September 2, 2013
Images taken from the 3D animation Connor created to show the design of the latrine he created.
Here it is folks, my final blog post. I created a 3D animation of the latrine I deigned, which you can see from the images above. An important thing to note is that the entrance to the latrine and the door to the excreta chambers are on different levels. Normally one would need stairs to enter the latrine, however, there is a hill at our proposed location that we can build into with a little earth moving. In addition to eliminating the need for stairs, this also makes the latrine less noticeable by hiding parts of the structure.
An inside view of the latrine that Connor designed.
During my stay in Nicaragua, I visited many previously built latrines to examine how well they worked and to determine if and why they failed. The most important factor, I found, was the users of the latrine. If the family was invested in their latrine and took care of it, it was generally functioning as it was designed to. Unfortunately, the majority of latrines though did not fit this description. The rest of the latrine team and I decided that the best way to prevent latrines from falling into disrepair was to build a “luxury latrine”. Something that the owners would be proud of and maintain. That is why in the design you see there are additional features such as bamboo walls, a garden, and a sink (yes, it’s a luxury). Now you may or may not remember that the city of Bluefields is fairly isolated. In order to find a supplier for bamboo I had to travel three hours by speedboat to the nearest town that was connected to the rest of the country by road. There I visited EcoPlanet Bamboo, a company that grows bamboo and builds with it. In addition to learning about bamboo construction techniques, I was able to see furniture and other arts and crafts that they had built at the workshop.
Connor giving a final presentation on the work he did over the summer.
My last days in Bluefields were spent giving presentations, going on jungle hikes, finalizing documents, and taking Garifuna dance classes. It was a hectic ending, but before I knew it I was flying away in a tiny prop plane to the capitol, Managua where I stayed for a night. This allowed me to visit Masaya, the artisanal center of Central America, where I bought plenty of hand woven $9 hammocks. The next day I arrived in my hometown of San Diego. Apparently my parents did not want me to go through a language shock, so they took me to my favorite taco shop only a couple of miles from the border where everyone orders in Spanish. Although I’m glad to be back home, I’m going to miss everything Bluefields had to offer, from the bucket showers to the domesticated monkeys to the plethora of mangos falling off of the trees. Thanks for taking the time to read, reporting from Berkeley, CA, this is Cornflakes (I think the name is going to stick).
July 23, 2013
Connor reviewing all the quotes to find the best deal for his budget.
Well, my time here at blueEnergy is soon coming to a close and I am beginning to wrap up my work. When I first arrived, blueEnergy’s first extensive latrine study was just getting started. My task was to be in charge of all things technical, so that other team members could work on the business and social aspects of the project. Now I have to ensure that I have properly documented everything I have learned in my research so that the rest of the team can effectively work on the project for the next nine months without me. This transfer of information, I have learned, is one of the most important aspects of engineering.
Out of the ten latrines that this project will eventually build, nine were to be built in September/October and one prototype was to be built at the end of July. I needed to be here for the prototype so that I could oversee the construction and make revisions to the design if necessary. However, the owners of the land we were going to construct on (a halfway house for young men) decided that they were not ready to start building in July due to pre-existing projects that have yet to be completed. As a result, it was decided that all ten latrines will be constructed at once in the fall. Don’t mourn my loss for too long though, I am still getting plenty of experience running the administrative gauntlet here. I have been dashing around town getting quotes on materials, writing budgets, creating project profiles, and presenting my design to higher-ups and other engineers. I have also been informed that just because I’m leaving Nicaragua, it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. Apparently I’ll be on call throughout the year, especially when construction ramps up.
Preliminary sketch of Connor’s latrine design.
