Week 5: Adios

My last week in Bluefields with blueEnergy seemed to fly by very quickly. The final week of my mission was guided by analysis of the data we had collected up until that point. Over three weeks, we were able to physically monitor and conduct questionnaires on 184 filters (out of approximately 900) across the Bluefields neighborhoods of Central, Fatima, Pointeen, Punta Fria, San Pedro, and Santa Rosa. This number probably would have been higher but there were many people who were not home, who no longer used their filters, and who simply did not have them any longer.  All of the information was compiled into a database including filter identification information, recipient name, contact information location, GPS coordinates, neighborhood, answers to the questionnaire, overall hygiene, number of parameters met, a link to a photograph of the individual or family, our observations, and notes regarding any attention that may be needed.

This is the questionnaire that was used for monitoring
This is the questionnaire that was used for monitoring

We interpreted the data to reveal the number of working filters meeting CAWST parameters (1-8).

CAWST’s eight parameters:

  1. No leaks
  2. Standing water depth 4-6cm
  3. Diffuser in good condition
  4. Top of sand is level
  5. Filter is used once a day (at least)
  6. Filter used for at least one month since install
  7. Water poured into filter is clear
  8. Flow rate ≦ 400 mL per minute
Flow rate test
Flow rate test

The most frequent number of parameters achieved was 6 with 42.2% of the filters having 6 parameters.  The second most frequent parameter achieved was 5 with 31.4% of filters scoring a 5. Parameter 7 was third most common with 14.7% of filters meeting this.  Whilst monitoring the filters we were able to obtain GPS locations for each household.  The GPS location was used to populate a map of filter beneficiaries in Bluefields.  Additionally, the GPS locations will better assist in locating filters for future maintenance or monitoring.

E. coli test results show that the filter is getting the job done! Filtered water container (left): Negative Direct filtered water (middle): Negative Source water (right): Positive
E. coli test results show that the filter is getting the job done!
Filtered water container (left): Negative
Direct filtered water (middle): Negative
Source water (right): Positive

E. coli Testing & Trust Building

The original plan of action was to perform E. coli tests on 10% of the filters that met each of the eight parameters.  It is also a major cause of stomach illnesses in the city of Blufields (during my last week I found this out the hard way).  Finally, budget constraints limited us to one type of test (which, by the way, cost nearly $1,000 USD per kit).  Due to time constraints and lack of filters meeting all 8 parameters, we chose 3 filters from San Pedro which met 7 parameters.  The tests included the source water, the direct filtered water, and the filtered water container.  Filter 1 had a positive test result for E. coli in source water but both direct filtered water and filtered water container came back negative.  Filter 2 had a positive result for E. coli in source water but both filtered water and filtered water container came back negative.  Filter 3 tested negative for E. coli in source water and filtered water container yet positive for E. coli in direct filtered water.  This led us to believe that the test was compromised.  A future retest is going to be accomplished on filter 3.  The presence of E. coli in the source water and lack of E. coli in direct filtered water and filtered water container reaffirms biosand filter’s ability to remove E. coli.  The test results reaffirmed belief in the integrity of the filters and instilled trust in users as the removal of E. coli is a good indication of the filter’s capability at operating effectively and in removing other pathogens.

Filter Recipients Care about their Filters

Overall, we noticed that the filter users were, predominately, proud of their filters and knowledgeable on the operations and maintenance of them.  Their water filtering and hygiene was also commendable.  Most recipients utilized approved and covered storage containers for their filtered water and used them solely for the purpose they were meant (they did not cross contaminate or compromise the container with unsafe water or other elements).

Very sweet filter recipients: Grandfather and his Granddaughter
Very sweet filter recipients: Grandfather and his Granddaughter

Why?

Collectively, the information and data will allow blueEnergy to do more than just keep track of the individual filters’ locations. The data will also allow the NGO to ensure filters are working correctly, it will identify strengths and limitations with specific filter models, allow technicians to repair, locate, and maintain existing filters, identify user behavior, and provide relevant information & training for future filter users.

