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Summer 2012 Blog - Casey Finnerty

Casey Finnerty is spending ten weeks with blueEnergy in Nicaragua.

August 3, 2012

casey_water_qualityTesting water quality

When I originally set out on this blog, I aimed to write weekly. My mom keeps telling me to write everything down, but after five weeks and only two entries, I think a different approach may be more effective! So, this entry will be about the four weeks I got to spend with the water team and our adventures in Bluefields, Kahkabila, and Monkey Point. To bring everyone up to speed, about six months ago, blueEnergy embarked on a project that would install 96 filters (50 in Bluefields, 20 in Kahkabila, and 16 in Monkey Point). Two weeks after the installation, blueEnergy’s water team conducted surveys and took water samples to begin evaluating the implementation of the project. To conclude this analysis, a second round of surveys must be given and water samples must be taken. Beyond trying to provide cleaner water to the people in these communities, this project aims to determine an effective implementation model for future water filter installation projects.

The first half of this process was spent surveying the families in Bluefields. I enjoyed this not just because it was an opportunity to explore the city I live in more thoroughly, but it was an opportunity to do so on a motorcycle. How transportation works in Bluefields is that everyone either gets around by cab or motorcycle. It just so happens that my boss has one such motorcycle and I got to ride on the back as we traveled about. Just as exciting was the survey process. Typically, we would split up into two teams. As one would conduct an interview with the family, the other would test the water quality from their water-source, their filter, and their storage container. With the information from the interviews, we could assess the use of the filter and provide suggestions on how to further improve their sanitary practices. With the information from the water samples, we could inform them about the efficiency of their filter as well as warn against any recontamination that may be occurring.

casey_interviewInterviewing a resident of Monkey Point regarding the water filters

For the second half of the project, our adventures took us outside of Bluefields, to the surrounding communities of Kahkabila and Monkey Point. For the most part, families were happy to use the filters. The process of using the filters didn’t disrupt their normal routine of getting water and the families understood the importance of having clean water. During the study of these two communities, it became clear how imperative it is for the beneficiaries to receive proper training. Implementation in Kahkabila appeared to be more effective (with about 90% of families using their filters) than Monkey Point (with only about 50% of families using their filters). Although there are many reasons for why this may be, a possible factor is the difference in their training. A common complaint in Monkey Point was that their filters weren’t working. One point that might not have been stressed in the training for Monkey Point is that the filter takes a few weeks to operate at its optimal efficiency. Especially during the first few filtrations, the filtered water comes out turbid because of some of the sand in the filter still needs to settle. If not forewarned, it is easy to conclude that the filters aren’t functioning properly upon seeing this turbidity. This is just one example of how training can affect the implementation of the water filters. All in all, however, the families were pleased, even proud, of their filters and the positive impact they have had.

casey_scubaMy first experience SCUBA diving

Although these four weeks have been hectic, I managed to squeeze in a trip to the Corn Islands. Although a little vacation from work, I didn’t find myself relaxing very much. If we weren’t trying to hitch rides on midnight cargo ships or setting up hammocks wherever we could, we were out exploring in the water. In just one weekend, I burnt my foot running barefoot on asphalt, snorkeled out to a sunken pirate ship, saw a shark, found out why they call it fire coral (on account of the burning afterwards), tried to pick up some Corn Island dance moves, and went

July 21, 2012

It’s funny that — even in the summer and 2,000 miles from home — I find ways to procrastinate. After completing the water filter project, I had three weeks remaining to design, build, and analyze a double-vaulted, composting dry latrine.