Now I know you’ve been anxiously waiting all summer to find out what my design will be and I am here to tell you that all your patience has paid off. The design I am going to be implementing is a modification to a latrine that has been successfully built in the Pacific Islands. One of the greatest challenges in building a composting toilet is managing the water content in the growing pile of excreta. Too high, and bad bacteria start creating bad smells and attracting insects while the good, compost forming bacteria drown. Too low, and the good bacteria doesn’t have enough water to work their poop eating magic. Urine diverting toilets are very popular in latrines because they keep the water content from getting too high (a more serious problem). My dilemma was to design a latrine without urine diversion, which is often misused and not liked, that can keep the liquid content of excreta pile low enough in one of the most humid and rainy environments in the world. My design has multiple ways of accomplishing this, while keeping the latrine low maintenance. As you can see in the diagram, there is a fishnet underneath the toilet seat. This fish net is then covered with a layer of palm fronds. This creates a “false floor” that catches all the excreta and lets excess liquid drip down. The net also allows air to penetrate the pile from all sides, which enhances aeration of the pile. In most models, the users must regularly mix the pile to provide oxygen to the good bacteria. To keep the excreta chamber dry, air enters through a ventilation tube near the bottom and exits through another above the roof. If this is not sufficient, any liquid that builds up will flow into an evapotranspiration bed behind the latrine. This bed is a special type of garden containing gravel, sand, and soil that safely disposes of the liquid. Like most composting toilets, this model has two chambers. This means that you use one chamber until it fills (generally a year), then you move the seat over the other chamber and fill that one up. By the time the second one fills, the first chamber should have transformed all of your excreta into rich, loamy compost that is safe to handle and use.
Canvassing the streets with posters promoting the proper disposal of solid waste.
Here at blueEnergy, there is a lot of cross-team help. For example, there is a team that just launched a solid waste management campaign here in Bluefields. Solid waste is a big problem, which is exacerbated by the lack of public trashcans and trash pick up service. There is one trash truck that drives along the roads, unfortunately most residents of Bluefields do not have street access and are limited to narrow walkways to get to their house. Even the people who are lucky enough to live on the street are afraid to put their trash out. This is because if they leave their trashcans outside, they will get stolen. If they leave their trash bags out unprotected, the dogs will tear them apart. This results in many people burning their trash. The campaign had a huge kickoff event involving other NGOs, the mayor’s office, and USAID. There was also a free concert where shirts, hats, and posters were given out to locals to raise awareness about solid waste.
Tune in next week when I’ll show you a 3D rendering of my latrine design. If you’re lucky, I might even decide to show you my excel spreadsheets.
July 8, 2013
Connor with a monkey in Kahkabila.
Sorry for my extended absence, but I have quite literally been “off the grid” for a while. This is because I went on an excursion out to the jungle communities to do some work for the water filter team. Our adventure started when I, and five other brave souls, boarded a panga (speedboat) that took us from Bluefields Bay, to winding jungle rivers, to Pearl Lagoon. The community that we visited was called Kahkabila and is located right on the lagoon. Kahkabila has a hostel to promote tourism, although it doesn’t seem to get much business. When we arrived it was locked shut and we had to go find the right person to open it. Once it was opened however, it quickly became a hub of activity in the community. About five or six families soon arrived to take care of us since it is a community owned hostel that everyone contributes to. Although it seemed a little strange to have the staff outnumber the guests 4:1, it was a great opportunity to learn more about the indigenous Miskitu culture and language.
Connor interviewing a local resident of Kahkabila about her water filter use. The blue box system is in the background.
The reason we were in Kahkabila was to check on filters that blueEnergy has installed in years past. The filters that blueEnergy works with are called bio-sand filters, which are essentially a blue, concrete, rectangular box about 3 feet high. Inside the pillar are various types of filtering media, which includes large gravel, small gravel, and sand. An important feature of this filter is that it requires an “activation time” before the water from it can be safely consumed. This activation time allows a biological layer to naturally grow in the filter. This naturally occurring bacteria then gobbles up all of the bad bacteria that would otherwise make us sick, while the sand and gravel filter out any particulates. Although this filter is wonderfully simple it does require regular maintenance. If the filter is not used for a period of time, it must be re-activated because all of the good bacteria die off. While we were in Kahkabila, we visited all of the families who had filters to ensure they were being used correctly and re-activate filters if necessary. We also took water samples to ensure that the filters were working. This part was particularly tedious since we have a strict schedule we must adhere to when analyzing the samples out in the field. This sometimes meant waking up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to complete the next step in the lab procedure! Although I traveled to Kahkabila to help the water team, I also was on a secret mission to learn more about latrines. So when I wasn’t filling out water filter questionnaires, I was asking people about their latrines and whether or not I can look inside of them. After looking at me like I was crazy, they would generally oblige.