The project was not nearly finished but is being continued through the blueEnergy Global Leadership Program until all filters have been monitored and all remediation actions have been taken.

Adios

Flight out of Bluefields
Flight out of Bluefields
A very quick trip to the Masaya market
A very quick trip to the Masaya market

Upon completion of data analysis I was required to give a presentation to the blueEnergy staff on my project, results, and recommendations.  I am actually quite fond of presentations but this one was unique as it was to be delivered entirely in Spanish!  Thanks to my good friends and translators, Fulvia and Roxanne, I was able to complete my presentation in (hopefully) good Spanish language.  Everything went splendidly and the next evening was a nice going away party for the three of us who were departing.  It was really bittersweet saying goodbye to the people and the Bluefields experience but the time to go had finally arrived.  The next morning we flew into Managua and took a very brief trip to the Masaya market (I highly recommend this) where I purchased an obscene amount of beautifully, locally-handcrafted hammocks whilst still maintaining my baggage weight allowances (whoooo hooo)! We also made a trip through Granada (beautiful) and had lunch on an island.  The flight home was relatively easy and I was so happy to see my waiting family once deplaning.

Giving my presentation in Espanol
Giving my presentation in Spanish

A Lasting Experience

Vilma, an awesome blueEnergy employee, and her beautiful family
Vilma, an awesome blueEnergy employee and friend, and her beautiful family

The experience I had with blueEnergy, with the other fellows, and with the people in the country of Nicaragua, specifically the Caribbean Coast, is incomparable and will forever impact me in positive ways which were previously unknown.   The people across the Caribbean Coast were the most inviting and open that I had ever had the pleasure of meeting (trust me on this – I had been to hundreds of houses).  The children were so mature, well-mannered, friendly, and, of course, adorable.  The friendships that were established and the knowledge gained will last a lifetime and, for this, I am thankful.

Week 4: Lighting up the Dark

The finished product
The finished product

You may be well aware of my professional and academic goals in Nicaragua at this point but I have also made a personal goal: to see a sloth.  During my time here I have had the pleasure of engaging in a number of excursions, each of which presented an opportunity to see a sloth in the wild. The only thing is, I could never find one. Whilst at COPRAJ, the director, Randy, had informed me that “sloths are mystical creatures and you do not find the sloth, the sloth finds you.” Wise words, Randy. Clearly he was right. After spending hours upon hours looking to the tall trees of the jungle, I was slothless. One morning we geared up to install a solar panel at a small farm that was about a 1.5 hour panga ride from Bluefields. On the way out, it finally happened! I saw my first sloth. Or did it see me? This was going to be a good day.

Few things are more refreshing than coconut water straight from the source
Few things are more refreshing than coconut water straight from the source
Jungling
Jungling

The farmers were actually the parents of Marling, a lovely woman who works in the blueEnergy kitchen. They had lived on their farm for 50 years and never had electricity… Until now! The day prior we had the opportunity to attend a solar PV installation workshop wherein we learned all about the strengths and weaknesses of solar power along with positioning for optimum efficiency, maintenance, and care. I was so excited as I am concentrating in water (which has been covered greatly by my mission to monitor biosand filters) and renewable energy (something that, up until this point, I thought I would have only experienced in the texts). No, now I was getting the opportunity for a hands on experience from start to finish. We were also taught about how to wire the system, the battery, and the inverter. Essentially everything from wire stripping to powering on was covered. Following the class, I felt fairly confident in my abilities but was still thankful that a seasoned volunteer and engineer would be accompanying us as we brought power to the farm. The next morning a group of five of us gathered the necessary tools and supplies, including the actual panel. There is not exactly an Amazon or UPS out here where items can get from point A to point B seamlessly and conveniently. No, this was on us and the transport was an adventure in itself to say the least.

