Tackling the World’s Largest Water Challenges: Spotlight on AguaClara LLC

In 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) listed the following statistics to describe the world’s water crisis:

  • Globally, at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with faeces,
  • 663 million people rely on unimproved sources, including 159 million dependent on surface water,
  • In low- and middle-income countries, 38% of health care facilities lack improved water source, and
  • By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

The list goes on. Water, our most necessary resource for life, should not be taken for granted. More than 40 percent of people worldwide are still affected by water scarcity according to the UNDP.

Around the world, various organizations are working hard to combat issues of water quality and water access in order to provide clean drinking water for all. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a handful of social entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries of research and innovation in the water space. Learn more with SF+Acumen about these social entrepreneurs’ journeys and hear how they’re tackling these critical global water issues!

The completed treatment plant in the village of Gufu in Jharkhand, India

Spotlight on AguaClara LLC

Maysoon Sharif first got involved with AguaClara, a sustainable water supply course, as a student at Cornell University in 2009. At that time, AguaClara was not a social enterprise, but a university course that encouraged students to “throw out what the textbooks were saying” as Maysoon described it. Instead, students focused on the unique local challenges of developing communities around the world to develop sustainable water treatment technologies around the limitations summarized by the WHO. As Maysoon put it, “it wasn’t just a simple solution”.

Ultimately, she went on to become one of the founding members of AguaClara LLC, a social enterprise and certified B-Corp focused on scaling up the work. Echoing the university’s strategy, she used the for-profit business model to ensure the sustainability and seamless implementation of AguaClara’s water treatment solutions abroad.

A step by step breakdown of AguaClara LLC’s gravity powered water treatment design.

The Technology

AguaClara LLC’s innovative designs provide sustainable, low cost water treatment facilities in water stressed regions for municipalities and communities with both low and high turbidity water. While typical, “textbook” water treatment facilities require pumps, mixers, and generators to run the various treatment processes, AguaClara LLC instead utilizes a gravity powered system and no electricity! Water travels through the facilities and follow typical water treatment processes starting from sediment removal, coagulation and flocculation (where solid materials combine), sedimentation (settling of the solid materials), and filtration (removal of remaining particles), and finally disinfection. All of this is driven by gravity. Compared to household level systems, their municipal scale treatment plants reduce contamination pathways and the number of operators needed and ultimately impact hundreds to thousands of residents at a time across multiple villages. The overall design allows for a lower cost system that is also easy to understand and maintain as opposed to traditionally complex and energy intensive treatment plants.

AguaClara aims to ensure the sustainability of its systems by using location specific designs, local labor, local materials, and local community members to maintain and operate the plants. The simple designs make training local maintenance and operations staff more straightforward and possible over a 3–6 month period. As a result, local communities develop ownership of their systems, are able to master new skills, and can reap the benefits of a future of clean drinking water.

And Maysoon is not stopping there! She and her team strive to continuously research and develop the best technologies and approaches to purify groundwater, wastewater, and heavy metal contaminated waters. While AguaClara LLC focuses its efforts in India today, they plan to expand throughout South Asia and into Latin America in the future. The designs are all open source under the Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 license, and partners in the WASH sector (water, sanitation, and hygiene) are encouraged to reach out to learn more and get involved! Learn more about their water treatment technology and projects here: http://www.aguaclarallc.com/.

Community members in the village of Gufu in Jharkhand, India planning and beginning construction on their AguaClara water treatment plant.
Community members in Ranchi in Jharkhand, India completing the filter fabrication for their AguaClara water treatment plant.

Final Thoughts

While speaking with Maysoon, I found that AguaClara LLC was unique from its inception. With its strong research and development hub and the support of its parent university, it has flourished from a wealth of innovative and dedicated students, faculty, and Fulbright fellows.

I asked May what keeps her motivated during these busy times and here’s what she had to share:

  1. Have patience — It’s easy to go into [social enterprises] idealistically. There are many institutional barriers and skewed incentives. Have the patience and strength to fight back.
  2. Practice discipline — Find your habits, motivate yourself, find your rituals to keep going when something bad has happened. Continuously and actively practice discipline and improving oneself.
  3. Don’t burn out — Commit to doing something. Keep time for yourself.

So what does this budding social entrepreneur do in her free time? Everything from choreographing friends’ weddings, drawing, and journaling. Great tips, thanks Maysoon!