalent share of profits from sales.

Over three years ago as an undergraduate student I was looking for a senior design project that would have some MEANING and would be really VALUABLE to someone. Through connections with the service-learning office at Bucknell University I, and three other fellow students, designed a project to provide water to El Porvenir. At that time the cooperative’s only water source was a fresh-water well at the base of the volcano they are perched on, 1200 feet and 5 Km. below. The well, over 400 feet deep was fitted with a deep-well pump and powered by a diesel generator. The pump delivered the water to a steel water tank near the well, still at the bottom of the volcano. The cooperative also has three very large storage tanks up in their community, and catch rainwater whenever possible to satisfy all of their needs for water. In the approximately six-month “dry season” when rain was not consistent, they were forced to get water from the well at the bottom of the mountain. This meant they relied on their ancient Ford 500 diesel farm tractor to drive the 45 minute trip down the hill, fill up as many water jugs as possible, and then head back up the hill. Multiple trips were made every day to ensure that every person in the community was allowed at least two gallons of water every day. Six hours of work and 1,085 Córdoba (~$43 USD) was spent on gas and workers every day. It was not an easy life.

My team and I designed and installed a water pumping system that took water from the tank at the bottom of the mountain all 5 Km. up to the storage tanks in the community. The pump was run by an electric motor, with power from the same diesel generator already in use.

This summer I wanted to come back and see how everything was doing and, for the first time, speak with the men I had sweat with in construction over three years ago. Now I speak Spanish, and back in my university days all I could generate was a simple “hola”. To make the trip even more special, I was driven up the mountain by members of the Alumni Trip of the Bucknell Brigade, the service-learning trip at Bucknell that first exposed me to Nicaragua. We arrived at the top of the mountain after some slipping and sliding on the muddy trail uphill, and I immediately recognized a boy standing there watching these gringos drive up to their home. I asked him name, and he told me it was Alexander. I distinctly remembered him from a picture I have from my trip three years ago. The picture was of me chasing him around his school, much smaller, smiling ear-to-ear. He is the boy on the right. It was surreal to see him again, all grown up. I snapped a quick picture with him, and just kinda chuckled to myself. This world is crazy.

All in all I spent a week up in El Porvenir, sleeping in a hammock on the community center porch overlooking Nicaraguas valleys and volcanos, and waking up to the sunrise early in the morning(sometimes, haha). It was great to see people collecting water from the tanks at the top of the mountain, even though I was there during the rainy season and the pump was not being used. The galvanized steel pipe that entered the tank made the project very real. I was not involved in the installation of the pipeline, as that occurred well after the pump house construction which I worked on, so it was extremely satisfying seeing the project FINISHED.

I spent the days talking with people about the system, walking every inch of the pipeline, turning on the pumps and see the system work, and interviewing/auditing the water committee. All in all I am proud to say that the system looks to be pretty sustainable, overall. In terms of saving time and money to the community, the system is doing great. Before its installation I calculated that every home was receiving 10 gallons of water, and to provide these 10 gallons per house the cooperative was expending 3 hours of work and $542 Córdoba. Now that the system is installed I have calculated that each house is receiving at least 20 gallons. As a comparison to the previous system, to provide each 10 gallons per house, I calculated that the cooperative is expending about 15 minutes of work and $213 Córdoba. They are saving about 2 hours and 45 minutes of work as well as $329 Cordoba ($15 USD) for each 10 gallons of water they receive, and they have also at least doubled their water availability in the dry season. The system seems to be in good working condition and, in this first year of operation with many quick repairs and fixes, the cooperative handled all hurdles that came their way.

All in all, I feel extremely lucky to have been given the chance to go back and see, talk to, and get to know the people of El Porvenir. And I have to say, it was great to see how satisfied the whole community was with the project, and proud they were to finally have a constant water source year round.

I even had a chance to chow down on some forest iguana-doesn’t look as cute all skinned does it?

Bluefields - The Reggae Coast

It has been a while since I added an update- and a lot has happened!

First, I spent a month on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua learning from a small NGO called Blue Energy. Blue Energy works to provide basic services to remote villages on the east coast of Nicaragua. They maintain offices in Bluefields-Nicaragua, San Francisco-California, and Paris-France. The Bluefields office is where all of the action happens. For the past 6 years Blue Energy has been working to provide basic services, focusing on electricity, to the small remote villages along the coast. It has not been easy. First of all, transportation to these communities is only possibly by boat. Some of them have a rudimentary public “panga” transportation system comprised of small motorboats, but some of them have no public transport whatsoever. No roads exist, and locals only come and go with their personal motorboats (if they are wealthy enough) or by hitching rides with fisherman as they come and go. This makes project planning, coordination, community interaction, and continual project oversight very difficult.

Blue Energy has been struggling to deal with these problems, on top of the inherent difficulty of engineering design and technology transfer. They have implemented mostly hybrid wind-solar electricity systems within the communities they work with. The wind turbines are manufactured in Bluefields by Blue Energy volunteers (mostly international) and employees (mostly local Nicaraguans) in a workshop donated for Blue Energy use by the local technical college, INATEC.The design is based on a low-cost wind turbine developed by Hugh Pigott of coil stators, hand-cut steel rotors mounted with high-power magnets, hand-carved wooden turbine blades, the supporting steel framework, and galvanized steel support towers are all manufactured in house from readily available materials found in hardware stores. Over the years, design and fabrication improvements have made the process more streamlined, although much is still done completely by hand with the “measure twice, cut once” mentality.

In communities they have worked with the wind turbines are paired with a small solar array. Together, the two provide power to a bank of batteries, used to power a local community center or small health clinic. The idea is very powerful, and very attractive. But many problems have caused setbacks to this idealistic bunch of young employees and volunteers. First of all, the problem was defined as an engineering one from the get-go: how to provide electricity with wind and sun in the difficult conditions of the Caribbean coast. Blue Energy has realized that possibly the most important piece of the puzzle is community integration and understanding, as poorly maintained batteries, increasing maintenance costs, and less than ideal wind conditions have caused them to reconsider the use of wind turbines in every community. Two local women and a small team of volunteers head up the “Community” team and have tried to maintain better relations with the local energy committees, helped them organize and raise funds, and tried to help the technical team guide their designs in a more appropriate direction. Although the community team has obviously made huge strides, the results are mixed. The decision has been made to remove the turbines from various communities, leaving the solar array as their source of electricity. Also, lack of communication with the local government has led to the arrival of mini-grids of electricity in communities with BE energy systems, making them all-but obsolete. On the short team, the Renewable Energy system is more economical than the grid as no fees are needed to provide electricity, but on the long term the sky-high prices of deep-cycle batteries will ultimately render the systems cost-prohibitive, that is, unless the community organizes a fairly hefty battery-replacement savings account. Many problems are left to be solved.

.Blue Energy is also attempting to branch into areas of other basic services such as potable water and economic development. They have developed their own bio-sand water filter construction system and have placed more than 20 filters in communities, some purchased and some donated. Still, lack of sufficient funding seems to be hamstringing their operations. They are coming to the end of a large grant that has covered most funding over the past year or so and are waiting for hopeful approval of more, larger grants. Sadly, the grant approval process seems to have no definite time schedule and in the mean time people are waiting…

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to visit some communities with Blue Energy systems, help with some wind turbine tweaking, climb up a turbine tower and help lower it for maintenance, as well as observe BE volunteers in action fixing damaged systems, installing new batteries, and training locals in system maintenance. Blue Energy is up against it, but one can only hope that with every day they will learn more and develop a model for rural development that will benefit their communities in a environmentally, economically, and most importantly socially sustainable manner.