Seems harmless until you have to cross it onto a rocking boat with gear
Seems harmless until you have to cross it onto a rocking boat with gear

We arrived at the farm and, after taking a look around, meeting the family, and allowing some time for jungling (a term I developed whilst here which is the act of hiking and exploring the jungle). Time to get to work. The family had already chosen an area that provided ample, direct sunlight and fabricated a post from a tree that would support the panel. The rest was yet to do. I got to assist with measurements, sawing of metal to size, and fastening the panel to the wooden post. Alongside me were the family from the grandfather to the young grandson. Everyone was involved and each person took part – it was great to share the experience with the recipients. Next was the rising of the panel. When it were up, the family (and us) looked on in admiration. We spent the rest of the day stripping and connecting wires, installing lights and switches, and the inverter and control center.

Working on securing the panel
Working on securing the panel
Putting the panel up
Putting the panel up

Somewhere along the lines, a connection was not quite right so we had to postpone completion to the next morning. It was almost dark out and there was no room for us to stay at the farm. Luckily, a friend lived about 30 minutes down the river and offered to host us for the evening. I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous about taking the panga through the jungle waters at night (with just flashlights). It actually turned out to be quite relaxing in truth. The cool night breeze was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the day’s work. The lack of light pollution and clouds also provided for a highly visible night sky and we all looked on at the stars and constellations – beautiful. We arrived at the house and trekked through a slightly swampy area up a hill and began setting up our hammocks. These hammocks had mosquito nets built into them – bonus! I slept amazing and woke round four in the morning to the sound of howler monkeys calling in the jungle and chickens from the farm who had also camped out with us. We got ready, enjoyed some coffee (yes!) and set back to the finish the job we had started. The work that remained was simple so another fellow and I decided to get in some jungling before it was time to go. After about an hour of roaming, we decided to head back but came across the grandfather. He ended up taking us on a two-hour tour of his property, explaining his farming techniques, crops, and wood and produce sales. He was extremely knowledgeable of the flora and fauna and we were grateful for the tour. When we got back to the house the lights were on! The panel was going to increase the safety of the family (no candles and lighted areas outside to assist with getting to the restroom) and save them some money on batteries (they had previously relied on flashlights at night). We gathered round for a photo, said our goodbyes, and got back in the panga for yet another journey.

On the way back to the Bluefields, two more sloths found me.

Week 3: Monitoring Biosand Filters in Bluefields

¿Tiene un filtro de blueEnergy?

A monkey who lives in a dog house who also happens to enjoy gelatin. A squirrel living on a window sill. Countless numbers of chickens – so many chickens (and baby chicks). Horses, goats, parrots, turkeys and lazy (and sometimes scary) dogs abound and even, sometimes, cats. These are just some of the animals I have seen whilst monitoring the blueEnergy implemented biosand filters of Bluefields, Nicaragua.

Why not?
Why not?

Approximately 900 filters were installed as part of blueEnergy’s WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) program across the various barrios (neighborhoods) in Bluefields. The biosand filter is an adaptation of the traditional slow sand filter which uses sand and gravel of precise, yet various sizes to, naturally, filter water. A biolayer forms within the sand and is, essentially, comprised of good bacteria that eat the bad bacteria which comes from contaminated wells and other sources of water. It is of utmost importance to maintain the integrity of this biolayer. The objective of my project here is to observe and test the filters’ performance against the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation’s (CAWST) eight parameters. We do this to ensure they are working correctly and to identify filters that are in need of attention.

Filter Monitoring Team: Me with my translator Fulvia (left) and Bidisha (right) with her translator Roxy (front)
Filter Monitoring Team: Me with my translator Fulvia (left) and Bidisha (right) with her translator Roxy (front)

The eight parameters are as follows:

  1. No leaks
  2. Standing water depth 4-6cm
  3. Diffuser in good condition
  4. Top of sand is level
  5. Filter is used once a day (at least)
  6. Filter used for at least one month since install
  7. Water poured into filter is clear
  8. Flow rate ≦ 400 mL per minute

We observe the filters outside and in to gather information before measuring the interior water depth above the sand and the time it takes to filter 400 mL of water. The filter users and their family are good sources of information and provide answers to questions about usage and filter hygiene. Did I mention that houses are extremely hard to find here? Well, they are. Addresses are not your typical number, street name, city, state, and zip code. Here they are based upon land marks, other people’s homes, or just a family name. Luckily, my partner is a local Creole woman (who also speaks fluent Spanish). She knows the layout of the city, many of the people, and is also really good and fun company.