One of the reasons that I was drafted to help the water team was because I speak English and Spanish, with English being my first language. That may sound like a strange qualification, but in Kahkabila most people speak their native Miskitu language or Creole English, and sometimes Spanish. The head of the water filter team is from France, and although she can speak English, Creole English is unintelligible to her due to its thick accent (Just think Jamaica with a few Spanish words substituted into the sentence). The French people also had difficulty understanding due to words being used differently in Creole. I present to you a typical Creole greeting:
Person 1: “Alright”
Person 2: “Ok”
Person 1: “Cool”
Some of the staff at the Kahkabila hostel.
Although my Creole is good enough for me to get by, I am by no means fluent. For example, when I introduced myself to some local kids who were running around the hostel, they had difficulty pronouncing “Connor”. A seven year old girl named Rose was trying to sound it out, but she was stuck on the first part, “Conn…, Conn…, Conn…”. All of a sudden kids started giggling and saying (in a Creole accent), “Conn! You’re Conn! We gonna eat you Conn!”. For a couple of days I just went along with it and just wrote it off as adorable, little kid antics. However, I soon realized that they weren’t saying “Conn”, they were saying “Corn” with a Creole accent (if you listen closely it sounds like “Kahrn”, with a soft “r”). I soon graduated from “Corn” to “Corn Flakes” and the little kids continued with their cannibalistic jokes about eating me. I also learned that these kids can dish it out, but can’t take it. In a rebuttal to Rose’s threat to eat me, I said, “well in the States we eat all kinds of Rose; boiled roses, fried roses, baked roses, rose stew, rose cake, and rose tea”. This upset her greatly, and she refused to talk to me until I lent her my hammock as a peace offering.
That’s all for now. As my Miskitu friends would say, tinki pala for reading and aisabe!
June 24, 2013
Connor here (a.k.a. súper chele), reporting from Bluefields. For those of you who might not be familiar with Nica slang, chele is the name given to people who have lighter complexions than the general population. It’s an anagram of the Spanish word “leche”, which translates to milk. Hopefully the connection is obvious. If it isn’t, you might want to think twice about keeping that milk you’ve been drinking. If you only think once about that off-colored milk, you might find yourself running towards the nearest latrine.
Chickens guarding a solar latrine built by blueEnergy.
In my quest to make sure that the latrine you are running towards is well designed, I have been poring over the literature to find the right balance of convenience, cost, and technology. I have also been visiting latrines out in the field to learn how effective certain technologies were and whether or not they have been accepted by the beneficiaries. I most recently visited a solar latrine built by blueEnergy a few years back. The family had quite the menagerie of animals, which included chickens, dogs, cats, and lizards. A rooster and his gang of hens guarded the latrine but luckily something shiny distracted them and we were able to more closely examine their booty (that’s treasure in pirate talk). Solar latrines function by having the sun heat up the excreta chamber in order to dry out all the material inside, resulting in a harmless, gray powder. Solar latrines fall under the UDDT (there’s that acronym again!) category to expedite the drying process. UDDT stands for Urine Diverting Dry Toilet, which means that urine is separated from everything else at the source (that means you) into a separate container. The primary purpose of this is to reduce the moisture content in the excreta chamber to allow for a faster drying time. Urine diversion also allows the urine to be directly used as a fertilizer since it is generally sterile.
An example of a Urine Diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT) toilet.
