Sometimes low-tech solutions are the only option in the quest for clean water. When Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas invited Texas A&M’s Texas Water Project to participate in their third annual Engineering and Humanity Week in April, it was to demonstrate how to make ceramic water filters — their highly effective low-tech solution to one of the world’s most daunting problems, the need for clean, safe, point-of-use water.
The theme for 2013 was the challenge of water access, supply and distribution on every continent, and the organizers brought in scholars, researchers, innovators and business people from around the globe that were exploring ways to meet this challenge.
For the Texas Water Project, there was one major hurdle. Civil engineer Bryan Boulanger and artist Stephen Carpenter, the two professors who had initiated the project at Texas A&M, had since relocated to other universities, so it was up to other dedicated Aggies, undergraduate and graduate student disciples, to continue the work that had impacted so many people’s lives.
“The inability to access safe drinking water impacts approximately 1.2 billion people worldwide,“ said Cory Arcak, Ph.D. candidate in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), who stepped up to represent Texas A&M, along with civil engineering graduate students Sherif Mabrouk and Ben Smith. Support for their participation was provided by the department of Teaching, Learning & Culture which helped with expenses relating to their trip and exhibit at SMU.
“Exhibiting at SMU was a great opportunity to meet so many fascinating people involved with water projects,” said Arcak. “In fact, we met another Aggie, Adam Cohen, the owner of Green Phoenix Farms, which explores sustainable farming through aquaponics.” Cohen, a 2001 graduate of Texas A&M-Galveston, makes food within an enclosed water system and provides educational programs for individuals and groups who want to learn how to build their own systems.
The Texas Water Project began when Boulanger and Carpenter, along with the director of Texas A&M’s Colonias Project, Oscar Munoz, brought together a group of undergraduate and graduate students to form an interdisciplinary team. Fusing art, education and engineering, the team epitomized Texas A&M’s land-grant commitment to education, research, outreach and service. With the commitment to provide safe drinking water to at-risk populations, they researched and created appropriate technology-based ceramic water filters – a low-tech solution to the local and global potable water crisis.
The local crisis was occurring in the Texas colonias, impoverished communities along the Texas-Mexico border where more than half a million people live without running water. Under the expert guidance of Munoz, a cadre of community health workers trained by Texas A&M’s Colonias Program has helped residents of the colonias to establish local microbusinesses based on the Texas Water Project’s ceramic filter technology.
A global crisis presented itself in 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. Boulanger and six Texas A&M students, in coordination the the nonprofit organization FilterPure, traveled to the Dominican Republic to help provide potable drinking water to the Haitians whose water supply had been decimated. It was a high-impact learning experience that not only helped the people of Haiti, but also had a profound impact on the students.
Fast-forward to 2012, when the Smithsonian Folklife Festival invited Texas A&M to exhibit on the National Mall as part of their celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act establishing the nation’s land-grant university system. Texas A&M chose the Texas Water Project to illustrate how the university transforms communities by addressing the need for safe drinking water, known to account for the deaths of about one million children each year.
Boulanger and Carpenter represented Texas A&M, along with Arcak, Munoz and Juan Galvan, from the Colonias Project, and then-undergraduate students Sherif Mabrouk and Michelle Mumme, with assistance from members of the Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications. The team demonstrated how to make ceramic point-of-use water filters from clay, sawdust and water in the form of pots that are dried and kiln fired.
Visitors learned that running unsafe water through the filters removes the vast majority of contaminants that can cause illness or death. The demonstrations attracted thousands, some just fascinated by the process, but many others with the desire to take the low-tech methodology to communities or countries in need of a safe, affordable water filtration system.
One group very interested in the clay pot technology was a faith-based organization from Longview, Texas. After reading several articles about the Texas Water Project, the group’s representative, Tamara Bolthouse, tried to contact them, but with several of its original founders dispersed, she finally contacted the article’s writer. “Are there ever opportunities for civilians to come and be trained in making the point-of-use ceramic water filters designed and engineered by Texas A&M?” she asked. “Our church would love to transport this technology to the mission field in Guatemala!”
At about the same time, Arcak had contacted Joy Pottery, a stoneware shop in Bryan, Texas, to try to acquire the hundred pounds of dry clay she needed. (They didn’t have it and Arcak had to go to Houston to pick it up.) But, in serendipitous fashion, Joy Pottery’s owner happened to know Bolthouse, and alerted her to the fact that the Texas Water Project would be exhibiting at SMU in April. So the church group traveled from Longview to SMU to see the demonstrations of the clay pot technology firsthand. With them was John Spiekermann, a 1970 Texas A&M graduate, who dug right into the clay, Aggie ring and all, to learn the process for their upcoming July mission trip.
“It was incredible to see so many organizations doing whatever they could to find solutions for providing access to clean water around the globe,” Arcak stated. “And it was great to see other involved Aggies at SMU’s Engineering & Humanity Week.”
But according to Arcak, one of the most meaningful contributions made by the Texas Water Project might just be its effect on the undergraduate and graduate students who have participated in it. “It’s rewarding to watch college students discover how their education applies to real-world problems and to see them put that education into practice,” said Arcak, who also teaches a course on Leadership and Ethics for Military Sciences. “That’s when you know you’ve helped produce future leaders and lifelong learners.”
About 12 Impacts of the 12th Man: 12 Impacts of the 12th Man is an ongoing series throughout the year highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional impacts, visit 12thman.tamu.edu.
Story by Lynn Paris