HEAF Water and Sanitation Class Series Continues!

The Human Impacts Institute (HII) is pursuing its introduction on water and sanitation issues to youth leaders from the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF). More than 20 HEAF students were selected to take part in a unique hands-on experience: building a dry composting latrines for a rural communities in the Dominican Republic. As the date of their departure for the island draws closer, students are becoming more and more knowledgeable every week, exploring, with HII, the multiple challenges of water and sanitation issues. The weekly classes are lead by Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director for the Human Impacts Institute.

Two classes were dedicated to dirty and clean water; how it gets that way and how we can filter it. Students explored a number of questions such as: How do we know if water is “clean”? What classifies water as “clean” or “dirty”? Where is it safe to use water of varying quality? How does water become “dirty”? Based on various water samples (bottled water, toilet water, tap water and East River water) and images from all over the world, students learned to compare and identify clean and dirty water. In small groups, they investigated some potential causes of water pollution at home, at schools, farms, factories, and outdoor activities. Each group listed various sources of water pollution such as cleaning products, cooking waste, gardening, chemicals, industrial production, human and animal waste, air pollution, drilling, bad plumbing, etc. They discussed practical ways of preventing water pollution including reducing chemical usage, better quality equipment and plumbing, adequate maintenance systems, proper waste disposal, education, and water treatment options.

Then, students had the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice and learned how to actually filter and test water. In small groups, students built their own water filters using various materials such as gravels, pebbles, sand, cotton, wool, charcoal and coffee filters. Each group researched different elements and water characteristics that help determine the cleanliness of water: Dissolved oxygen, nitrate, pH, phosphate, and salinity. They explored the origins and impacts of each of them to understand how they actually impact water health and the environmental health. They tested the water samples using the water monitoring kit (LaMotte Green Low-Cost Estuary and Marine Monitoring Kit). Students found that if these elements are generally found in water and essential to life, their level of danger varies depending on their quantity in water. The homemade filters were very successful for filtering nitrate while they had limited success in filtering phosphate and dissolved oxygen.

The following class focused on water and sanitation issues in Central America and the Caribbean region. The class was lead by Alberto Pascual, Founder and Director of theFundacion CoMunidad. The Fundacion CoMunidad is a non-governmental, non-profit organization that was founded in 2007 in Panama City, Panama. It promotes a collective vision of cooperation, which was conceived as an approach to manage the sustainable development with a cross and interdisciplinary approach.
 Students learned that that region has 35% of the world fresh water reserves, for 9% of the world population, representing the highest rate of fresh water resource per capita. However, the region suffers from dire water stress, coupled with a lack of distribution infrastructures, access inequality, inadequate investments, weak governance and pollution, that highly impacts water availability and quality in the region. The Caribbean is the most vulnerable area of the region, recording higher water stress, and a large number of extreme climate events such as hurricanes. Alberto Pascual shared his experience and knowledge on specific water and sanitation issues in Panama such as growing population and cities, lack of adapted infrastructures and inadequate planning, lack of education, and health problems. The class particularly enjoyed Alberto’s stories and enthusiasm. At the end of the class, students shared their expectations and fears about travelling to the Dominican Republic, and working for a foreign community in a very different cultural and social environment.

In the latest class, lead by Tara DePorte, students learned about composting and sanitation systems. The class was very surprised to hear that in the US the toilet alone can use 27 percent of household water. But globally, 2.6 billion people around lack any sanitation, and more than 200 million tons of human waste goes untreated every year. Tara DePorte explained how composting latrines work, and introduced them with the various existing systems. Beyond offering sustainable-smart systems, composting latrines help fight poverty and provide a number of social benefits. More than “a place to go to”, sanitary latrines help keep drinking water safe by preventing groundwater contamination, preventing cholera and other deadly threats, thus supporting women and girls enrollment to work and school, producing free fertilizer for better harvest, and providing farmers with financial surplus. They even came up with designing ideas for composting latrines and what structures and materials should be used. They also discussed how context and culture need to be taken in consideration thinking of ways to adapt the latrine to the specific community. Students were so excited (and intimidated) to talk about such an unusual topic, that the hour-class seemed much too short.

The HII Crew was very impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and creativity, and feel that the young leaders will be able to make the best of their experience in the Dominican Republic. The team is impatient to share more with the students and guide them on the road to this amazing human experience!

There are more classes to come, so hang on for the next post!

By Agathe Laure, Environmental Services, Human Impacts Institute

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