In principle, the solar latrine should work great, however there are some local factors here in Bluefields that rule it out as a viable design. The main reason is that the excreta was not being sufficiently disinfected by the latrine. The latrine worked great in the dry season, but during the rainy season (most of the year) there was not enough sun to heat up the chamber to an adequate temperature. Even when the latrine was working properly, the beneficiaries still had to regularly rake the excreta from the area under “the throne” to the area underneath the black panel where the temperature is the greatest (I’ll stop complaining about plunging the toilet now, Mom). Another flaw that has been present in all the latrines I’ve visited is one that has surprised me the most. Everyone I have talked to has said that the roofs are too small and allow water into the latrine since there is a gap between the roof and the walls to allow for ventilation. I have been here for only one month, but I still know that it rains hard, often, and many times sideways. However, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to make a larger roof to accommodate for the sideways rain and it is clear that it did not occur to the much smarter, more experienced engineers who came before me. It was a humbling moment when I realized that even if I could calculate the duration of time and conditions necessary to obtain a 4-log reduction in pathogenic coliforms and parasitic helminth eggs, it would all be for naught if I couldn’t build a roof that keeps rain out.
Connor working with Melisa Cran, Director of the latrine project.
This experience has taught me the importance of listening. Not just listening to people with more experience, but to people with no experience, people with a fresh set of eyes. When trying to solve a problem as personal as sanitation, it is important to take the users into account. If their needs are not specifically met, they will simply revert back to the old way of doing things. This is why I am trying to eliminate the UDDT in my latrine design because it places an extra burden on the user who has to make sure some things go down one tube and other things fall into another place (see picture). Even though UDDT technology makes perfect sense scientifically, it is not practical and practicality (not technology) seems to be the biggest hurdle we here at blueEnergy have to jump when we try to improve the lives of others here in Nicaragua.
June 9, 2013
blueEnergy interns in front of a statue highlighting the six ethnic groups found on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
I have been in Bluefields for two weeks now, and made a lot of progress on my project here at blueEnergy. While I am down here, my goal is to evaluate current latrine technologies present in Nicaragua, design a latrine that is appropriate to the unique culture and climate of the region, and implement my design by building a pilot latrine. As I mentioned in my last post, Nicaragua has two autonomous regions on the east coast that have a markedly different culture than the rest of the country. There are six distinct ethnicities that are found on the Caribbean coast: Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, Rama, Miskitu, and Sumu. This adds a layer of complexity to my project, because each of the individual groups must be considered so that the design of the latrine is culturally acceptable to each of them. The East coast also happens to be one of the poorest regions of a country that has the second highest poverty level in the Americas. There are no sewage systems present in the city, and clean water is hard to come by.
In general, there are three different approaches to handling human excreta (the word scientists say so they don’t giggle every time they have to talk about poop an pee) at the household level: drop and store, flush and discharge, and sanitize and reuse. Drop and store is the simplest approach, and involves safely containing the excreta. This is the kind of system utilized in a pit latrine, which is basically just a hole in the ground. It is rarely “safe” however, due to its inability to be used in crowded or urban locations. It will also contaminate nearby groundwater. Its tendency to attract insects also prevents it from being housed indoors. Flush and discharge relies on the dilution and removal of human excreta, and is often considered as the ideal system. This is the toilet most of us have grown up to know and love. It can be installed in crowded situations, indoors, and in urban locations. However, it requires a reliable water supply and substantial infrastructure to support it. It is estimated that 15,000 liters of pure water is used per person per year to flush away excreta. Sanitize and reuse is commonly known as ecological sanitation because it is based on the principles of zero pollution, recycling, and water conservation. This system relies on accelerated pathogen destruction through dehydration or composting. Since drop and store is only appropriate under a very specific set of conditions and flush and discharge is not feasible to implement without the proper funding and infrastructure, I have chosen to focus on the sanitize and reuse approach.
I already have a couple designs in mind, but I’ll hold on to those until the next post, I don’t want to give you an excreta overload. Nobody likes that. I will give you a couple teasers though; they involve fish nets, sawdust, and UDDTs (what could that be?!).
Walking down a deserted local beach called El Bluf.