A sampling of paths taken
A sampling of paths taken

Even with a knowledgeable local on my side, it is still quite difficult. Sometimes we know exactly where a house is but must take a perilous journey to get there. Large, steep and narrow hills flanked by barbed wire and rusted out zinc have led us to many a house during our first week. Other homes were accessible only through great bravery such as by crossing a plank that lay atop the ground and river. Some are not so hard, geographically, to find or physically to get to but the occupants’ or neighbors’ dogs make it as such. Let me just remind you that the humidity levels are well into the 90’s most days and that we are painfully close to the equator. In other words, it is muy caliente – very hot! What stands out more than the forbidding terrain and dogs on my expeditions are the people who live in the houses we are searching for and their neighbors. Never in my life have I met a more accommodating group of people as those here in Bluefields. The people always (well, at least 99% of the time) welcome us in with a smile and answer our questions honestly. Their children are the most responsible and respectful that I have had the pleasure of meeting (and super cute too). Everyone seems to know everyone else – a characteristic that had become foreign to me. People are always willing to help and that has greatly benefited my mission.

Monitoring filters
Monitoring filters

So far we have monitored 180 filters and we have noticed that a majority of the recipients are taking good care of their filters and are knowledgeable about operations and maintenance. Regardless, we still get some who are uninformed such as the family who regularly removed their sand from the filter, washed it, and replaced it – not good for the biolayer. When we do come across a family who needs assistance, we provide verbal guidance and, if needed, recommendations for remediation of the filters. A glaringly obvious deficiency in most of the filters comes from their composition, not user error. You see, when the original fleet of filters were produced the sifter that was utilized to create the inner sand and gravel components was not the correct size. This means that the majority of the filters we test have a fast flow rate (400 mL in less than a minute). This is troubling because the water may not be spending enough time in the filtration phase, thus letting in pathogens. A new sifter has been ordered but is coming in from Honduras. Upon receipt of the sifter, it is hopeful that the gravel inside the filter will be changed out for a more effective size.

Biosand filter users: a Grandfather with his Granddaughter. They were so nice and had such a sweet family.
Biosand filter users: a Grandfather with his Granddaughter. They were so nice and had such a sweet family.

All the information is recorded and transferred to a spreadsheet that we created with the most up-to-date information, including a GPS point for each house (you are very welcome future filter monitors). This information is then taken and populated into a map of the area and when a filter point is selected you can view an image of the family, demographics, and information about the filter. I am looking forward to continuing my work and learning more about the Bluefields filters and the families that use them.

Bats in the Baño

So there I was at this house on the edge of the jungle off of the river. It was a 40 minute extremely eventful (10 people in a tiny boat) panga ride from Bluefields. The property was really nice, like an off the grid living dream come true. Anyways, we chopped down some coconuts and drank the water inside. It was delicious but moments later I realized I had to utilize the, um, facilities. The outdoor baño was actually quite nice. It was clean but had two large elevated holes, underneath which you could not see. I had to choose one and went right. During this time I happened to look over into the hole opposite the one I chose and something was emerging… BATS! That is right, bats were emerging from the baño. I remained still as three flew out and around my head before flying upward toward an opening in the ceiling. Luckily I had gotten my rabies vaccines before departing Florida and, to be honest, they were actually cute, the bats. This was just one of the many adventures I had the pleasure of going on during my first week with blueEnergy.

