During the last couple of weeks my project activities in Ban Bo, a small Thai Leu and Phonoy community approximately 7km from Xay Town, have been moving ahead…finally! I haven’t yet had a chance to fully survey the work the villagers have completed on the gravity fed water system, but from what I’ve seen they are nearing completion. The storage tanks are completed and I have seen a few taps around the village spitting out water with a fair amount of strength and the villages seem very happy about the situation. I’m hoping to get out and do a final review sometime in early November.
This last week, two colleagues of mine, Vixay and Khonsevan, and myself headed out to the village to conduct a workshop with the village residents for building, using, maintaining the BioSand Water Filter, to develop plans for establishing a cooperative for building and distributing the BSF throughout the community, and in the future, to additional communities in the surrounding area.
For those of you unfamiliar with the BioSand Water Filter it is a simple house hold technology used for filtering water for the purposes of personal consumption. Made from concrete, sand, gravel, and a little bit of rubber piping, this technology is simple to build, use and maintain, not to mention relatively inexpensive (Approximately $6 USD per/filter after all the tools and the steel mold for making the concrete case have been purchased.) I have been working with the BSF for a while now and have been planning these workshops for several months, so it was quite a relief to finally find myself out in the village.
Initially, our plan was to hold the workshops for three days and in that time the training was to include:
Instruction and hands on experience for the participants in building and installing the filter
Basic knowledge concerning bacteria, viruses, parasites and general sanitation and hygiene concerning house hold water use and the BSF
Basic knowledge about proper water storage and protecting clean water from recontamination
Comprehensive understanding for participants on how the BSF filters water
Training in how to maintain and ensure the proper use of the BSF
Develop simple plans and strategies for promoting the use of the BSF within Ban Bo and for financing the building and installation of BSF units to all three hundred households in the community
Simple plans and strategies for promoting, selling and distributing the BSF to additional communities and families in the surrounding area.
Of course, this plan got shot down within the first thirty minutes, but we have made a fair amount of progress and are continuing to work with the workshop participants to achieve each of these goals.
Things got off to a start on Monday morning when Vixay, Khonsevan, and I headed out to Ban Bo. We arrived in the village about an hour late as it took awhile to round everyone up, get all the materials in the truck and drive out to the village. When we arrived we were informed by the village representative for the Lao Women’s Union, Mrs. Haak, that none of the villagers had shown up for the training, but that she would do her best to go and round some up for us…such enthusiasm! The three of us unloaded the truck at the village temple where we were to conduct the training and then sat around waiting for people to show up for another 60 minutes or so. (This kind of thing is perfectly normal…so I wasn’t too worried.)
Finally, 10 people…7 women and 3 men, showed up and we got started. First thing we did was mix the sand, gravel and concrete to pour our first mould. This went quickly enough though I was starting to fret when the villagers and my Lao trainers put far to much water into the cement mix (the mix for the BSF is supposed to be fairly dry or the water runs out the bottom of the mould taking the cement with it leaving nothing but sand and gravel, which typically falls apart almost immediately.) Again, I wasn’t too worried as I feel it’s best for these kinds of mistakes to be made during the training when I can deal with them rather than after. After we poured the mould I spent the rest of the day giving instruction on how the filter works, water storage, and basic sanitation with lots of games and activities to help the villagers understand….generally a good time.
The next morning (Tuesday) we arrived at the temple (Wat in Lao) and proceeded to extract the concrete case we poured the day before. As expected, the case cracked and literally fell apart in front of us into about a thousand pieces. I wasn’t worried, but I did not expect the villager’s reaction…when they saw how bad it turned out it seemed like most them lost interest in continuing. It took some fast talking on my part to assure them this was normal. We discussed what went wrong, what we could do better, and I managed to convince them to pour a second mould. We did so, but I could see that any additional lecturing or activities was out of the question until they saw how this mould turned out. So, we agreed to leave the cement dry for an extra day and return on Thursday afternoon for the extraction. I was praying it would turn out this time or else I wasn’t sure what we would do.
Thankfully, when we returned on Thursday and extracted the case it came out beautiful…no cracks, only a few leaks, and the energy of the villagers turned up immediately. In fact, with no prompting from me or my colleagues, the villagers jumped right in and poured a new mould within 30 minutes. I was hoping to do some more training, review what we had discussed the day before, etc, but this was not to be…the women felt it was time for us to…well, drink. So, next thing I knew I was sitting at someone’s house trying out the local Lau Lao (local rice whisky equivalent to moonshine—in fact Ban Bo is exceptionally well known in the area for making high quality Lau Lao, although it really all tastes the same to me.) During the ongoing discussion I learned some interesting facts concerning the villagers understanding and perceptions of our project. Just to review quickly: this project, funded by the German Agro Action to the tune of $2400 US, was to build a gravity fed water system and to train the villagers to build, maintain and use the BioSand Water Filters to produce cleaning drinking water. It’s important to note that both these activities were at the request of the villagers. We have met numerous times with the villagers, and thought we had made it very clear what each part was for: water system was for delivery and the BSF for making clean water. Problem is, as I found out, over one glass of lau lao after the other, that the villagers assumed that any water that comes out of a pipe, is already clean, and they were confused about what exactly the BSF was for and why they needed it. Eeep! Hadn’t they asked us for it? So, I knew right then that we had a communication problem and are looking at months of follow up to clear up the misconceptions. Nevertheless, the people in the workshop assured us they were very excited about the BSF and wanted to learn more. At least we had that going for us.