The latrine project on which I was working on described was a solar latrine. The decision to switch latrine designs was influenced by geography of the construction site. Tall coconut trees surrounded the construction site and would block sunlight to the storage compartments. The shade of these trees would hinder disinfection by solar heating and thus the design was changed to better suit the local environment in which it would be implemented.

 casey_balancingBalancing at work

The dry latrine differs from the solar latrine because it relies on dryness and storage time to disinfect the feces and convert it into compost. To accommodate these changes, the storage chambers had to be much larger, nearly a cubic meter each. Also since the design no longer requires a metal door to absorb and trap heat, the chamber shape could be simplified, allowing for features such as a urinal and an in-door sanitation station. Apart from these changes, many of the aspects remained the same; such as urine separation and ventilation.

 casey_finishedFinished product

Designing the latrine and gathering basic materials to begin the construction process took about a week. With two weeks to go, I was starting to get nervous. Having no construction experience, I was ready to trial and error this latrine to completion. Luckily, I didn’t have to tackle this thing on my own. I had a lot of help from the blueEnergy staff and the beneficiary family. We began construction late in the second week, which gave us just over one week to complete the latrine. The construction process was slow; we were always lacking some material or didn’t have some tool (I can’t count how many last-minute trips I had to make to the hardware store). The threat of rain always loomed over us and sometimes we’d have to halt construction as a thunderstorm rolled through. As each day passed, I had to re-convince myself that we could finish on time. With a lot of support and even more luck with the weather, we were able to finish construction on my last day in Bluefields.

Getting on the plane the next day was a bittersweet experience. As excited as I was for air-conditioning and flushing toilets, I will miss all the quirks that had made Bluefields my home for the past two months. My experience in Nicaragua is one that I wouldn’t trade for the world and I can’t wait to go back!


June 10, 2012

Latrines: I forgot to knock on wood after last week’s “Dengue” comment and, of course, I got sick. Although I’m still brushing off some of the lingering symptoms, I feel that the end of this sickness marks the beginning of many new experiences here in Nicaraguan. As promised this entry is going to be all about latrines, so I hope you’re ready!

casey_latrineDiseño de la Letrina Solar

Some brief background; latrines are basically any facility that houses a toilet. They come in many shapes and forms: from holes in the ground to urine-separating, solar latrines. When designing a latrine, one should consider many factors, such as the climate, the people, the culture, etc. As a result there is no latrine design that is categorically recommended. So to get acquainted with this project I began by studying all sorts of latrines designs in a variety of contexts. One of my favorite designs entailed a portable shelter unit that would surround a hole for privacy. Once the hole filled up, one would simply plant a tree there and move the shelter to another hole. This marvelous design was adequately named the “Arboloo.” Having my doubts that the Arboloo would take off in Bluefields (as it would still introduce contamination to the groundwater supply), I focused most of my attention on studying blueEnergy’s pilot solar latrine project.

The idea behind this solar latrine is to harness the heat and light of the sun to raise the storage temperature of waste, which is kept in a chamber beneath the latrine. These elevated temperatures should reduce the required time to dry and disinfect the waste. Once the waste has been sufficiently dried and disinfected it may be removed and used as compost. To better understand the design, I had the opportunity to visit the latrine and, whether you like it or not, you’re getting some visuals.

The solar latrine uses a large, black, metallic cover to absorb and trap heat within the storage chamber (Hence, “solar” in its name). Waste material is positioned to be just under the cover to maximize the disinfection rate (which is accelerated by elevated temperatures). Among many other features, the latrine also incorporates a urine separation mechanism, ventilation tube, and the addition of drying agents to assist in the drying process of the waste material. Much of my latrine design has been based on what worked and what didn’t work from this initial pilot test.

casey_helpGetting help from a local resident of the area

As I discussed earlier, it’s important to consider many factors when designing a latrine. I aimed to create something that would be simple to construct and use, effective in disinfecting and drying waste material, and would be willingly used and maintained by the beneficiaries. The design has gone through many versions (and probably will go through many more), but the basic idea is to have two large and insulated chambers to more effectively trap heat and allow for greater storage time. The same black metallic cover would be used to assist in the accumulation of heat and similar drying techniques as set forth above in the solar latrine description have also been incorporated into the design. The two vaults allow undisturbed storage time in one chamber while the other chamber is in use. This design provides effective waste treatment with minimal required upkeep. If you’re having trouble visualizing all of this, you can check out some of the photos that accompany this entry to see how it all pieces together.