This is how it is done - collecting coconuts
This is how it is done – collecting coconuts
This is THE Baño
  This is THE Baño
COPRAJ view from behind
COPRAJ view from behind

The home we were visiting is actually Centro Ocupacional de Prevención y Reinserción para Adolescentes y Jovenes (COPRAJ). A local couple founded COPRAJ as a multi-faceted solution to at risk youths from Bluefields. In addition to building skills, crafts, music, and family, the youths are taught the valuable skill of permaculture farming. This type of farming is holistic by design, considering the natural interactions of plants and animals and working with them to yield bountiful harvest whilst maintaining the integrity of the land and preventing the monocultures that are too often found with traditional farming and agriculture. Waste is actually not waste at all – it is a resource. We learned this firsthand at another site visit to FUNCOS.

FUNCOS is a larger scale permaculture farm situated just at the edge of Bluefields. We did not have to take a panga to get there but did arrive via the back of a truck with rails (such a fun ride). We were greeted upon arrival and taken around the farm to see the way in which the plants were situated so as one would provide shade to another that required it, for example. The main event at FUNCOS was the composting demonstration. The farm composts all leftover plants and food and, as an added bonus, collects manure from local residents and smaller farms that produce it (no waste indeed). Once the compost becomes ready, the farmers at FUNCOS fill small bags with it and plant baby trees and plants. These plants are either sold to generate funds or are donated to other farms. We set off to work on filling bags with compost and planting small citrus trees following – it was definitely dirty work but we were all proud to lend a hand.

Filling bags with compost to plant saplings.
Filling bags with compost to plant saplings.

Speaking of permaculture farming, blueEnergy has their very own permaculture garden that I was given the option of learning about and actively participating in during my downtime. I am so excited to learn the techniques and should be starting relatively soon.

Permaculture demonstration garden at blueEnergy
Permaculture demonstration garden at blueEnergy

The aforementioned site visits were, predominately, focused on permaculture and organizations that blueEnergy works with but we did take a few trips round the city of Bluefields to see some of other aspects of blueEnergy’s involvement in the city. The first stop was a mechanized well that was integrated into a local school. The well provides the children with safe, potable water and is an extreme asset to the students and staff’s health and hygiene. A nice young gentleman gave us a demonstration as he cranked up the well and got himself a clean drink of water. The mechanized well is important as so many around the city are “hand dug,” which leaves them open (literally) to all sorts of contamination. If the wells are not dug deep enough they can become contaminated with human waste from nearby latrines. If the wells are not protected, hosts of contaminants (to include dead animals) can infiltrate the water along with runoff and pathogens. We were able to see a hand dug well, a completed mechanized well, and a mechanized well in progress wherein we were given the rundown on how the machinery works and necessary depths to which one must drill. Preventing contamination regardless the well type is key in sanitation and hygiene. Dry latrines, such as those developed by blueEnergy, are a way of doing so. The human excreta is confined from contaminating local water sources. We were able to visit the home of a blueEnergy dry latrine recipient and it was quite impressive – clean, lacking odor, and efficient. The family said that they have two containers and can go 18 months before having to replace just one.

You can see the potential for contamination with this well
  You can see the potential for contamination with this well
Latrines over water
Latrines over water

This is just the beginning of the blueEnergy adventures but it is nice knowing that no matter where we go or how tired we are, the amazing ladies in the blueEnergy kitchen always have a delicious creation awaiting us.

