Clean water solutions for disaster zones

In January 2016, UNSW Chemical Engineer Associate Professor Pierre Le-Clech embarked on a 10-day mission to earthquake-devastated Nepal to undertake a research project in collaboration with Skyjuice Foundation.

Professor Le-Clech has the first taste of the filtered water. Photo by Letty Noblet.The Gorkha earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015 measured a massive 7.6 on the Richter Scale and tragically killed over 8,000 people. Having already collaborated with Skyjuice for a number of years, Le-Clech knew there were Skyjuice water filtration units on the ground in the affected area; so, drawing on funds from UNSW’s Natural Disaster Recovery Initiative, he initiated a project to assess their resilience.

“Generally speaking, once units have been installed, it’s difficult to monitor their performance. This project was an opportunity to not only find out how they had fared in the earthquake, but work out how best to ensure a more reliable, robust system lasting for longer,” says Le-Clech.

Skyjuice is a not-for-profit organisation which specialises in supplying low-cost clean water solutions to developing countries and disaster zones. Its units are designed to be easy to use. The recommended maintenance schedule is to shake the unit daily (to clear any accumulated dirt from the membrane), and clean it with commercial bleach every once in a while.

“They use an ultrafiltration membrane that works using gravity, so the feed tank just needs to be slightly higher than the membrane for the dirty water to be pushed through the fibres and clean water to be filtered as a result,” explains Le-Clech.

He visited two established units and interviewed local users about their operation. The first looked brand new and the operator was obviously very proud of the unit. The other still worked, but had a layer of sludge at the bottom so was clearly under-optimised.

In a country where there is no drinkable running water, and electricity only available five hours a day; it’s incredible to see that everyone is watching YouTube on their mobile phones! It was clear that smartphones were the tool we could use to reach out!

Associate Professor Pierre Le-Clech, UNSW School of Chemical Engineering

“Our first discovery was the units had survived very well during the earthquake and can obviously be used as an immediate response to a natural disaster, which is a great outcome. The second discovery was in order to get the best out of the device, operators need to be able to access simple maintenance information much more easily. A paper manual (which is the traditional means of imparting information) is easily lost or destroyed.

“My findings about how to achieve this were quite amazing. In a country where there is no drinkable running water, and electricity only available five hours a day; it was incredible to see that everyone is watching YouTube on their mobile phones! It was clear that smartphones were the tool we could use to reach out!”

Le-Clech says one of the obvious next steps for the project will be to design an app. “With an app, anyone can learn about the unit in a simple way anytime! We can design an algorithm that can give the most appropriate maintenance recommendations on a daily or weekly basis.”

Travelling to Nepal with his wife and seeing humanitarian engineering in action affected Le-Clech on an intensely personal level. “I’ve been talking about the resilience of the water unit, but it was the resilience of the people that I found really moving. They see the struggle in life, but find more joy in the simple things. The opportunity to have such direct contact makes my work more lively, more fluid and much more interesting.”

The project was funded by UNSW’s Natural Disaster Recovery Initiative (NDRI). This initiative provides seed funding of up to $5,000 to encourage staff to use their knowledge and skills to help with the rebuilding and long-term recovery of communities affected by natural disaster. As part of this project, two Skyjuice water purification systems were donated by UNSW. These were installed by Pierre Le-Clech in a local Nepalese village of 91 families.