UNSW Global Water Institute - Pathuma RO Project, Vietnam

Impact Engineers install reverse-osmosis facility in Sri Lanka

Student-led project team, Impact Engineers, embarked on a trip to Sri Lanka last month for the official grand opening ceremony of their clean water initiative, the Pathuma Reverse Osmosis (RO) Project.

The Pathuma RO Project provides clean water for two villages in Sri Lanka, giving communities access to drinking water which is safe for long-term human consumption.

The grand opening ceremony was attended by over 400 villagers—including local water board representatives and village society leaders—as well as Professor Greg Leslie, Acting Director of the UNSW Global Water Institute, and the Impact Engineers team.Prof Greg Leslie cuts the ribbon at the Pathuma RO opening ceremony

After winning last year’s UNSW-GWI Clean Water Hackathon, the Impact Engineers group was inspired to take a formal proposal to the UNSW Student Opportunities team at the Engineering Faculty with ideas about humanitarian projects they wanted to implement in Sri Lanka. One of these projects included providing a safe and reliable clean water supply to communities who were unable to access safe water at a reasonable price, and struggling with high instances of potentially-linked health conditions. Just six months later, they had raised almost $20,000 from sponsors and a crowdfunding campaign.

Before the facility was constructed, the main source of water for the Galwaduwagama and Thodamaduwa villages was a decentralised raw water system. The water the system produces is not thought to be suitable for long-term human consumption—hence the villagers had no option but to spend large portions of their income buying water from private sellers.

Buddhi Ranasignhe, spokesperson for Impact Engineers, said that the villages produce multiple crops including rice, long beans, corn, lime, guava and coconut—and although they have the potential to be an economic paradise, a number of problems prevent this from being a reality.

“Unfortunately, farmers have been ripped off by middlemen purchasing their products at extremely low prices,” says Ranasinghe

“In addition, local schools and services are underfunded and dozens of cases of chronic kidney disease are reported. There is no evidence that the kidney disease is related to a lack of clean water, but there might be a correlation."

The new facility has the capacity to deliver 10,000 litres of clean water per day, caters to the needs of over 600 families, and provides drinking water at 60% cheaper than the price villagers were previously paying.

In order to identify the best location for the facility, Impact Engineers spoke with officials from the National Water Board, consulted local contacts they had in the region and visited the nominated village six months prior to verify the village was united and genuinely enthusiastic about the project.

When we reached the villages (...) we didn't find a desperate bunch of people waiting to be rescued, we found an organised group ready to hit the ground running

Buddhi Ranasignhe, Impact Engineers

“Because of our focus on consultation, when we finally reached the villages in January we didn't find a desperate bunch of people waiting to be rescued, we found an organised group ready to hit the ground running,” says Ranasignhe.

The Pathumo RO project does not just enable clean water supply, it also ensures that there are long-term economic and educational benefits for the villages. A community-based organisation called Dilena Tharu has been established to manage the facility and reinvest profits into local projects and businesses. Moreover, a 12-month education program has been initiated with local partners at the University of Peradeniya and Sathi Pasala Foundation, where STEM subjects, entrepreneurship and business development will help Dilena Tharu to achieve economic prosperity.

With eyes on the future, Impact Engineers plans to develop a low-cost filter next which will provide water in a cheaper and more sustainable manner than the reverse osmosis system. The aim is to introduce this to the village over the next three to five years.

Concurrently, they are also establishing a mobile communication system to connect 86 community-based organisations that are running similar plants in Sri Lanka to the waterboard and to other stakeholders.

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