In other, more leisurely news, I have gotten to explore Bluefields and familiarize myself with downtown. My Spanish is rapidly coming back to me and I believe I have been upgraded from “bumbling tourist” to “long-term foreign visitor”. I’ve found a good bakery, but I still haven’t found the ingredients I need to make my Nana’s Mexican food. I was particularly jealous of my family this weekend because they threw an enormous party/fundraiser for The Quin Murphy Foundation and I know there was plenty of food to go around. I tried to emulate my grandma’s food here in an attempt to bond with my family at the fundraiser, but that was difficult considering that there is only one kind of cheese down here and only one kind of hot pepper (blasphemy!). I did get to chat it up with some lovely ladies at the tortilleria where I picked up some hand made tortillas that reminded me of home.
I also managed to get out to the local beach called “El Bluff”. It is about a 20-minute boat ride from Bluefields, which sits on the inside of a bay. The other interns and I got there at 9:00 AM, and for about three hours we had the beach to ourselves. There were palapas to shade us and warm waters to bathe us, and eventually one of the palapas morphed into a restaurant where I picked up a plate of shrimp for lunch. I definitely got a little color while I was out there, but overall it was a great first experience with the Caribbean Sea. Internet and electricity have been really spotty lately due to storms, but I’ll do my best to keep these blog posts coming. ¡Hasta luego!
June 1, 2013
Flying into Bluefields.
¡Saludos, de Bluefields! It’s been about a week since I arrived in Nicaragua, and so far most of my time has been spent getting to know the region I will be living and working in for the next two months. My trip started off with a flight from the United States to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, where I met up with the three other Berkeley students who are also in the Cal Energy Corps program. We ended up staying over night in Managua in a house owned by the NGO we are working for (blueEnergy) since we arrived too late to complete our entire journey in one day. In the morning, we were shocked to see that the whole city was teeming with activity at 6:00 in the morning! We barely got seated at a packed restaurant, which was blaring loud dance music. I didn’t mind the loud music or early hour however, because I had a hearty plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans), with ham, eggs, and coffee. On top of that, 6 of us were able to eat for only $9! I figure that if you spend enough time down here, the plane tickets will pay for themselves.
Locals participating in Palo de Mayo, which is a local fertility festival welcoming the rainy season.
After breakfast we continued to the airport to catch a plane to our final destination, Bluefields, Nicaragua. Bluefields is located on the Eastern coast of Nicaragua, which has a markedly different culture from the West coast. It is so different in fact, that the Eastern half of the country is split into two autonomous regions, the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). Although they are still part of Nicaragua, they have much more independence than other departments (analogous to states), much like Native American reservations in the US. Bluefields happens to be the capital of the RAAS, however the only way to access it is by boat or plane due to the lack of infrastructure and dense, tropical rainforests. As a result, we ended up taking a tiny propeller plane into the city. Luckily, we arrived just in time for “Palo de Mayo”, which is a local fertility festival welcoming the rainy season featuring a colorful parade with locals wearing different clothes to represent which “barrio” (neighborhood) they are from.
Learning about organic agriculture at FUNCOS.
Since I have been in Bluefields, I’ve gotten to know the town pretty well. The house I live in is in barrio Santa Rosa, near the airport. In fact, if I want to take a taxi home ($0.50 flat rate), that’s exactly what I tell them because there are no addresses in Nicaragua, everything is referenced to as landmarks! As clever as this system is, there are some pitfalls. For example, when an earthquake leveled Managua in the 1970s, people’s “addresses” stayed the same, meaning that people would say, “my house is where the airport used to be”, which is clearly problematic for people who were not here before the earthquake. I’ve also had the chance to go out with blueEnergy and play soccer with some locals, who made fun of us for having too many rules like “out of bounds” and “corner kicks”. Another notable stop I made during my orientation week was at Fundación Nicaragüense Cosecha Sostenible (FUNCOS), which is a local and sustainable organic farm. Ironically, organic food is cheaper than non-organic food here, which is due to a lack of demand. In addition to promoting organic agriculture, FUNCOS also utilizes many of the technologies that blueEnergy works with to improve quality of life, such as fuel-efficient cook stoves and sanitary latrines.
I hope you enjoyed my short summary of my first week! By the time I post again I should be into the thick of my work that I’m doing down here, so be prepared for a jargon-laden post about latrines and contaminated water supplies.