Even though we have this design, the true challenge will be adapting these features to best fit the needs of the beneficiary. If you’re anxiously waiting to hear about the construction process, you’re going to have to wait a little bit longer. For the next four weeks my main focus is going to shift back to the water and sanitation project. We will be beginning our secondary follow-up visits, so my days for the next couple of weeks will consist of conducting surveys and testing water samples for contamination. But you’ll hear plenty about all of these adventures in the next entry.

casey_monkeysSeeing monkeys is just a part of a normal day

Outside of work, the wet season has officially begun. I’ve never seen weather change so rapidly! It can be sunny and hot one minute and then pouring rain (lightning and thunder included) the next. Trying to dress appropriately for the day’s weather is a futile pursuit. It’s safer to just carry a rain jacket wherever you go, in case you get caught in the middle of a downpour. I also managed to survive the Bluefields’s fertility festivals, which include the consumption of the world’s largest Rondom, May Pole, and Tululu. Rondom is a ridiculously thick soup that usually consists of platano, banano, and some sort of meat (usually seafood). I don’t think I’ve ever been so full. May Pole and Tululu are both citywide celebrations that consist of crazy parades and wild dancing. If you ever make your way to Nicaragua during the month of May, I highly suggest swinging by Bluefields because they are quite the experiences and my descriptions are definitely not doing them justice. However, if you do manage to make it out to Bluefields for these celebrations, I wish you good luck in getting the “Tululu” song out of your head. I still find myself humming it!


June 3, 2012

casey_waterfilters“Los Filtros” – blueEnergy’s waterfilters in Nicaragua

I just finished my 3rd year in chemical engineering, and I’m off to Bluefields, Nicaragua to work in water and sanitation for blueEnergy. Here’s a brief rundown of blueEnergy; it is a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing fundamental services to communities along the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.

I was initially drawn to blueEnergy by my interest in water treatment. I find it fascinating how approaches to water treatment vary from region to region based on resources, cultural acceptance, and politics. My task here at blueEnergy will be to help the Water Team develop an implementation model for their water filters as well as design and construct a latrine that effectively prevents groundwater contamination. Because I get the privilege to experience water treatment on the following two levels, I’m excited to begin working on both of these projects: (1) purification of water for use in the home, and (2) prevention of initial contamination in the groundwater supply.

blueEnergy’s approach to implementation is based on “participatory methodologies to understand the needs, desires, and capabilities of the beneficiary communities.” An excellent example of this approach is their current water filtration project. Roughly 75% of the population along the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua does not have adequate access to clean water. In response, blueEnergy has undertaken many projects to promote healthy living practices and make clean water more accessible. To help ensure the sustainability of this project, blueEnergy has the beneficiaries attend workshops on the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene. blueEnergy also helps community members construct their own filters and perform follow-up visits to all participating families.

casey_bluefieldsThe town of Bluefields

So where do I fit into all of this? This water project is nearing its completion: blueEnergy has already held their workshop on water, sanitation, and hygiene. They’ve helped construct and install 86 BioSand filters (50 in Bluefields, 20 in Kahkabila, and 16 in Monkey Point) and completed their preliminary follow-up. However, the project also requires a secondary follow-up visit and final analysis to determine an effective implementation model.

A good question to always ask when conducting a study, is why is there a problem in the first place? Along the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, the primary disposal method of human waste is through the use of pit latrines. This is not uncommon to find across the world, especially in communities that don’t have a centralized sewer system. However in Nicaragua, where the water table is high from the massive amounts of rainfall the country receives annually, these pit latrines have been known for contaminating the groundwater supply. This presents an enormous health threat to the people in these communities because their primary source of water is from ground wells that deliver water from the potentially contaminated ground water supply.

I know you’re all on the edge of your seats and dying to learn more about latrines, but this will be something I get into next week! The truth is that I’m still researching the topic and hopefully I’ll have more for you in the next entry.

casey_soccerPlaying soccer barefoot

In other news I got to play soccer barefoot, plant some coconuts, and have more bug bites than I can count. I should be using more mosquito repellent, but it made my lips numb when I applied it to my face, so I’ve decided to rely on my malaria pills to keep me healthy. Unless, I contract Dengue, see you next time!

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