They never cease to amaze us
They never cease to amaze us

Week 1: No Roads Lead to Bluefields

I could not believe the day had come so fast – May 24th and it was time to depart for Nicaragua. I flew out of Tampa and after a short layover in Houston was in Managua, Nicaragua by evening. Jean Baptiste, the coordinator of the blueEnergy office in Managua, met me and two others at the airport and took us to the blueEnergy Managua house for the night. Upon arrival we were introduced to the other participants in blueEnergy’s Global Leadership Program (GLP). There were nine of us in total. We stayed the night at the Managua house and woke up at 3:30 am in order to catch a bus which was the beginning of a very wild adventure. Alex, a blueEnergy senior fellow met us in Managua and escorted us to Bluefields. The morning began with a six hour bus ride across the country. It was really interesting to see how the landscaped changed as we traversed it. The city slowly turned in to a more rural and green space that eventually morphed into a hilly, yet somewhat dry setting. At the end of the trip we had arrived at the water. You see, the only way into Bluefields is by water as there, technically, are no roads to get you there. So here we all are boarding a panga (boat) to get us to Bluefields. It was a two hour trip and I swear we had to be going at least 60mph in that panga. It was super windy and water was coming in everywhere. The little boat hopped the waves and we even managed to get through a small rain shower which was accomplished by covering up with a large tarp that would just whip at us as the winds picked up with the speed of the boat. There was jungle on both sides of us and every so often stilt houses would be seen in various colors and styles. Two hours later we had arrived at Bluefields. The first impression I got of Bluefields was of the various colors used throughout the buildings and the diversity in design and construction. We boarded a bus set for the blueEnergy compound and got a further sneak peek of the city. The compound was much bigger and greener than I had expected.   My room was a good size and came equipped with all the necessities: mosquito net, fan, and filtered water. After a quick tour of the facilities I was definitely ready for an early night – which is not difficult as the sun sets around 5:30pm here.

Some colorful boats in Bluefields
Some colorful boats in Bluefields
Bluefields boats
Bluefields boats

A Brief History of Bluefields

The city of Bluefields is the capital of the Southern Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. In 1642, Dutch Pirate Blauveldt founded the city (among a few others in the Caribbean). The current population is estimated to be around 60,000 comprised of six unique ethnic groups. The city, like the country of Nicaragua, has had its share of difficulties through the years. In recent history was the Sandinista revolution and Iran Contra Affair from 1979-1985 followed by hurricane Joan which absolutely decimated the city and most of the country in 1988. Recovery from these events has been difficult for the city of Bluefields.

Monument in Bluefields celebrating the six unique ethnic groups.
Monument in Bluefields celebrating the six unique ethnic groups.

blueEnergy

blueEnergy is an NGO that has maintained a permanent presence in Nicaragua, specifically Bluefields, and works directly with local and national government, other NGOs, major international financial institutions, and a plethora of other agencies. This work is conducted to create a holistic, long-term solution for communities so that they may receive water and sanitation, renewable energy, education on climate change, as well as other necessary amendments that the government or people cannot provide on their own. The blueEnergy model is slightly different than some others you may have seen as their philosophy considers the environment, health, income, and capacity building, allowing recipients to learn about and maintain their own systems at a small price. The power is put back into the hands of the impacted individuals and, as a result, they experience greater health, expanded knowledge, and economic opportunities where none had existed prior. I have had the pleasure of interacting firsthand with the director of blueEnergy, Mathias Craig, throughout the first week of my time here.

Orientation Week

blueEnergy supports a holistic framework from their major operations all the way to their summer fellows (that is me and the group I came in with). The GLP is a portion of the capacity building segment of the underlying philosophy of the organization. We had a great time during the orientation conducting site visits (next posting), doing team building activities (hilarious and fun), and learning a great deal of valuable information and techniques.  The education portion of orientation included topics that would not only help us during our time in Nicaragua but in life as well. The courses we attended were taught, in person, by Mathias Craig. He is an incredibly busy man and the fact that he took the time to personally instruct each of us for an entire week reaffirmed blueEnergy’s authenticity and passion for achieving goals and bettering Nicaragua. The courses included: the history of blueEnergy, the structure and purpose of the GLP (the program I am participating in), global issues, Nicaragua and the coast, management and leadership, personal effectiveness, and even mindfulness – further solidifying my admiration of this NGO.  To continue our education and build our skillsets we are attending Spanish lessons every morning before the workday starts and have the option to participate in exercises, team sports, and many other activities in the evening.  This is just a very brief overview of the organization and does not even begin to touch on the depth of it – I feel so very fortunate to begin my adventure with them.