Sunday, now a week gone by when I had hoped to finish by Wednesday, we returned in the afternoon to see how the third case turned out and to hopefully train the participants to prepare and install the filter medium (gravel and sand). The second case turned out even better than the second one and I could see the workshop participants were starting to get excited about the possibilities. After pouring yet another mould, we got started on installing the filter mould. Now, anybody who has seen my office and I working on the BSF before, will know we’ve experienced some difficulties in this area. If the filter media, layers of sand and gravel, are installed correctly, the water should flow out of the filter at 1 liter/minute. If it comes out to fast, this means the medium was installed incorrectly, the water is not getting filtered and the water is not safe to drink. It all comes down to a matter of what kind of sand you use and how you prepare it. If the sand comes from the local river (as is the case it Ban Bo), it is usually mixed heavily with clay and other materials, and is likely contaminated with bacteria requiring it to be sterilized (boiled) and washed (too remove the clay). Problem is, during this process, if the sand is cleaned too well, the water will practically shoot out of the filter like a fire hose. If it is not cleaned enough, it clogs up the filter like a cork and no water comes out at all. So it is a matter of finding the perfect balance…a process that usually takes a fair amount of practice and can be a source of frustration and discouragement for the villagers, and requires a huge amount of follow up and additional training from the trainers. Understandably then, it was with some trepidation and anxiety on my part when we finished installing the medium, that we prepared to test the water flow. This involves taking a 1 liter bottle and a stop watch, filling the filter with water, and then counting the seconds until a minute passes.
Important sidebar: as any one who has traveled in Asia generally, and Lao in particular, you will understand the important role that Buddhism plays in blessing all community events and situations (i.e. weddings, new babies, even new motorcycles, etc.). The training we were conducting was in fact taking place on the grounds of the village temple. The filter we were about to test was set up just off to the side of the front doors. Neither myself, my colleagues, nor the villagers had considered asking the monks to bless the BSF, but we were about to experience the positive benefits of even having them around. As we prepared to test the filter, dusk was starting to fall around us. At every temple throughout Lao, just before dark, the monks begin their evening prayers by gathering and playing a large drum by the temple along with sets of chimes and gongs. Basically, a little pre-dinner jam session. I gave the bottle to Khonsevan, and got my cell phone turned on to the stopwatch. Just as did this, the monks started into their first song: at first slow with a steady drum and steady chimes, the gong setting the backbeat. I counted to three and Khonsevan let the water start flowing into the bottle. The monks kicked up the beat. Everyone gathered around holding a collective breath. At 24 seconds the bottle was at the quarter mark. Good sign. The music picked up in tempo, the drummer was really starting to bang it out, the gong going strong, the chimes clanging away. 30 seconds, the bottle was a little over half full. Damn, it was coming out a bit fast. I could feel sweat running down my face. I was counting along with the clock. Suddenly, the monks slowed down the tempo…and you may not want to believe this…but I swear to Buddha, the water flow seemed to slow with it. 45 seconds and sure enough, the bottle was at ¾ full. The rhythm was steady and filling. At this point I was praying to Buddha himself. Come on fat boy, show me some of that sweet enlightenment baby! 50 seconds and the water was just about at the top of the bottle. I was worried…If this didn’t work out and we had to redo the filter medium I could see the villagers throwing up their hands and walking off…no filters for this village. The monks really kicked up the beat for the crescendo! Boom boom boom. Everyone was silent and then the bottle was full. The monks stopped with one final bang. I stopped the clock afraid to look. I stepped back with everyone staring at me. I looked at the clock and the final mark was 1 minute 7 seconds! Good enough. I yelled out the time and the crowd erupted and the monks cheered and really kicked into a jam….people started dancing and “nopping” (clasping their hands in front of their faces and bowing) to the filter. Personally, I give full credit to the villagers for preparing the sand and the monks for the musical talents and connection to another world behind this world for sure. The lau lao flowed and I managed to make it home before dark with my broken headlight…but at least the training ended on a good note. I will never underestimate the power of Buddhist blessings again. Hopefully we won’t have to have celestial jam session going every time they build a new filter or simply want to use it!
We still have to do a lot of work to finish up the training: checking how they are making new filters, do some work around promotion and selling, clearing up the misconception between the water system and the BSF and clean water, but I am very confident the villagers will be making many units well into the future. Not too bad overall.